There has been some discussion so far as to whether or not the Wife of Bath is an admirable female figure to look up to, whether she promotes a feminist way of thinking, or whether the women in her story (herself included) are empowered. Now the first question can be debated depending on what qualities you think are admirable or ‘good,’ but I personally thought that the Wife’s voice was strong and that her stories did bring a sense of empowerment to women. She found a way in which to gain power in a world where women were thought of as their father’s or husband’s possessions. By today’s standards, I realize that most would not regard her ideas about controlling and manipulating men with her sexuality (as she does in her personal life with her first three husbands, and attempted to do with her fourth and fifth) is a far cry from the feminist ideals of equality; however, the tale that the wife tells exemplifies a way in which a woman can gain power without her sexuality or beauty.
She uses her tale to continue this thought process and show that women can have power. Arthur’s queen and her ladies of the court had power over the king and the court when they overturned the decision to have the knight put to death and then had power over the knight by presenting him with his quest. This showed the sovereignty the queen already had over the king. The hag also gained sovereignty over the knight in the end through the authority she had in her speech about nobleness and poverty. The hag didn’t use her sexuality over the knight, but her mind. I believe that this was something the Wife of Bath wished she had herself because then she would have had sovereignty over the only man she truly loved, her fifth husband, since she could not gain power over him through her sexuality.
This week, we finally started to get into the nitty-gritty of the Wife of Bath text. The prologue to her tale is a story that seems to be in the defense of marriage and the social norms of the time Chaucer lived, but if you go just beneath the surface and poke and prod at the things that the Wife says through the lens of feminism you start to get an entirely different picture of what how what she could be saying relates to the modern day. Her relationships with her different husbands and her exploiting of the little physical power she has over them, namely sexual power, and the huge emotional power she has are in some ways akin to the ideas of female empowerment. Though, unlike modern empowerment these methods seem a little dubious to the ears of most men; even in the text the Pardoner interrupts the prologue to voice the decent that I’m sure most men would feel at being manipulated and controlled. The wife lays out a set of inverted gender dynamics here and it is interesting to look at how similar the manipulation and coercion she endured from her fifth husband is very much the same sort of treatment she used to control her previous four husbands. This parallelism really facilitates a view of what the imbalanced battle of the sexes during Chaucer’s time might have been like and gives us at the very least an idea of what doesn’t work.
I’m writing this as I’m watching updates on the Troy Davis execution, so excuse me if I seem angry.
What I find most interesting about the Wife of Bath is how she is seen as a feminist leader by many. Yes, she is a strong woman in a time where women are practically considered less than human, but does that strength alone make her a feminist? It seems sometimes that the Wife of Bath is the horrible archetype of a feminist. She wants women to have power over men instead of equality. Most feminists would agree that we don’t want to have power over men. I would hope that most feminist wouldn’t agree, in all seriousness, with the abuse that the Wife of Bath doles on her first four husbands. She manipulates men using her sexuality. Does that mean that she is independent, or does that mean that she is simply using one of the powers that she has realized against men for her own benefits?
After she takes such pride in her strength, she does not fight against her fifth husband, who abuses her. She says that she loves her husband, and it seems to be true since she blesses his soul and she stays with him despite the fact that he is penniless and station-less and a generally a abusive jerk. He is just a clerk, and one that doesn’t seem to appreciate or respect women too much, even though he’s being provided for by the Wife of Bath.
That one goddamn book that he keeps reading is just about the most offensive book a husband can read to his wife. How long does it take before the Wife of Bath actually does something against her husband? She’s illiterate, but is able to recite tales from the Books of Wicked Wives. That makes me think that she’s heard these stories many many times before, enough to memorize them. Even the way that she responds is so destructive and abusive. This shouldn’t be what we consider a feminist; this is what we should consider a woman scorned against society, or, as we find out, a woman taught by her mother to manipulate. I really question her motives as to why she fights and tries to abuse her husbands. She seems really hedonistic in general. Is it just because she doesn’t allow a man to abuse and mistreat her that we say that she’s a feminist? How do her actions and motivations support that notion? In my opinion, they don’t seem to. I wouldn’t say she’s an anti-feminist, but this isn’t a case of “either-or”.