Areas of Study (new)

Areas of Study (new)

Alison is one of the most vividly drawn characters in "The Canterbury Tales". On balance she has just as many negative qualities as positive ones:

The Wife

How does Chaucer prevent us from condemning her completely? Find examples in the text of her most appealing qualities.

Clearly the fact that what she says is almost entirely autobiographical means that the Prologue and Tale are going to suit the teller in terms of subject matter or theme. She is at the centre of her 'tale' and this is clearly significant - it is the way it should be with someone so self-centred. The bulk of what she says concerns marriage and the relationship between the sexes. It is worth comparing her rather mercenary relationships with her first three "goode" (therefore old and rich) husbands, her fourth, who took a mistress but over whom she got her own back and Jankin, the fifth. He is the only one who is named and for whom she expresses any affection. Money, sex and power play a large part in marriage if we are to believe the Wife.

It is not only in terms of theme that this is a suitable tale for the Wife. She has a fine sense of the dramatic and the way in which she tells her Tale reflects this. Look particularly at the way she denounces her first three husbands, her wooing of Jankin and the way she outwits him in the end. She uses a mixture of persuasion and bullying to manipulate her husbands and her audience into submission. Look at the way she handles interruptions from the Friar and Pardoner.

It is also worth considering the language and story-telling techniques employed by Chaucer for these too suit her character. (More of this later.)

Finally consider whether there is any consistency between the Prologue and the Tale in terms of the way the wife deals with ideas such as justice, scholarship, sex, and hypocrisy.

The Wife's comments in her Prologue and Tale point to the aggression and ruthlessness lurking in male-female relationships. The struggle for 'maistrie' is everything both in the home between a married couple and on the larger stage.

There is an anomaly between her obvious desire to completely possess her husbands and assert female domination, and the fact that having gained control she won't exercise it. The eventual challenge to masculine supremacy fades. Her attitude is ambivalent - she is both dependent and independent at the same time. Love appears to conquer all. Note, however, that love is on her terms.

Her physical battle with Jankin dramatises the metaphorical battle between and triumph of experience (essentially a female commodity) over authority (which is male-dominated).

Is her portrayal of the relationship between the sexes accurate?

Does Chaucer agree with her, do you think?

There is no doubt that Chaucer is a superb storyteller. Not only is he able to create believable characters and to keep his audience interested by injecting pace, drama, or humour at appropriate times, but he also demonstrates that he can fit the tale to the teller in terms of theme and tone.

There is a difference here in tone between the Prologue, which is coarse and garrulous (like the Wife herself), and the Tale, which contains some delicate poetry. The Wife's Tale is often considered inferior to her Prologue and also to other tales. Accusations levelled at it are that the characters are less well drawn, and there is less humour than in other Tales, and that the story drags. Nevertheless it still reflects the Wife's concerns and, like her Prologue is about the quest for what women desire most and its practical instigation. Peace and reconciliation come only when authority is handed over to the woman.

The voice Chaucer creates for the Wife is wholly appropriate. There is little description: she is more interested in making her views known and is matter-of-fact - even when talking about the rape of the maiden by the knight in the Tale. Colloquialisms are liberally employed, the imagery is homely and there are a fair few proverbs, which a woman like her would realistically use when talking.

Chaucer allows the Wife to ramble off the main point and to comment directly on more than one occasion. These digressions create a keen sense of character. She appears to meander from point to point. We can, however, detect a structure running through the text.

Chaucer had read widely, and he uses this to great advantage in the telling of the Prologue and Tale to add an extra dimension to them. He uses his knowledge of anti-feminist writers, classical authors and biblical doctrine, to allow the Wife to challenge and misquote these for comic effect. It is wholly appropriate that she uses the story of Midas to illustrate her belief that women cannot keep secrets. (She gets it wrong. It was Midas' barber who spilled the beans, not his wife.) Midas, like the Wife herself, was addicted to having a good time.

Chaucer gives the Wife a keen sense of humour, which she uses well in the telling of her tale. Look particularly at moments like the old woman's explanation of her own worth to her new husband. The poetry is commonplace and laboured, and deliberately so. We experience what the knight experiences and it is no surprise that he'll accept anything just to shut her up!

Another area of success is the realism of the dialogue. Look for suitable examples.

The tone is varied throughout. Find examples of Chaucer's use of humour, liveliness, learning, description, scholarly writings and subtlety in the telling of the tale.

As with the other tales, the Wife is telling her story on one level whilst Chaucer is telling it on another more ironic level. He depicts his own character in the "General Prologue" as rather gullible, responding to what the Wife and others say at face value. This serves to invite debate about and to satirise themes and characters, without his having to comment directly on them himself. This also enables him to squeeze maximum humour out of situations.

How does this manifest itself in the Wife's Prologue and tale?

Do we find her assumptions and attitudes funny?

Does she give away more than she realises?

Do we take her seriously? Does she take herself seriously?

Look at the humour which is to be found in the absurd situations created in the Tale, in terms of visual humour (like the bedroom scene), characterisation, dialogue, and her assumption that women hold sway, even in King Arthur's court, and that widows are the wise ones! Here the Wife has the ability to make us laugh with her.

In the Prologue much of the humour created is at her expense. Her particular brand of wit and argument is comic. The humour is often bawdy. Yet here too there are moments of superb visual humour such as the way she eyes up Jankin's legs whilst following her late husband's body to church.

In "The Canterbury Tales" we have drawn for us a cross-section of medieval society, which reveals its concerns and its characters in a gloriously humorous way.

In the character of the Wife of Bath and her Prologue and Tale, Chaucer reveals much about such issues as the increasing influence of the middle classes, of which she is one, the position of women and the place of religion in society.

The fact that we can find the text amusing and the characters realistic reveals that human nature changes very little.

As a confident business woman who has married several times the Wife is anything but a stereotypical medieval woman. A husband does not dominate her (although some have tried in the past) and she has the money and freedom to travel on pilgrimages. As a member of the middle classes with a successful trade and her late husbands' money behind her she has gained some status.

How would the other pilgrims, particularly those of a higher status, regard her?

She is clearly well versed in Scripture, even if she doesn't understand it all. The comments she makes in her Prologue about the social activities she takes part in reveal how much religion was at the centre of all people's lives. However, Chaucer is keen to satirise the corruption of the medieval church. He does this elsewhere in the characterisation of many of the religious figures on the pilgrimage. Here he uses the character of the Wife to point to the anomalies in biblical teaching. We can enjoy how easy it is for her to challenge its authority with common sense and admire the way she deals with corrupt figures with double standards like the Friar.

How exactly does she do this?

Chaucer uses her to direct satire at the sex-obsessed, guilt-ridden attitudes of medieval Christianity. She is refreshingly guilt free and her common sense overturns official morality on more than one occasion.

Much of what the Wife has to say concerns marriage. She uses her own experience and a number of biblical references to challenge the authority of church doctrine and that of her husbands. She beats the church at its own game, if you like. Taking the bible literally she states that virginity might be recommended but it is not a commandment for all. She prefers the 'go forth and multiply' directive, though notice she has no children!

Clearly she believes that marriage is a battleground and that open hostility between husband and wife is natural.

Look at the reasons why she marries and the way she behaves towards her various husbands and they to her. To the Wife marriage has more to do with power, sex and money than mutual affection. However, her marriage to Jankin is ultimately a happy one. Consider how and why her attitude to marriage appears somewhat ambivalent.

In her tale she appears to believe that there is a choice between physical love and ideal love in marriage and that you cannot have both. The old woman suggests (like anti-feminist writers) that only ugly wives will be faithful.

The Wife looks back on her marriages and we feel that she has learnt from the experience. There is a touching moment of wish-fulfilment near the end, when the old woman becomes faithful and affectionate towards her husband (even though he is submissive) as well as beautiful and young. The Wife herself found affection and fidelity with Jankin - but while she cannot transform herself back to a young and beautiful bride in reality, she can at least do it in her story.

A disproportionate amount of time is spent in the Tale making traditional medieval moral points about the nature of poverty and 'gentilesse'. In many ways this seems totally out of keeping with her comments elsewhere. She is a coarse, vulgar woman who is fairly well off.

Why then does Chaucer include this? Perhaps she was once poor and lowborn and she is sensitive about this?

Certainly she would agree with the sentiment that being 'gentil' is not the same as being well born. She would believe that reputation was to be gained through effort and character not birth.

Look at what the old woman has to say about these two issues in the Tale. Perhaps the only explanation is that the Wife is naturally combative and has already demonstrated her belief that attack is the best form of defence. She is merely doing what comes naturally.

The Wife turns traditional medieval views of women upside down. A wife was taken through necessity - re-population after the plague years was essential - and once married she became her husband's property. Husbands could legitimately beat their wives.

Few women were educated. The Wife of Bath is said to be a fairly skilled weaver of cloth, although her wealth, influence and freedom have been gained through other channels.

What is it about her that challenges the stereotype of the medieval wife?

Notice too the number of times anti-feminist writers are quoted. Chaucer and his audience would have been familiar with these authors. We can assume that the plausible explanation for the Wife's familiarity with them is through her marriage to Jankin, the scholar who quoted them at her from his 'book'. Nevertheless she manages to get the better of him whilst conforming to many stereotypical criticisms of women levelled by these anti-feminist writers. Which ones?

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