Geoffrey Chaucer's Wife Of Bath Essay

1841 words - 7 pages

Chaucer's Wife of Bath is the most fully and vividly realized of the characters in The Canterbury Tales and her lengthy Prologue and brief Tale have a force and vitality that derive from the perfect integration of character and message. The Wife's account of her own life and her tale are both, seemingly, directed toward establishing the principle that happiness in marriage results from the woman's "mastery" over her husband. Nearly everything she says runs counter to theological authority, ecclesiastical preaching, and conventional social notions regarding the relations between men and women. This has led everyone from Chaucer's fictional Clerk to many twentieth-century scholars to conclude that the Wife's opinions are heretical and shockingly unconventional. But her clash with the religious and social conventions of her own era was probably not so shocking as, superficially, it seems to be.
The Wife of Bath's autobiography and her tale are exaggerated in comic fashion and she warns, after all, that her "entente nys but for to pleye" (190). Although there is a very serious side to everything that she says, it hardly seems reasonable to assume that the Wife of Bath is actually advocating the complete overturn of all conventional notions of marriage in a fashion that would mean that men would simply become as miserable as women were under the old rules. But she is intent on contrasting the wisdom of experience (that is, a genuine knowledge of what actually happens in marriage) with the barrenness (and, frequently, malice) of the theological and social underpinnings of conventional views of marriage which not only promise misery for many women but have little practical relevance for marriage in the real world because, as the Wife points out in several ways, they leave out the female half of the experience. She "very neatly sets herself up as an authority" but is not so much intent on completely replacing existing authority as on asserting that experience too has authority (Shoaf 175). When the Wife reports that she made her fifth husband "brenne his book anon right tho" (816) she definitively rejects the standard misogynous "auctoritee" that has little to do with real life. But the conclusion of the Prologue, in which she refers to herself as subsequently being "as kynde / As any wyf from Denmark to Inde" (823-24), retains the exaggerated tone that makes the reader suspect that her principle of female "maistrye" is indeed intended mainly as "pleye" and as a vehicle for presenting the other side of the picture of marriage that is balanced against the more conventional notions presented by other pilgrims. But her hyperbole does not mean that she is "false or lying"--unlike such characters as the Pardoner, who is "exceedingly orthodox, and a consummate liar" (Shoaf 176). She is even quite "scrupulous" with many of the conventional religious positions but "she just does not buy" many of them as being applicable to real life (Shoaf 176).
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