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Misogyny in the Canterbury Tales

Last updated on February 27th, 2016 at 03:24 am

By ~Rosen

Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales illuminates the ideas of the time, presented from various points of view. During the middle Ages, society was highly stratified. Bringing individuals from all walks of life—be it economic, political, or military—allows Chaucer to explain the use of varied individuals. While on a religious pilgrimage, the wife tells the tale of a misogynistic knight on a journey to save his own life. The tale explains the selfishness and shallowness of men and exemplifies traditional gender stereotypes. From when he rapes an innocent woman to his superficial hatred of a woman, the Knight embodies issues of gender violence and gender inequality.

As told by the Wife of Bath, a sense of power and entitlement leads men to rash actions and unnecessary violence. Feeling powerful and confident, the Knight in the story forces himself upon a woman and rapes her. The Knight was overcome with his own confidence and acted from emotion, not reason. As a knight, he was sworn to chivalry and took and oath to protect, however, he acted out of character and broke his code of conduct. Although the scandal certainly impacted the court, the man’s punishment was not doled out appropriately. In the Wife of Bath’s Tale, the women are portrayed as weak willed while men embody self-confidence and power. Even though the appropriate penalty for violent rape was death, the woman of the court intervened. Ironically, it was women who saved the Knight from death, despite his crime against women. The Knight was given an extremely lenient punishment (if executed correctly) to spend a year searching for what women really want. This punishment, while less severe than death, reverses the gender roles as it puts the Knight at the mercy of women. Instead of the masculine Knight holding the power, the Knight must implore women’s desires and when presenting his answer, remain at the mercy of the female panel to accept or reject his reply.

Even after women saved the Knight, the story illustrates men’s superficial desires and determination in getting what they want. When the “old hag” demands the Knight marry her, the Knight pleads that she take his material goods rather than his body simply because she is ugly. Again, the Knight looks only skin deep and is unwilling to accept a more complex interpretation of women. Even though the woman explains her worth in loyalty and faithfulness—factors that should be important to a knight—the Knight discredits her because of her looks. This shows the Knight's hypocrisy as a noble figure when he is unwilling to imagine women as people. The tale further shows a man’s determination in getting what he wants. When given the choice of his wife to be “good” or beautiful, the Knight almost mockingly replies with what he knows the woman wants to hear. Chaucer mocks the idea that the woman is getting what she really wants, when in reality, the knight is simply playing the woman to get what’s best for him.

In the Wife of Bath’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer, the ideas of male power are exemplified. Whether a knight from the middle ages or a modern man, power and a sense of entitlement lead men to violence and cause inequality. Chaucer exemplifies stereotypical female ideas in his work from their mercy for the Knight to the Woman’s gratitude towards her husband when he asked her to make his decision.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey, Peter G. Beidler, and Geoffrey Chaucer. The Wife of Bath. Boston: Bedford of St. Martin's, 1996. Print.