Canterbury Tales - Wife of Bath is Not an Attack on Women and Married Life
Feminists have proposed that the Prologue of the Wife of Bath is merely an attack on women and married life. The Prologue is spoken by a woman with strong opinions on how married life should be conducted, but is written by a man. It is important to examine the purpose with which Chaucer wrote it. This is especially so as many of the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales condemn themselves out of their own mouths, such as the Monk and the Friar. While the Wife spends most of the Prologue arguing in favour of the deceit and deviousness that wise wives will execute, the argument is often illogical and can approach ridiculousness in its vehemence. Are we to agree with the views that the Wife of Bath puts forward so strongly, or does Chaucer present her as a caricature of every negative quality women are traditionally guilty of?
A great deal of the Wife's Prologue is spent in her narration of the tirades that she subjected her first three husbands to, largely a list of accusations made by anti-feminists of women, and the Wife's spirited responses. The Wife's replies defend women's behaviour -- if a husband has enough sex from his wife, she says, he should not care "How mirily that othere folks fare". She attacks scholars who accuse women of all manner of vileness by asking "Who peynted the leon, tel me who?" and that because scholars (Mercurie) and women (Venus) are diametrically opposed, "Therfore no womman of no clerk is preysed." However, while it is clear that the Wife is on the side of fellow females, in a logical sense the Wife's arguments are not particularly effective against the anti-feminists' view that women are as vain as cats, as sex-crazed as spaniels, and as destructive as "wilde fyr". She advances her argument by means of pouring scorn on her husbands and cursing them. While "old lecchour" and "with sorwe!" may defeat her husbands' supposed wrath, it cannot be said that the Wife herself logically defeats the attacks made by anti-feminists on women and married life.
Indeed, the Wife's speech and behaviour, as well as her account of her history, appear to support the accusations of lechery and destructiveness made by anti-feminists. It appears that Chaucer is being ironic, in having the Wife defend herself against accusations which her speech and [good] behaviour prove. Other pilgrims do this too, especially the Monk and Friar. The Wife tells the pilgrims that she has always followed her appetite, ignoring whether a man is "black or white", and that she walks from house to house and entertainment (during Lent!) in order to seek her "grace", or next husband/sexual adventure -- proof of her appetite, at a time when ideally women left the initiative to men. She has outlived four [5?] husbands, possibly having a hand in their deaths by forcing them into over-exertion in bed, and certainly creating as stressful a situation as possible...