“A man and a lion considered the question of which of them was better, and each one tried to prove his ability. As they went along together thus they arrived at a grave on which was painted a picture of a an choking a lion. Seeing this the man showed the picture to the lion as proof of his power. To this the lion replied: “This was painted by a man. If it had been painted by a lion you would not see the lion choked by a man but the man choked by the lion.””
The above lines have been translated by John E. Keller and Clark Keating, from Aesop’s fable Of the Man and the Lion, in their compilation Aesop’s Fables With a Life of Aesop. Aesop’s fable points towards the bias with which man depicts his own version of the truth. Geoffrey Chaucer draws inspiration from this fable in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale from his Canterbury Tales. Through the narrator, Chaucer questions social norms and plays with sex, gender and gender performance, as defined by Judith Butler in her book, Gender Trouble, Feminist Theory, and Psychoanalytic Discourse. For Butler, “women” and “woman” are fraught categories, complicated by class, ethnicity, sexuality, and other facets of identity. Moreover, the universality presumed by these terms parallels the assumed universality of the patriarchy. The Wife of Bath (Alisoun) compels her audience into questioning such existing dogmas of social hierarchy.
Throughout the Prologue, she highlights the arbitrary control of men over society and subverts their claim to superiority. She tactfully quotes parts of the Bible to justify her ways. For instance, to defend marriage she refers to the Biblical Abraham and Jacob, and points out that, “ech of hem hadde wyves mo than two”. This brings our attention to Chaucer’s position on the Lollard Movement which supported the translation of the Bible in order to make it available to masses and thus, open to individual interpretation. Alisoun, further, gives a voice to Eve just as Chaucer gives a voice to her (thus, women). Hence, we witness a strong female narrator, in the image of Chaucer’s proto-feminism, questioning the fundamentals of patriarchy when she says:
“Who peyntede the leoun, tel me who?”
In her speech, she invokes Aesop’s idea of fragmented truth, implying that women are viewed as the lesser beings because of the way they have been represented by the Other gender. She deeply criticizes St. Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum which advocates Christian ideas of virginity and chastity. It quotes Greek writers like Theophastrus who talks of marriage as a bad bargain because a man can test anything he buys, like stools or spoons, but not a wife. Such a statements is extremely problematic for any feminist as it objectifies and commodifies women while placing men in a powerful position. The Wife of Bath finds this text severely offensive to female freedom and terms it the “book of wikked wyves”. Mary Carruthers in her essay, The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions states that, “Alisoun [says], if women told tales of marital woe to match those of the authorities represented in Jankyn’s book, they would show, “of men more wikkednesse / Than all the mark of Adam may redresse.” Here Alisoun focuses the audience’s attention on how the lack of women’s writings has led to society being a manifestation of only male perception and desire. A master of parody, Alisoun turns Jerome’s words back on themselves, to his presumed discomfiture and to our delight. It is the Roman period of Jerome’s life, the period of Paula, Marcella, Eustochium, and the unfortunate Blesilla, that the Wife remembers especially about him, as her epithet for him, “a clerk at Rome,” indicates. And Alisoun is as exegetically skilled, as polemically successful, as Jerome would have wished any of his women friends to be; she has simply taken him at his word (“I do not condemn even octogamy”) and remarried all those times. According to her, if god prescribed virginity, he wouldn’t have created sexual organs, and evoking logic, she expresses that even to procreate virgins we have to make use to our genitalia. Similarly, she portrays her stance against conversion by saying that god would have created more Christians, had He wanted it to be so. She resolves to burning the book, thus, asserting her dominance.
It is her characterisation that allows her to make such bold advances in a patriarchal world. She is flamboyant and transgressive and “flouts all norms of seemly feminine behaviour” observes Harriet Raghunathan in The Wife of Bath’s Tale The Prologue. Her portrait in the General Prologue tells us that she is dressed in scarlet stockings and a huge unfeminine hat “as brood as is a bokeler or a targe” (a soldier’s shield), rather than sober colours or “widewes habit blake”. “Alisoun’s ‘hipes large’ […] seem to tell us, by implication, that she is an imposing woman with the size and commanding presence both to browbeat her older husbands and to hold her own in marital battle with her younger ones” (Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s ‘Foot-mantel’ and her ‘Hipes Large’ by Peter G. Beidler). A male discourse is suggested by some critics, prominently evident the wife says, “Alikerous mouth moste han a likerous tayl” (WBP, 466). The tail is a symbol for male genitalia, rather than female. Thus Alisoun’s moth signifies excessive consumption, both material and sexual. She does not keep modestly quiet but laughs and jokes loudly. In church, where she should display charity, she is more concerned to take precedence over all others. This “good wif” is contrasted with “a good man of religoun” whose portrait immediately follows. This is significant because “in her prologue, the Wife sets up as a woman preacher (in itself forbidden)” and energetically counters the church’s teachings, as explained above.
Her independence is revealed with the opening of the Prologue itself; “Experience” is the first and most significant word in the Wife’s prologue. The indication here is towards her experience with men in matters of sex and “maistrie”. Alisoun has wedded five men and she is ready to welcome the sixth. She “had passed many a straunge streem” in her pilgrimages. The boundaries she crosses are not only geographical as it is suggested that besides her five husbands she had “oother compaignie in youthe” and knew about “wandringe by the weye.” Carruthers states, “She knows from experience that the true fruits of marriage are described neither in Jerome nor in the deportment books but are set in the marriage bed”. Its important spoils for her are neither children nor sensual gratification but independence. Marriage is the key to survival, and that is what Alisoun seeks and finds. Her parents married her off when she was twelve, an early enough age to suggest either notable greed or straitened financial circumstances on their part. The word “Experience” also includes a larger context, the experience of her whole social class, the bourgeoisie engaged in trade. Thus, the main motive of her first three marriages is purely in terms of material benefit and means to survival. She achieves “maistrie” over her husbands by using her sexuality for domination over them to get hold of their land and their “tresor”. While the motive behind her fourth marriage remains unclear, her fifth marriage with Jankyn seems to have a base in sentimentality and sexual appeasement. She is true to Jankyn but soon she realizes that he is all “auctoritee” and no “experience”. She relinquishes her estate to Jankyn, only to realize that without sovereignty over herself (that ‘richesse’ has bought her), she loses her freedom to love, “Allas, allas, that evere love was sinne!” Jankyn was the one who introduced Alisoun to the “book of wikked wyves” bringing forth Jankyn’s misogynistic traits which are affirmed when “with his fist he smoot me [Alisoun] on the heed”. Only a few lines later, The Wife of Bath presents her audience with an almost magical resolution wherein Jankyns has a change of heart. Some critics believe that Alisoun is in denial, she doesn’t want to accept that Jankyns did to her what she did to her other husbands (i.e. marry for material gain). Another theory posited is that such narration is typical to her character and she wants to present (perhaps even believe) that she was consistently in control of herself and her surroundings. In his History of Sexuality, Foucault describes the way individuals participate in discursive structures to “transform themselves, to change themselves in their singular being, and to make their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria” (Foucault’s Body Tropes by Daniel Punday). It is exactly what the Wife does in her prologue, bringing her body into play.
The end resolution of the Prologue resonates with that of the Tale, where the knight, too, has a change of heart and accept the old hag who in turn rewards the knight by magically transforming into a “fair and good” (beautiful and subservient) maiden. In Cristina Artenie’s opinion, the Wife’s Tale is a reflection of what she really wants at this point in her life: to be attractive to men, as posited in her essay, Who Painted the Lion? The Wife of Bath: Sex, Gender, and Gender Performance. And if she cannot attract them anymore with her beauty then she wants to attract them with her intelligence. It is the “auctoritee” she speaks of in her prologue and it is the authority of the hag in her tale. Through her tale, Alisoun wants not only to make women “the educational authorities but also the curriculum” (Clean Maids, True Wives, Steadfast Widows: Chaucer’s Women and Medieval Codes of Conduct by Margaret Hallissy). What is indeed striking is that the same intention, of acquiring authority, has to be attributed also to Chaucer, as the author of the text and teacher of his audience. And he is using Alisoun for his purpose with ease, like a true “maister”.
In her Tale, The Wife of Bath creates a matriarchal society where the knight is oppressed and the Queen ensures justice. However, we must not overlook that the Queen’s authority is only borrowed from her “maister”, her husband, the King. Alisoun depicts the hypocrisy of the genteel in the false “gentillesse” of the knight. He commits a crime as heinous as rape and yet demands the respect that was due to a man of his class. He disregards the class of the poverty-stricken girl that he raped but despises the poverty of his wife, the old hag. Alisoun reduces him to the position of his victim whereby he’s reduced to his body and is objectified by a court full of women. Through such a depiction of society, largely populated by women, The Wife of Bath manages to raise debates regarding the amoral values that have been internalised by society. She posits that women want a political change which is inclusive of all sections of society. They want to be able to own property (which law forbade at the time), make their decisions instead of being governed by a patriarchal authority in the figure of their father or husband and to live as equals to men. Time and again, women are criticized for wanting money, power and sexual gratification, but isn’t that what men want as well?
The Wife uses the romance mode to contest the intrinsic values of a patriarchal society, and thus parodies it. She uses a plot typical to romantic tales, wherein a virtuous knight wins a quest and is rewarded with a beautiful and subservient maiden. Here, the knight is criminal, he is on a quest to save himself and is in turn saved by the grace of a woman belonging to an inferior class. She takes the parody forward in his objectification by women who are in command. The use of a comic tone in the midst of such sexual and scatological obscenity introduces the concept of Fabliaux. Once again, typical to her character, the Wife uses the male aristocratic genre of Romance to tell her tale and another male genre, Satire, to parody it (just as she uses Jerome’s words against him and quotes selectively from the Bible).
The Wife of Bath makes subversive assertions throughout her Prologue and Tale. She brings to our notice that the voice of god has been manipulated by man for centuries. The teachings of the Church often defy logic, according to her, as she says that god wouldn’t have bestowed humans with sexual organs if He forbade sex. Her characterisation itself refutes the prescriptions of patriarchy in her assertive dominance and unabashed desire for money, power and sexual gratification. She is overt about her beliefs and ways, which is evident in her dressing and confidence. She has no desire to submit to patriarchy in order to be appreciated, exemplified in her telling of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (featured in Jerome’s text as well). She says that if men know women can’t keep secrets, then thye should simply refrain from sharing secrets with them. This idea in itself captures her aversion to society’s expectations of women. Her description beings as a fair woman who “was out of alle charitee”, and towards the end we acknowledge her as a strong, almost masculine woman as she uncovers her “gat-tothed” smile, who is strong, assertive and full of desires. She can be compared with Shakespeare’s bold female characters like Rosalind from As You Like It, Desdemona from Othello, etcetera. She is unafraid to fight for wish-fulfilment. This very need for a fight represents an existent lack in the social lives of women, restricted by the demands of patriarchy. By raising such issues in his text, Chaucer poses a strong proto-feminist stance along with other progressive ideas such as the interpretation of the Bible, equality among different sections of society and virtues such as nobility and gentleness. She ends the Tale In apparent submission but this unexpected and uncharacteristic ending ignites a dissatisfaction in the hearts of the readers and leads to further questioning such unfair practices and dictums within society.
In this paper, I have attempted to capture the essence of Chaucer’s inner conflict depicted in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. His views are ahead of his time, and often the only way to challenge society is with the use of comedy. Thus we witness the Wife of Bath using Satire to parody the assumptions of patriarchy through her character, subversive assertions and matriarchal setup.