Women in Chaucer's The Wife of Bath
Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale" is a medieval legend that paints a portrait of strong women finding love and themselves in the direst of situations. It is presented to the modern day reader as an early tale of feminism showcasing the ways a female character gains power within a repressive, patriarchal society. Underneath the simplistic plot of female empowerment lies an underbelly of anti-feminism. Sometimes this is presented blatantly to the reader, such as the case of Janekin's reading aloud from "The Book of Wikked Wives" (The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale 691). However, there are many other instances of anti-feminism that may not scream so loudly to the reader. This is shown in the disappearance of the rape victim and the happy ending for the Knight. While the overall story is one of supposed feminism shown through women's empowerment, there are many aspects of "The Wife of Bath" that are anti-feminist in nature.
The main character, Alison, or the wife of Bath, is representative of most of the feminist ideals in the work. She is strong, independent, and to be respected as a woman of great courage. Alison has suffered a great deal in her lifetime, indicative of life for women at this time. She has survived five husbands; some of whom beat her, others were unfaithful. She was married off at an early age of twelve and from then on knew what marriage was about: money. "Marriage is the key to survival, and that is what Alisoun seeks and finds" (Carruthers 214), argues Mary Carruthers, justifying Alison's five marriages. Alison equates money with power. With this power comes respect and honor.
A more careful analysis of both the "General Prologue" and "The Wife of Bath's Tale and Prologue," however, suggest that perhaps the character of Alison is not as autonomous as the reader is led to believe. The General Prologue gives evidence of Alison's prowess as a weaver: "of cloth-making she hadde swich an haunt/ She passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt" (General Prologue 449-450). Despite this talent and position as a business owner, Alison still relies on her husbands for wealth and status.
While Alison in her own right is an accomplished artisan, she is rarely seen as her own person. Others on the voyage to Canterbury are referred to by their name and occupation, for example the Clerk and the Merchant, yet Alison is referred to as the wife of Bath. This shows that her importance lies within her sexuality or marital status. She is not a person or even an artisan; she is merely a wife.
Another criticism of Alison's character as one representing feminist ideals is that she gains her power through acting out stereotypes of women as well as violence. The criticism of women began with Eve eating the apple, which caused the downfall of mankind (meaning solely men). Hereby, women were the downfall of men. Wives were thought to be nagging, vicious,...