The Wife of Bath’s Tale often puzzles me because it is unique and contradictory to other tales of courtly love. Unlike a story depicting a knight’s devotion to his lady
and this idea of chivalry in regards to love, the Wife’s tale disturbs readers
with its unconventional circumstances. First, the Wife describes the days of Arthurian
England in which fairies and elves were prevalent, but priests and friars
squashed this mythical life by blessing everything. The Wife also compares
friars to being like an “incubus” because they sexually pose a threat to
maidens. Most tales of courtly love do not begin with a description of the death of magic brought on by sexually deviant holy men. After reading this opening for
the first time back in high school, I was thoroughly intrigued by what this
tale would actually be about because it’s apparent from the Wife’s opening
lines that this will be an unusual story.
As if the accusatory tone towards friars wasn’t enough, the Wife goes on to further shock her readers by describing one of Arthur’s knights raping a young maiden he finds alone. This completely shatters the idea of the gallant, chivalrous knight from most stories of courtly love. This rape reveals the dominance of men and their use of power to control and manipulate the other sex, something that is usually not present in
most tales of knighthood. What additionally disturbs me personally is that the
women of the court beg for the power to have control over the knight’s fate and
spare him from immediate death. This knight desecrated one of their own but
instead of having him killed the women give him a chance to redeem himself by
putting him on a quest. Although this quest to search for what women want may
be seen as futile, I still think it is strange that the women would give the
knight any chance of life after his crime, especially in a culture where
killing was common punishment.
The last aspect of this story that truly confuses me is that the knight never really
gets punished for his crime. Although one may argue that the knight must endure
a year long journey to search for something that he couldn’t seem to find would
cause enough distraught and frustration to be punishment enough, I still feel
that the knight doesn’t deserve a happy life with his new young bride at the
end of the tale. His wife rewards him for giving her sovereignty by acting as a
perfectly faithful wife and by transforming herself into a beautiful young
maiden. The knight, in my eyes, gets off the hook by finding the answer to the
women of the court’s question and then he just traipses away to live happily
ever after with his bride. What I want to know is what ever happened to the
girl he raped; did she feel justice was served? It seems to me that the Wife
of Bath is truly forgiving because just as she forgives her husband Jenkin for
hitting her, she seems to forgive the knight for raping the maiden. I doubt the
maiden would be as forgiving as the Wife, but apparently her opinions are not
addressed in this tale.
The life of Chaucer is very intriguing to me, although it seems that we know nothing concrete about who he really was. Did he rape a woman and was he unhappy with his marriage? We don’t know and maybe that’s why the history behind this man is the topic of so many conversations. Today, people are planning to build a statue of Chaucer to commemorate his contributions to English literature. Ironically, we don’t even know the man that we are celebrating. All we have are a few scraps of history. Christmas lists with his name scribbled on them and a few documents, and none of this is of any real importance. What we do have is his literature.
If we abide by formalist rules we can’t relate Chaucer to his work at all. Formalism supports the idea that a piece of literature is completely separate from the author therefore, Chaucer and the literature he wrote are two completely different entities with each surviving on their own. I don’t exactly agree with formalism in this sense because it seems almost definite that an author’s own life will have some sort of affect on his writing. We don’t know if Chaucer raped a woman but the fact that their is a rape in the Wife of
Bath’s tale certainly makes us suspicious. It is small details like these that encourage me to disagree with formalism.
Looking back on Chaucer’s biography, I realized that readers of Chaucer today have a
very different idea of the iconic author versus the man he truly was. Beidler
notes that we see Chaucer as an influential leader in English literature who
has impacted readers for centuries. Chaucer’s writings are read in classrooms across the nation and he is a fixed member of the Canon, so it is only natural for readers to idealize this great writer. But who would have guessed that the same man who was once referred to as “the father of English literature” also beat up a friar and
possibly abducted and/or raped a woman. It is interesting to see the
differences between the iconic visions readers have of famous authors, furiously
scribbling their world-changing works of genius by candlelight, and the actual
man bludgeoning a friar and being charged with rape.
Although we don’t have many accounts of Chaucer’s life, for most of what we know comes from legal documents, we have learned as much as we can to put a face to the
author of The Canterbury Tales. Readers have pored over miscellaneous documents to find little snippets of information on Chaucer. This obsession reveals that readers want a close relationship with the author of these influential works that define our English
classes today. By knowing more of Chaucer’s life, we get to see the mind that
created the famous characters of The Canterbury Tales. I think it’s really interesting that readers are even fascinated in knowing about Chaucer’s physical appearance. It is almost as if we will use all the information we have to learn as much as we can about an author, even if it’s only about his height or weight. I doubt readers during
Chaucer’s time really cared about his appearance like we do today, but this
information gets us just a little bit closer to learning about the man himself.
Much of Chaucer’s life is a mystery to readers today so every bit of
information helps us feel connected to Chaucer and see how he was like during
his lifetime. Likewise, learning about significant events during his life, such
as the Black Death and the reign of King Richard, help readers see how major
events influenced his writing. By using all the information we have on Chaucer, readers can begin to unveil the mystery behind the man who wrote iconic tales that have stood the test of time. We can recognize the inspiration and motivations behind his work and see into his personal life to reveal Chaucer as an individual, not just a godly writer.