The Wife of Bath’s Tale: The Politics of the Vagina
The significance of the sovereignty a female can have over her male counterpart, in relation to the use of her very female essence, is evident throughout literature. It is akin to the dictations given out by the women in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata ; it is the laden power of the life passing, and pleasure giving female gentiles that the play sheds light on that is familiar to a scholar of literature. These transformative qualities of the female sex are also explored in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale. More specifically, The Wife of Bath is a comprehensive compilation of qualities, those of which we derive from the tale and its introductory Prologue, that challenge the conventions of Chaucer’s period. From a modern feminist lens, focused finely on the resolutions and ideations put forth by the female narrator, a modern critic discovers how Chaucer resists religious and social confinements of the female through the exaggeration and liberation of women.
The narrator in The Wife of Bath’s Tale delivers an incredibly powerful voice in the Prologue of the tale. Chaucer develops a character that the reader is to interpret as a figure distinctly contrary with Christian ideals and his period’s constructs of what is appropriate of female behavior. The Prologue is the narrator’s own dissertation of the constraints of religion and society in relation to the female. She also insults the very nature of marriage by her blatant disregard of the sanctity of marriage. It is appropriate to look to these examples in a more comprehensive depth; in order to isolate the particulars of the narrator, and comprehensively understand what makes her character integral to understanding her as a narrator, and what that does for the tale.
Holy Scripture is not off-limits for the critical evaluation of the Wife of Bath. She constantly makes reference to biblical verses that contradict the customs of the period, and in particular, solely limit the breadth of women. The narrator is systematically using the scripture to almost justify her character. “God bad us for to wexe and multiple: That gentil text can I well understonde” (Line 29 p.257); the Wife of Bath is basically revealing the fact that female sexuality and the perpetual use of the sexual organs are but a commandment from God, therefore, men who suggest customs that stifle the female sexuality are in direct opposition of God. Kenneth J. Oberembt wrote in his essay “Chaucer’s Anti-Misogynist Wife of Bath,” The Wife’s will to dominate husbands and her wish that all wives be as she is are no less, these critics assure us, than a subversion of the principle of patriarchal order sanctioned by Scripture and Christian tradition” (Oberembt p.287). The Wife of Bath is defending her actions as a woman who has had five marriages and been sexually active in each. This type of thinking conflicts with the dominate discourse of English people in the period, despite the fact that she derives justification for her sexuality from biblical texts.
The dynamically thinking narrator of The Wife of Bath’s Tale does not rely only on the sanctity of biblical justifications but she also mentions a multitude of classical knowledge that aids in her arguments, “Thise same words writeth Ptolomee: Reder in his Algameste and take it there”(Line 188 p.261). The Wife of Bath continues to defy limiting ideas about women further with examples like these. Chaucer is giving the woman fully developed arguments based on history and religion; she is able to articulate the differing idea types in conjunction, which ultimately makes for a more sound argument.
The construction of the Wife of Bath’s personality in the Prologue is necessary to understand the ideas given in the tale. Chaucer is working from a feminist perspective that is to the extreme on a spectrum of severity to get the reader to understand that women can be held at the same standards as a man, and when they are not, what is wrong with that, and why it is irrational. The Wife of Bath is given all of the power a man has in a marriage. This inversion of normal marriage customs is odd and contradictory to that of the culture, which is precisely what Chaucer intended. The Wife of Bath is in control of each of her marriages, “I governed hem so well after my lawe That eech of hem ful blissful was and fawe To bringe me gaye thinges fro the faire”(Line 225 p 262). Even from a contemporary perspective the female having such a despotic power over her husband can seem odd because the world still subscribes to such binary assumptions: the male, strong and in control; the female, passive, and nurturing. The Wife of Bath completely dispels these assumptions.
The Wife of Bath is successful in her arguments surrounding female roles in the period and because of this success, the tale is more readily relatable. Chaucer is dealing with the politics of anti-feminist ideas of the period though his piece The Wife of Bath’s Tale and its Prologue is a necessary supplement to understand the narrator. The Prologue through the previously mentioned reasons gives the reader the insight as to why women would want sovereignty. In his essay, “The Wife of Bath’s TaleQueynte Fantasye,” Bernard Levy says:
“In her Prologue the Wife of Bath recounts her varied experiences with her many husbands in order to demonstrate that the only satisfactory arrangement to be achieved in marriage is that which she ultimately establishes with Jankyn, her fifth husband. Though she had married him for love, he was at first a burden to her because he would not yield the mastery. However, after a quarrel, Jankyn gave up the mastery, the Wife finally attained the sovereignty that she desired, and they lived in peace and happiness from that moment on” (Levy p.106).
In the Wife of Bath’s Tale we find the narrator of the previous Prologue’s same questioning of authority and eventual shifting of that same authority over to that of the female. This leads the reader to evaluate the voice further as a critical surveyor of the hypocrisy of the culture’s customs. The narrator opens the tale with a reference to the destructive nature of Christianity, which being a woman, she knows all too well the ramifications of patriarchal religion, “But now can no man see none elves mo, For now the grete charitee and prayers Of limitours” (Line 870 p.275). The narrator speaks in a sarcastic tone in reference to the “charitee” of the “limitours” who are of course missionaries or representatives of the Church. She is noting the dual nature of the religion. Because of the Church and their limiting or previous religious thought, “man see none elves mo.” This is an obvious critique of the church and its actions in relation perhaps to the destruction of old pagan customs. This is directly related to the construction of women because it may so be that the religion is also responsible for the state of women; a state that the Wife of Bath challenges.
The narrator’s empowerment of the female through the plot in Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale is distinctly revealed with the fate of the knight. The knight is a representation of male dominance from the opening of the tale because of his raping of a woman. The only thing “wrong” about his actions is not the fact that he raped a woman, but because he raped a woman of a noble class. This speaks to the ideas that the Wife of Bath is challenging. It is perfectly acceptable for the knight, who is of an elevated class, to rape a female of a lower class than he. This paints the woman as an object subject to the whims of man. The knight is arrested and his fate is given over to the queen by the king, and the he is now at the mercy of women, when before he was completely sovereign as a male (in most aspects of the culture). Despite the fact that the women are the judges of this knight, it is interesting to note that the right had to still be allowed by the king, another man.
The Wife of Bath’s character is successful at becoming the sovereign member of a coupling in marriage. That is, she creates an environment that is conducive of the female being the head of relations, “My lige lady, generally, Wommen desire to have sovereintee” (Line 1043 p.279). The knight apparently learns from this lesson given to him by the Wife of Bath, but it can be argued that he did not change his ideas but basically augmented his manipulation of women. More specifically, he say’s when given the ultimatum of his wife being old and honorable or beautiful and horrible, “My lady and my love, and wif so dere, I putte me in you're wise governaunce” (Line 1236 p.283). This can mean that the knight actually had life changing realization about the role of women in marriage or it could mean that he has learned from his past mistakes and decided to change the way upon which he speaks to women to get what he ultimately wants. In the end he does indeed receive a beautiful and good wife despite his character being that of something you would not find appropriate. A rapist, in the end, lives, and gets a beautiful and good wife, which is a direct result of the initial rape.
This being said, The Wife of Bath could be speaking still to the hypocrisy of men and through her pilgrimages over time, she knows this. The Wife of Bath’s Tale is an early attempt to fully empower women, that is, it is “the politics of the vagina.” The female is being politically charged her by Chaucer through the narration of the Wife of Bath, who is successfully read as a character who is an epitome of anti-patriarchal resistance.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale." The Norton Anthology of English Literature . 8th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2006. 257-84. Print.
Levy, Bernard S. "The Wife of Bath's Queynte Fantasye." JSTOR 4.2 (1969): 106-22. JSTOR . Penn State University Press, 2009. Web. 25 Sept. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25093116>.
Oberembt, Kenneth J. "Chaucer's Anti-Misogynist Wife of Bath." JSTOR 10.4 (1976): 287-302. JSTOR . Penn State University Press, 2009. Web. 25 Sept. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25093359>.
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