The Wife of Bath's Prologue
The Women on the Pilgrimage
- the Prioress
- her attendant nun, and
- the Wife of Bath (clothmaker and widow)
In 14th century England, women in religious orders and widows who had inherited property from their husbands were the only women who had separate autonomous social/legal identities. Other women were legally "covered" by their fathers or husbands.
Battle of the Sexes?
The Wife's Prologue and Tale inaugurate a series of stories which are sometimes labeled "The Marriage Group" (tales told by the Clerk, Merchant, and Franklin).
Note the Wife's implicit gendering of the opposition between (male) "auctoritee" and (female) "experience," where "auctoritee" may be defined as written authority:
the words of scholars and wise men
- the texts of scripture
- respected classical authors
- occasionally more recent authors like Dante, and
- the writings of theologians from the days of the early church to Chaucer's present.
(For some of the misogynist auctoritees the Wife takes on in her Prologue, see handout.)
Male Writers on "Woman"
- Jankyn, husband No. 5, a clerkscholar, is part of a very long Western tradition of male writers constructing Woman. (See Jankyn's Book of Wikked Wyves).
- The Wife on the subject of why scholars can't speak well of women (694-702). What are the three different explanations she offers?
Jankyn and His Ability to GLOSE (see 509-518)
- Relationship of "glosing" to "glossing" (text and gloss).
- Manipulative interpretation (Jankyn's physical behavior gets metaphorically associated with the workings of masculine auctoritee bending scripture to its ends).
- Of course, the Wife herself is quite prepared to quote from various auctoritees to support her own positions. The Pardoner calls her (171) "a noble prechour in this cas."
Is the Wife a Feminist?(Note that this term doesn't come into being until 19th century.)
Is she interested in either
- radically changing the status quo so that everyone has equal power, or
- in completely altering "authoritative" male perceptions of the nature of "woman"?
Note that when we read the Wife's words, what we're looking at is a representation of a woman by a male author.
- Is she herself primarily an object of satire?
- Or is she the satirizer?
She comically ventriloquizes at enormous length the conventional misogynist accusations against women: It's parody by proliferation.
- not so much a reasoned counter-argument
- but rather a performance that re-articulates the usual accusations in order to put their authority into question
Why Is the Wife Sympathetic?
Chaucer's strategies for winning sympathy for the Wife are varied:
In 475-84, we see that she doesn't speak from a position of power.
- In 628-33, we learn that her motives are not always mercenary.
- There's also a progression from her own manipulation, bullying, and sexual blackmail of her first three (rich, old) husbands to her own manipulation, bullying, and sexual blackmail BY her fourth and fifth husbands. (Jankyn, in particular, exploits power dynamic she had once controlled: see 519-525).
- Why is the Wife "somdeel deef"?
- And what about the ddly fairytale ending of her autobiography wish fulfillment? (She does get to put her own spin on her life.)
Some Final Questions
195ff. "Myn entente nis but for to playe"
We're back to the larger game of the pilgrimage: the story telling-game, the agenda of combining SOLAS and SENTENCE.
What is the Wife of Bath's game? And what is Chaucer's game in inventing the Wife of Bath and giving her a voice?