Q.) To what extent does the Wife of Bath’s Prologue support or criticize the tradition of misogynistic literature prevalent in the medieval period? Support your answer with evidences in the text.
Ans.) An important element, that is generally noticed in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is his portrayal of all the women character. Chaucer, in his works, has created a stereotypical image of women – someone kind, faithful, conscientious – completely in adherence to patriarchal chauvinistic society. Women were never shown in a different light, which ended up creating a static perception of women in the mind of readers.
Yet, in Wife of Bath’s Prologue, Chaucer created Wife of Bath-Alison, a character who is quite flamboyant as well as transgressive in nature. She was completely in contrast to what an ideal woman should be, flouting all the accepted norms of so-called seemly feminine behavior in society. From having five husbands to using them all like pawns in her big game, she came across as a psychopath who was hungry for all the power and attention. A narcissist, who weighed everything in terms of profit or loss, that was who she was.
In her prologue, Wife of Bath offers quite a complex portrait of medieval women. On one hand, she was fairly open about all her sexual exploits, the way she manipulated her husbands, the way she used her sexual prowess to gain whatever she wished for. Whereas, if one sees it from the other side of the coin, one would say that by doing exactly these things, she confirmed to the negative stereotypes of women being manipulative and deceitful in nature.
These actions might at first be seen as a rebellion against the male dominated society, something revolutionary, but with a better inspection, one would realize that her actions did little to nothing in empowering women of her time. Everything she did, from the beginning to end, was for her own selfish motives and not for anything comprehensive. Yes, she did strike back at the men, but not to institute her status equal to the males rather for her personal profits.
The prologue began with Wife of Bath affirming her position as a knowledgeable person in the context of marriage. She described herself as a highly experienced individual, as she had had five husbands. She also quoted examples from Bible to justify her five marriages. As per her, marriage occurred only when sexual lust was tamed and controlled. Her arguments regarding marriage focused on only one aspect, just like the teachings of the priest she dissed of constantly. Her thinking was limited only to the sexual aspect of marriage and did not take into consideration the sacred commitments that came with it.
However, as one can see, she never understood Bible completely. More than once, she misquoted it, just to prove her arguments correct. Going beneath the multiple layers, one would notice that Wife of Bath’s relationship with all her husbands was like a commodity market. Wherein if the husbands didn’t provide her with what she desired for, then she wouldn’t let them have their way with her. She would deprive them sexually, until things go the way she had planned.
Critiques have more than often pointed out that Wife of Bath was both spiritually and literally deaf. Though she kept presenting examples from Bible to prove herself correct and people who preach, wrong, she never herself comprehended the spiritual and deeper meaning of the words written in Bible. She just interpreted those words in the manner which favored her. By turning deaf ears to everything that essentially didn’t support her way of living, she also came out as an unreasonable person.
If the Wife of Bath was really a character, who was meant to shatter the misogynistic stereotype of women, then she would have come across as a wise, intelligible person than ignorant and unreasonable, as proved by instances stated above. Yes, she was smart, there wasn’t an ounce of doubt in that. After all, she did all that planning to outsmart all her husbands, to fulfill her desires. But more than smart, she was cunning, shrewd and manipulative. And to her these were traits of a wise woman.
She was seen more in negative light, rather than coming out as a positive character. Also to support the fact that she perpetuates the negative stereotypes of women in Chaucer’s time, one would obviously notice the fact how she used to withhold sexual pleasure from the husband who would not provide her with enough money. Initially it might come across as a medieval women exerting her independence, but it was more twisted than that. If she would have been really a woman who believed in asserting her principles and equality to men, then she wouldn’t have used her sexuality as a tool to lure men, she wouldn’t have cheated on her husbands. Instead she would have played fair and stood rigid on her morals. Yes, being open about your sexuality and your desires is nowhere wrong, but using it for deceiving someone is also not morally right.
For any medieval woman to be truly revolutionary, she must find a way to prove herself in a manner both on part with and independent of men. The Wife of Bath, however, used the patriarchal system and institution of marriage to her own benefit rather than seeking any meaningful changes.
When it comes to her wickedness, one would notice, that she was very much aware of her vices. However, just like her sexuality, she used them to her advantage, by transforming them into her strengths. And by this, she just ended up proving another misogynistic misconception about women being the best liars in the world.
Her constant contradictions, to whatever she would claim, in the next line itself just proved that her words could not be held accountable for. And again, this confirmed to another stereotype of women not being capable of standing true to their words.
Even though Wife of Bath tried very much to present herself as strong and independent, but in the end she was more a part of negative stereotype than a normal woman might be.
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