Analysis Of The Wife Of Bath's Views Of The Social Order

The Wife of Bath's Tale is a tale written by the English poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer, along his collection The Canterbury Tales which he wrote from 1387 until his death in 1400. Even if it was unfinished at his death, his work remains considered as one of the first important texts in English literature. The Canterbury Tales is his best-known work and was originally written in Middle English. Through his writings, Chaucer discusses the themes of -to name a few- courtly love, marriage, social status, religious power, rivalry, chivalry and honour. The passage under study is located in the middle of The Wife of Bath's Tale. At this point of the story, the knight had had to marry the old and poor lady against his will. Due to this circumstance, the lady is trying to convince him of her worth. The question we are going to try to answer is: what do the lady's rhetorical arguments reveal about her views of the social order? Firstly, we will investigate what truly makes someone be a part of the so called “gentility” or nobility. Then, we will examine the situation in which the lady stands by analysing what it really means to be rich or poor. These two parts will be highlighted by the importance of religion, a theme present throughout the whole passage.

Since the beginning of the passage, the topic of gentility is discussed. It is introduced by the sentence “you talk of such gentility”. The use of this term is linked to the will of creating a bond with the past of the knight, more precisely, with his previous social status as part of the wealthy people. The narrator, which is the lady, engages a discussion as she expresses her disagreement with the fact that being a gentleman would be an inborn gift. To her, the idea of innate gentility “isn't worth a bean”. Indeed, being part of the wealthy people does not necessarily means being a gentleman. As a matter of fact, true gentility should emerge through every action an individual has, meaning that a gentleman should be “always virtuous In private and in public.” Furthermore, the title of gentleman has to be earned “For Christ wants us to claim nobility”, it is through “him, and not from our rich ancestry” that we can “claim to be of gentle birth”. Then, it is not enough to claim ourselves “the name of gentleman” as the ancestry “are by no means able to bequeath their goodness” as they cannot “points to us to follow in their steps”. In any event, “it's noble deeds that make the nobleman”, actions speak louder than anything else and are the ones that prove that a human being does not only carry a title but inhabits it too. Besides, the following sentence, “A Lord's son who behaves just Like a fiend” put under the spotlight that gentility is not an inheritance as even if they are from the high ranks of society, people can still be mean and act in a non-benevolent way. According to the narrator, “we can only claim Material things” from our ancestries. Thus, she states that if gentility was inherited, then, gentlemen “would be Incapable of villainy or crime”. Which refers to the past deeds of the knight: he raped a lady. By doing so, he proves that he is no gentlemen because if he naturally was, he would have never abused anybody. Moreover, “I'm truly noble then, if I begin To live in virtue and to cast off sin.” which means that the knight should repent in order to be a nobleman.

The narrator, then, mention Dante, who is described as one of the most famous authors who gave a testimony “spoken with great eloquence” upon the medieval civilisation. By referring to a man of great knowledge, the narrator emphasises her claims as we can see in Dante’s quote in l.20-21: “It's rarely man climbs to excellence by His own thin branches.” It helps to express the fact that someone of good intellect shares her opinion on nobility, and so, that her sayings have value.

Moreover, the lady alludes to fire and its use to put away the darkness. She asserts, through the use of an accumulation, that the fire is always true to what he is for himself “As fire is – for fire is always fire”. There is no way in which he might change its nature as the knight might think, to himself, that he is a nobleman whatever happens. On second thought, the warmth of the fire might be linked with the niceness of what can be seen as a true nobleman.

Through the second part of the extract, the narrator implies that we can find richness in poverty. She first refers to Christianity and Jesus and that he “willingly chose a life of poverty.” It is seen as a wise choice of life as Jesus “Would never choose a vicious way of life”. By referring to their beliefs in God, the narrator tries to justify the goodness that can be found and seen in people who lack of money. Into the bargain, she made up an oxymoron, “Cheerful poverty is an honest thing”, as cheerful and poverty would not naturally come together. She tries to state that it is possible to find more in less, that poverty and having less are not a synonym for being less. Poverty can imply, to her, to be “contented with his lot”.

Thus, she expresses that there is richness in poverty, “Poor as it is, I count him to be rich”. It is the path towards simplicity and being satisfied with what we have without trying to reach what we do not have. Accordingly, the desire of having things gets in the way of happiness as the narrator says, in line 81, “Whoever coverts anything is poor”. She sees profoundness that cannot be found anywhere else than in what is already there. The author uses another oxymoron, when he states that “Poverty's a hated boon”, and it illustrates what poverty means to the narrator: there is good in being poor but it is not something seen at first sight. Thus, it is described as “an efficient expeller of anxieties; also a great improver of wisdom”, as it keeps closer to the true self and simplicity. Poverty is perceived, by the lady, as a position that permits to see profoundly in people. Indeed, the following metaphor demonstrates this point of view: “Poverty's like an eyeglass […] through which you can see who your real friends are”. By sharing her point of view on poverty, she tries to make the knight respect her and see her as someone that has things to offer in her own way, and that she needs to be respected towards that.

Thus, the knight also “reproach that I am old” as well as “complaining I am poor”. But, with the explanations the lady gave about her situation, she sets forth “that people should respect An old man”, and that she expects to “find texts that say so”. As she did towards poverty, she wants to prove that there are some good points in being old and also that, even if she is a woman, she expects and requires to be respected as an old man would.

To conclude, the link between who we might think someone is and what its values are is questioned in that excerpt. One might feel to be part of the nobility or to be a gentleman, without knowing what it really means in accordance to the values that should be linked to it. Thus, it can be tricky as one might think that he is part of it without really being into it because it is not something inherited. Telling ourselves that we are part of it because our ancestries gave that to us might not be enough anymore. Indeed, we have seen that the truth resides in a deeper experience and actions that are associated with these notions. To go further, it remains to be seen how the lady's rhetorical arguments will appeal to the knight. 

16 August 2021
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