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The Complex Feminist Ideal in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue

By Erin Ross

The Wife of Bath defies the stereotype that women are inferior to the men who surround them. Alexandra Losonti, in her article “Discourse and Dominion in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath Prologue,” argues “In the Middle Ages women were identified by their roles in life and society as wives, widows, mothers or maidens and were portrayed in relation to a man or group of men” (5). This identification is exemplified in the Wife of Bath’s title. She is most often referred to as a wife, rather than by her name. This portrays the image that her status as a wife is more important than her individuality as a person. Yet the Wife of Bath works to defy this standard in which she is defined only by her association with men. Women of the Middle Ages were not traditionally taught literature and proper speech. Yet the Wife of Bath’s lengthy prologue prompts the Friar to comment, “So have I joye or blis, this is a long preamble of a tale!" (Chaucer 321). Despite speaking to a primarily male audience, the Wife of Bath is able to capture their attention for longer than any other speaker. “Medieval books of advice for women recommended them not to speak much and not to laugh or joke” (Losonti 7). Nonetheless, the Wife of Bath speaks with confidence and poise. She is not intimated by her male audience, or by the notion that women should not be eloquent. She defies gender roles of women who are submissive to the men that surround them and speak only when spoken to. In this sense, she is a radical feminist.

The Wife of Bath is also considered a radical feminist due to her relationships with men and her openness with sexuality that were inconceivable for the time period. The Wife of Bath speaks freely of her sexual history, confidently announcing that she “Wol bistow the flour of al myn age in the actes and in fruit of mariage” (Chaucer 313). She is not ashamed to admit that she enjoys, and will always enjoy regardless of her age, the sexual aspects of marriage. Sexuality in the Middle Ages is one of countless qualities that was praised in men and condemned in women. Losonti illustrates that “The Wife of Bath conversely snipes at the binary division, a female whose forthright speech argues her frank sexuality” (11). The Wife of Bath consistently demolishes gender stereotypes. She neglects the negative light in which men view women who are open with their sexuality. She shows no regard for the status quo. The Wife of Bath views herself not necessarily as a woman, but as any other member of society. Seeing no difference in the lives of men and women, she speaks of sexuality in a way that was only socially acceptable for men. Her sexuality also allows to her gain unprecedented power in her marriages. “She is able to see that the route to power and sovereignty in marriage is through gaining control of her husband’s property by ransoming her sexual favors” (Losonti 14). The Wife of Bath’s sexuality is not at the mercy of her husbands, as it was for the majority of women in the Middle Ages. Alternatively, she is aware of her desirability and uses it to her advantage. Unlike the typical woman of the time period, the Wife of Bath is in control of her own sexuality. She is not manipulated by men, but rather manipulates them. A unique feminist quality, the Wife of Bath recognizes her own worth, and does not let her husbands belittle it. She questions, “Why sholde men elles in hir bokes sette, that man shal yelde to his wyf hire dette?” (Chaucer 312). She completely disagrees with the standard debt of marriage, in which a woman owes her sexuality to her husband. As a strong feminist, the Wife of Bath does not believe that she owes anything to her husband, and uses her sexuality only as she sees fitting for herself.

The Wife of Bath is often thought to be an ideal and radical feminist. Her knowledge and education defy those of typical women of the Middle Ages. She rejects the notion of constantly looking to men for approval. Despite being condemned for it she is open with her sexuality. The Wife of Bath is also acutely aware of her own desirability, and uses it to her advantage. She thinks of herself as a valuable person, rather than a piece of her husband’s property. Yet Chaucer also displays the Wife of Bath as an antifeminist character who conforms to negative female stereotypes. She is often irrational in her manipulation of her husbands. At the end of her prologue, she is extremely submissive to her fifth husband and loses all her power in the relationship. By surrendering the qualities that once made her a resolute feminist, she becomes an instrument for Chaucer to convey his misogynist views. This contradiction in her character makes the Wife of Bath a complex interpretation of the feminist ideal.

Works Cited

Baumgardner, Rachel Ann. "I Alisoun, I Wife: Foucault’s Three Egos and the Wife of Bath’s Prologue." N.p., 15 Jan. 2006. Web. 31 Oct. 2015.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Wife of Bath's Prologue." Canterbury Tales. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 8th ed. New York: Norton, 2006. 226-234.

Losonti, Alexandra. "Discourse and Dominion in Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Prologue." Journal for Communication and Culture. N.p., Winter 2011. Web. 23 Oct. 2015.