Kristy Zanganeh on Chaucer's The Wife of Bath's Tale

Published by admin_main on Fri 03 Sep, 2010

Q. How does the romance frame of the Wife’s tale change or complicate the gender relations issues she addresses in her prologue?

The romance complicates the gender issues in her prologue in a few ways, but first the tale must be analyzed. A typical romance involves people of higher class or aristocratic people who lived a long time ago and there is usually some kind of magical elements (such as the fairies and elves in this tale). In addition, there is also a happy ending. This romance has all the qualities, but the some of the characters are flawed, like the knight who must rely on the hag to save him. The hag is a mysterious character and we don’t know who she is or if she is aristocratic which we would assume she isn’t because of where she is found. However, she has the answer he seeks and she lures him in by saying

Sire knight, heer forth lith no way
Telle me what ye seeken, by youre fay.
Paraventure it may the better be:

Thise olde folk cone muchel thing…WOB 1007-1010.

The hag is insinuating that she might have the answer because she is wise and old, or, as the Wife of Bath might say, has “experience”. The knight, being desperate on his last day, relies on her for the answer. Already she is asserting dominance over him or sovereignty by making him promise to her that he will do whatever she asks him. One thing that the hag doesn’t have, that is mentioned in the prologue that complicates the situation, is beauty. She uses convincing words and her age to make the knight succumb to her and Alison uses her beauty. Therefore, the tale complicates this issue of beauty and women. Another complication is that the knight has no power of authority anymore except to honor his promise to her. He must listen to some old hag and promise her something that he doesn’t even know of yet, in return of wisdom or insight. In the prologue though, the first three husbands have authority, but Alison feels like she has the upper hand. She says

I governed hem so wel after my lawe
That eech of hem ful blissful was and fawe
To bringe me gaye thinges fro the faire;
They were ful glade whan I spak hem faire,

For God it woot, I chidde hem spitously… WOB 225-229.

By playing a henpecking stereotypical wife, she got her way with a lot of things. She addresses “Thus sholde ye speke and bere him wrong on honed/ For half so bodly can ther no man/ Swere and lie as a woman can” (WOB 232-234). In addition, to keep her happy, they would take her out to show off and Alice benefited from this because she got a chance to get out and have some freedom. The gender roles are flip flopped in the tale and the issue of which sex has authority is left with the hag.

The last two husbands in the prologue do not try to so much please Alice and she falls to their dominance. We will look specifically at the case with Janekin. He was abusive and her henpecking didn’t really get her anywhere and she even says when she starts to speak of him “That feele I on my ribbes al by rewe” (WOB 512). Alice, for whatever reason, loves him and puts up with the abuse. However, when they have a certain fight, after she pulls out the pages of the book about bad women, he strikes her hard on the head. Here, she claims

And whan he saw how stille that I lay,
He was agast, and wolde have fled his way
Til ate laste out of my swough I braide:
O hastou slain me, false thief?” I saide,
“And for my land thus hastou mordred me?

Er I be deed yitr wol I kisse thee… (WOB 803-808).

The fight scared both it seems, but I have a feeling Alice was being a bit more dramatic about her situation. Janekin possibly might have been so scared at the thought of killing his wife and that would be why he gives her “governaunce.” The tale is similar to this situation except the knight doesn’t abuse the old hag, but the knight did rape a woman. He too gives the hag “governaunce” and says when asked to make a choice:

My lady and my love, and wif so dere,
I putte me in youre wise governaunce:
Cheseth yourself which may be most plesaunce
And most honour to you and me also.
I do no fors the wheither of the two,

For as you liketh it suffiseth me…(WOB 1236-1241).

By looking at the quote, one can see the knight is very is much like Janekin. When comparing Alice to the old hag as far as similarities, they both seem to have a kind of knowledge or “experience” that Alice claims in the prologue. The old hag seems to be nobler as she doesn’t play games and gets straight to her point. This leads into the next question:

In what sense might the story be interpreted as “wish-fulfillment” on the Wife’s part?

The story can be seen this way because the wife’s fictional hag might be how she really wants to be, but can’t because she has no magical powers. She also maybe cannot be as noble as the old hag because she feels she has to assert the henpecking woman stereotype just to get her way. In addition, she takes advantage of opportunities when she can (like with Janekin and how she pretended to be so hurt badly and she claimed she was dying). The hag takes advantage of opportunities too, but she does so to help the knight. The hag teaches him, based on her experience, what true nobility means (honesty, faithfulness, goodness). An example of the wisdom she teaches him is when she speaks to him in bed after he complains about how old, ugly and poor she is.

But for ye speken of swich gentilesse
As is descended out of old richesse—
That therefore sholden ye be gentilmen—
Swich arrogance is nat worth a hen.
Look who that is most virtuous always,
Privee and apert, and most entendeth ay
To do the gentil deedes that he can,

Taak him for the gretteste gentilman…(WOB 1115-1122).

The Wife/Alice isn’t truly noble to her husbands though and so she might wish she had some kind of magical power to go along with her “experience.” Maybe she doesn’t like being a nagging wife, but feels it’s the only power that she has. In addition, Alice probably wishes, most of all, that she could turn herself into a young and beautiful woman again.

Questions

Do you think Alice will ever find a man that will let her do what she wants?

Do you think she is on the pilgrimage to find a man perhaps?

Do the knight and hag both truly get what they want?

Works cited

Abrams, Meyer Howard, and Stephen Jay Greenblatt. The Norton Anthology of English Literature The Middle Ages. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2006. Print.


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