WOMEN IN THE WIFE OF BATH’S PROLOGUE AND TALE Essay

Tutor: Alejandra Simari
Student: María Alejandra Amui Azize

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2013

INTRODUCTION

Chaucer´s portrayal of the two characters under analysis is clearly a study of opposites. The Wife of Bath and Griselda are as different as it is possible to be. The reader perceives that both characterizations are caricatures or at least extreme characters and not real women and wonders at the meaning of such opposition.

A possible explanation to this dichotomy would be the medieval tendency to distort real women either by idealizing or demonizing them. As Judith M. Bennett argues: “…medieval men thought of women in extreme terms: the impossibly perfect Virgin Mary who was both virgin and mother; the alluringly beautiful but unattainable ladies of courtly lyrics; the awesomely brave virgin martyrs of Christian legend: On the other hand, medieval men also relished tales of wicked women, especially Eve, who not only had sinned herself but also had enticed poor Adam to sin…”.1 The purpose of this essay is to analyze the elements present in these two opposite archetypes of women and through them evaluate the desires and fears of a patriarchal world. Good start!

I.- The Wife of Bath and Griselda contrasted:
The “worthy” woman “from beside Bath city” is half deaf, “handsome”, proud and prone to show her feelings: “In all the parish not a dame dared stir

Towards the altar steps in front of her,
And if indeed they did, so wrath was she
As to be quite put out of charity.” (General Prologue, lines 459/462)

She has a “gap-teeth”, large hips, is expensively dressed, has travelled around the world and has married five times. She is conversational and lively and very experienced in love matters:
“In company she liked to laugh and chat
And knew the remedies for love´s mischances,
An art in which she knew the oldest dances.” (General Prologue, lines 484/486)

Griselda, the “pearl”, is young, beautiful, virginal, quite feminine and extremely vulnerable in her innocence and poverty: “But in the virtuous beauty of her heart
She was among the loveliest man could ask,
For being poorly bred, no sensual part
Had learnt to use her beauty as a mask.” (Clerk’s Tale, part II, 3rd stanza)

As regards their inner nature, Alison is a rebel and a fighter, whereas Griselda is meek and submissive. Alison has a mind of her own and expresses herself freely even in topics as delicate as sex and even amid males and churchmen: “In wifehood I shall use my instrument

As freely as my Maker me it sent.
If I turn difficult, God give me sorrow!
My husband, he shall have it eve and morrow” (Wife of Bath’s Prologue to the tale, page 280).

Griselda, her counterpart, has no personal will and unveils no feelings. Vaneckova quotes Hinckley who comments on the girl´s attitude: “In her own eyes, Griselda is always and foremost, not a wife, but a serf” 2. Griselda herself gives voice to this viewpoint:

“…My child and I are your possession
And at your pleasure; on my heart´s profession
We are all yours and you may spare or kill
What is your own. Do therefore as you will.” (Clerk’s Tale, Part III, 8th stanza).

Through her elongated prologue, the Wife discloses her perspective regarding women role possessive in marriage and -in doing so- reveals her innermost desire for power and the means she applies to attain it. Skillful manipulation of her rich and old husbands and a violent physical exchange with her fifth and younger partner, no comma here are resources she uses to achieve her goals. She has neither limits nor inhibition in her quest for power and self fulfillment and she honestly admits so. Shameless and narcissistic, Alison illustrates her infatuation with “handsome Johnny”, during her fourth husband´s funeral: “To church they bore my husband on the morrow

With all the neighbours round him venting sorrow,
And one of them of course was handsome Johnny.
So help me God, I thought he looked so bonny
Behind the coffin! Heavens, what a pair
Of legs he had! Such feet, so clean and fair!
I gave my whole heart up, for him to hold”. (Wife of Bath’s Prologue to the tale, page 292).

Married to Johnny, Alison will experience verbal and even corporal abuse, but all these she will validate when she achieves her aim. Helen Storm Corsa writes: “What matter that this fifth husband she loved so well caused her mental woe and physical pain, what matter that in his sadistic glee he badgered her with nightly readings about evil caused by women or brought on her deafness by a blow to her head. She had outwitted him in the long run and had achieved a certain time of happiness”.3 There is no such bliss for Griselda; just servitude, obedience and total submission to a sick mind. This sad puppet -the exemplary and obedient model of wife- somewhat confirms Alison´s views on marriage and gives credence to “… the premise that a good marriage depends upon the power of a sadist over a willing and conscious masochist”.

4 About medieval wives, L.F. Salzman writes: “Once married, the first duty of a wife was to be meek and obedient to her husband. […] The ideal wife was the patient Griselda, whose story is told by Chaucer´s Clerk of Oxford; raised from poverty to be the wife of a great Marquess, her obedience is tested by him in a variety of ways […] all of which she does without a murmur, for which her husband praises her and graciously restores her to her former position. Griselda, to modern eyes is a worm and no woman; Chaucer himself, though he tells the story charmingly, protests against such meekness, but medieval men with less sense of humor solemnly held her up as a pattern for their wives to follow”. 5 In the end, the narrator seems to disavow a literal reading of his tale and emphasizes the religious aspect of the story: “”This story does not mean it would be good

For wives to ape Griseld´s humility,
It would be unendurable they should.
But everybody in his own degree
Should be as perfect in his constancy
As was Griselda””. That is why Petrarch chose
To tell her story in his noble prose.

For since a woman showed such patience to
A mortal man, how much the more we ought
To take in patience all that God may do! (p. 371)

Griselda is, therefore, a model and an example of Christian behavior: “She is an impersonation of virtues, not a plausible human being, and she is acknowledged as such.”6

II.- The Wife of Bath´s Tale:
Alison´s tale is a means to prove her point regarding the opposition between male authority and female experience. In the heterodox Arthurian romance she tells, the knight has no name and is a rapist, a portrayal which contradicts the principles of chivalry, social codes, moral ethics and Christian influence that is typical of that epic genre.

Condemned to be beheaded, the knight is saved by the timely intercession of Queen Guinevere to whom King Arthur gives the case. She tells the knight that his life will be spared, as long as he can answer what is women´s most dear aspiration, in a year and a day: “”You stand, for such is the position still,

In no way certain of your life”, said she,
“”Yet you shall live if you can answer me:
What is the thing that women most desire?
Beware the axe and say as I require.
If you can´t answer on the moment, though,
I will concede you this: you are to go
A twelvemonth and a day to seek and learn
Sufficient answer, then you shall return”” (p.300)

It is unlikely that the Queen should have had such power but it is certainly functional to illustrate the Wife´s position: it is women´s mercy that gives the knight his chance when male Law had condemned him to death. The knight is sent in on? a quest in which he will “seek and learn” the response that he needs to save his life. His desperate bargain with the old and foul-looking “creature” will lead him to wisdom –and marital bliss- through humility and submission.

The Wife´s point is clear: men should accept to be governed by their wives who are wiser than them; authority should yield to experience: “When the man is re-educated, he can have a wife both young and true. The focus is not on the man getting what he wants, but on the change in his ideas about women. The relationship the couple achieves in the end is the result of the knight´s better understanding of women´s experience”7

III.- Chaucer´s Envoy to the Clerk´s Tale:
The voice which appears in the Envoy to brusquely invert the message of the story and encourage wives to oppose their husbands´ power, no comma here has been attributed to Chaucer in the version under analysis.8 The tone of the Envoy is clearly different to that of the tale and may be read as either ironical or playful. Kittredge argues that what we read in the Envoy is the Clerck´s spelling voice which plays a “mock tribute” to the Wife of Bath:
“And then comes the Clerk’s Envoy, the song that he recites in honor of the Wife and all her sect, with its polished lines, its ingenious rhyming, and its utter felicity of scholarly diction. Nothing could be more in character. To whom in all the world could such a masterpiece of rhetoric be appropriate if not to the Clerk of Oxenford? It is a mock encomium, a sustained ironical commendation of what the Wife has taught”.9

CONCLUSION
Both the vivacious and outspoken Wife and the compliant and colourless Griselda symbolize the medieval mind, its values and fears. Alison is a threat, a dangerous menace to a well established male dominance. Her lack of modesty, the blatant manipulation of her feminity, no comma here are hazardous, fascinating and disgusting at the same time. Griselda, on the other hand, carries the stereotype of the perfect wife to its extreme limits and the result is so pitiable that it needs a symbolic justification. She is the unreal and idealised wife that medieval men dreamed of.

Both characters are fictitious but both show how little access medieval men had to the women´s mind and soul. The outcome in the two cases is also enlightening. The Wife´s way –though violent in her personal case and fanciful in that of her tale- achieves an understanding, a reciprocal benefit for the couple; the result of a process in which both her fifth husband and the unnamed knight were compelled to listen and learn through experience. On the other hand, Griselda´s obedience draws a veil over her inner self; readers know nothing about her feelings and neither does her husband. Therefore in the end, she is still not a wife but a serf, though a thankful one. Very interesting points of analysis

Good selection of quotes from the poem
Relevant references to secondary sources
Clearly structured essay

CONTENT: 75/75
ACCURACY ; STYLE: 22 /25
97/100 10 (ten)
Congrats! Great work indeed

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bennett, Judith M.: Queens Whores and Maidens: Women in Chaucer´s England. Royal Holloway, University of London, 2002. Vaneckova, Vladislava. Women in Geoffrey Chaucer´s The Canterbury Tales: Woman as a Narrator, Woman in the Narrative. Master´s Diploma Thesis (2007).http://is.muni.cz/th/74590/ff_m/chaucer_4o6or.pdf. Storm Corsa, Helen. Chaucer poet of mirth and morality italics needed / capitalise content words. Canada: Forum House, 1970. Salzman, L.F. English Life in the Middle Ages italics needed. London: Oxford University Press. Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales: A new Translation by Nevile Coghill. Penguin Classics. Suffolk: Datix International Limited, 2003. Kittredge, George Lyman. “Chaucer´s Discussion of Marriage” http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/canttales/franklin/marriage.html

Interesting research!

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