Feminist Ideologies In The Wife Of Bath

The women in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales all have characteristics of being more independent and outspoken then most women who were depicted during the medieval ages. The main example of this is the Wife of Bath due to her strong and unique beliefs in the matriarchy and early feminist ideologies. Chaucer's choice in creating this character, seems to depict his motive in showing a realistic depiction of women in a patriarchal world. He used Alison, the Wife of Bath, not only as an entertaining and comical character, but as a tool to show that women could be more than just an object in the eyes of the patriarchy.

Chaucer wrote The Canterbury tales in the late 1300’s right after the Black Plague had reached havoc across Europe. This time period was perfect for Chaucer to introduce new ideas on classism, sexuality, and female empowerment because the Black Plague proved to everyone whether it be higher or lower class, that no one was safe from death. Chaucer's gender also played a huge role in the publishing of the tales, because during that time women were not encouraged to write and even if they did, no one would listen. Chaucer also used this privilege to bring female problems and characters to light instead of using it to his advantage. He not only does this for women in the Wife of Bath’s story, but also for the lower class in the miller’s tale. Chaucer chose to make a book of tales that everyone could relate to and that ideology of inclusivity is amazing to see during such an an old and traditional time period.

In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer introduces many unique, loud, and problematic characters, however one character stands out even in our modern times. The Wife of Bath, Alison, is a character that Chaucer created by piecing all the characters of a “wicked wife” and used them to make a basis for empowerment and personal strength for women. Alison uses these stereotypes as a way to mould the readers into taking the narrator into account for the rest of the tale. In addition to being loud and extravagant, she also wears a bright red to represent her passion. “Bold was her face, handsome, and red in hue,” making it obvious that she exudes sexuality and flirtatiousness. It is basic knowledge that during Chaucer’s time the only way for women to make a large amount of money is by marrying rich, add the wife of bath “had five husbands all at the church door”. Alison uses this widowed money to present herself as nobility that rivals that of a nobleman.

The Wife of bath is one of the most interesting, engaging, and intriguing character in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. She backs this up with how she rules over the conversation in her prologue thus gaining the attention of the audience and the reader. This is an interesting way for her to hold power, over both genders and the readers. This is a way for Chaucer to prove that women can hold the attention of a large scale audience and do it equal to or better than a man. That ideology alone was shocking to people in the medieval times. The way Chaucer introduced these ideas is by disguising them in comedy and creativity. The duality between Alison’s sexual power over men and her power over the audience for being outspoken about her sexuality adds to the many layers of Chaucer's tales.

Women were only seen as a little more than objects in the medieval period, so the fact that Alison was so open about her beliefs of sexuality added a lot more shock value to the story. She would even use her sexuality to control her husbands -“In Wifehood I will use my instrument, As freely as my Maker me it sent”. The basic belief that men are more likely to reason better than a women are the main claim that men have to be able to control women. Alison breaks this stereotype by not only agreeing that she doesnt reason well, thus being more intune with her emotions and sexuality, but letting these “weaknesses” become strengths. Although she seems to be completely emotional and sexual being, the Wife of Bath is also highly intelligent. She speaks her ideas but she backs them up with Biblical passages to match her views- “I known that Abraham was a holy man and Jacob too - I speak as best I can - Yet each of them, we known, had several wives”. She defends her view on life quoting St. Paul and King Solomon, both famous in the Christian community. Even goes to question parts of the Bible by asking why a woman cannot marry once in her life, if a man is stood silent.

No one has ever questioned the flirtatious quality of the Wife of Bath. The way Chaucer writes her as a believable and realistic person, has been question by hundreds of readers, whether it be past or present, male or female, critic or lover. It's easy to believe that either woman had a hand in writing the story in the place of Chaucer, or Chaucer was heavily influenced by a real women who he based the characters around. The Wife of Bath holds a power amongst the readers just as she holds power amongst her many husbands. Chaucer uses the thoughts, and feelings of the women as a tool in which he shines a spotlight on the long history of Women’s Oppression. The word “Feminism” had not come into creation during Chaucer's time, but his ideologies are purely feminist in the way he uses his privilege, whether in be by class, occupation, fame, or gender, to help those who are oppressed. 

16 August 2021
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