The Wife of Bath Part 2

Her marriage to Janekin is blighted in her opinion by his tendency to quote endlessly from his book of wicked women which contains extracts from anti-feminist authorities ranging from classical writers to the Bible. He selects quotations which appeal to him and from these she chooses, if she can, those in which the women seem comparatively harmless. Some of his examples are homely (one is not allowing one’s wife to go on pilgrimages!) which shows he can beat her on her own ground also. Yet she cannot answer the criticisms and, again, merely contradicts them: “I sette noghte an hawe [didn’t give a berry]/Of his proverbes n’of his olde sawe [saying]” adding with amusing honesty: “Ne I wolde nat of him corrected be./ I hate him that my vices telleth me.” (l. 662)

This is not new information. Back she goes to an earlier part of her ramblings to tell us how irritated she was to hear Janekin laughing as he read: her annoyance is compounded by the fact that all his authorities are collected into one volume which becomes the object of all her opposition. Yet she has a fair point: the book does not contain accounts of the good women (apart from saints) in the Bible and clerical anti-feminism was rampant at that time. We note the piling on of negatives to express her frustration: “Ne of noon oother womman never the mo” [never at all] (l. 691) When she asks who painted the lion, she means that if the lion had done the picture in Aesop’s fables, it would have shown a lion defeating a man; if a woman had written the sacred commentaries, they would have shown women in a good light. She resents the fact that men have had the upper hand for so long, a point with which we can agree. As always, she throws away her advantage in argument by using an ad hominem attack and accusing clerics of impotence: when they cannot do the works of Venus, they sit down and write invective against women, in particular that women do not keep their marriage vows, a justifiable criticism in her case.

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By now a pattern of attack and defence, topic and digression is established to comic effect as it becomes predictable and her attack on clerics probably stimulates the Clerk to tell his tale of Patient Griselda. The Churchmen had grave charges against women because of the transgression of Eve who, in their opinion, brought death and evil into the world to be redeemed only by the death of Christ. Little mention was made of the original sin of the male, Adam. Janekin’s book has examples of Biblical and Classical stories in which men suffered at the hands of women, often because of their lust. These references do not always send out the message he intends, as when Xantippe throws the contents of the chamber pot on to the head of Socrates and the philosopher merely exclaims: “Er that thonder stinte [stops], comth a reyn” (l.732) The mental picture we have is ridiculous. There is a violence in some of the stories as well as in her reaction: she mentions women who murder their husbands in bed by driving nails into their brains before she tears pages out of Jenekin’s beloved book, thus ruining a valuable possession. Her plea for sympathy : “The wo that in myn herte was, and pine” (l.788) does not move us in the middle of this diatribe, not does her trick of lying motionless after his blow. We know it is a trick because she could not have known he was “agast” had she truly fainted.

After this he grants her “maistrie” over his house, land, tongue and hand and has to burn his book. She claims that they lived without quarrels from that time on and that she was kind towards him and completely faithful. This is difficult to believe in itself as well as seeming an empty victory: her deafness, resulting from his blow, now seems an emblem of the battle for supremacy which she has won with stratagems and deceit. At last she promises to tell her true Tale but the Friar (perhaps the reason why the Wife strikes back at Friars at the start of her Tale) and Summoner intervene in an argument. Chaucer would, perhaps, have developed the interreactions of the pilgrims had he completed the Canterbury Tales but here the function is to draw out attention to the probable reactions of the pilgrims to the Wife’s comic and disagreeable sides which echo our own in many ways.

The Wife of Bath’s Tale

There has been a great deal of discussion as to how far Chaucer intended to fit the tale to the teller and sometimes he does seem to give one of the pilgrims an unlikely story. We might expect the Wife to relate a fabliau [low-life tale] or certainly something more feisty than a fairy-tale. Yet the theme of what women want is common to the Preamble and the Tale itself and other pilgrims choose a genre which they think will do credit to their image. If one thinks of the Wife’s Tale as a short story rather than fairy tale it becomes easier to understand. There are analogues [variations] of the basic narrative with which to compare her account and we must remember that there was, at that time, no shame in “borrowing” someone else’s material and embellishing it. In fact, it was considered a sign of learning or authority.
Before she embarks on the story, the Wife takes a swipe at Friars who, she claims, rid England of fairies whilst taking sexual advantage of young women themselves. Her rhythms are comically abrupt and swift as she points out that the Friar will merely cause the girl dishonour, not father a child on her. (l.880) Quite quickly, she starts the story, showing that the initial digression is comparatively well controlled. The rape is unexplained and is peculiar to her version: it merely serves to trigger the main thread but is also an example of forced sovereignty. Another instance of “maistrie”, which pleases the Wife, is that Arthur’s court was ruled by wise women who, instead of declaring a death sentence, give the Knight a traditional year and a day to find the answer to the question of what women most desire. The irony is that all her listeners know the answer from the Preamble.

The Knight cannot find a satisfactory answer as the women he asks give a variety of responses (including being married and widowed frequently) and we note a change of grammar from “somme” to “we” when the Wife agrees decidedly with the replies: “Whan that we been yflatered and ypleased.” (l.930) There is animal imagery at l. 941 which connects women with the natural world and shows they have no desire for self-improvement. She repudiates the claim that females may want discretion: that is “nat worth a rake-stele,” before digressing once more with the story of Midas, in which the wife betrays her husband’s secrets; we observe that she is impelled by her own material as she has betrayed most of her husbands. The description of Midas’ wife being unable to hold the secret of his ears and whispering it over the water like a bittern booming is realistic and heart-felt. Nevertheless, she does regain supremacy over her own material and returns to the plight of her hero.

He is to return and has no answer to save his life, when he encounters a fairy group, led by an ugly hag, commonly referred to as the Loathly Lady. The pilgrims would be aware, even if the Wife is not, that she resembles this figure, particularly when she induces him to a union: the similarity between the Wife and Janekin is unmissable. Because the Loathly Lady has the upper hand, the Wife appoves of her. She demands a solemn promise from the young man, his trouthe, which is an unbreakable oath, that he will do whatever she asks if she gives him the answer. He agrees and she whispers her reply.

The council of women includes many widows “for that they been wise” (l.1027) – the Wife never loses a chance to congratulate herself – and when the knight reveals his answer they accept it as true: women desire “sovereinetee” and “maistrie”. In the analogues the Knight gives several answers but the Wife clearly accepts just the one. The Knight has forgotten the Loathly Lady who quickly stakes her claim, thus assuring her supremacy over him. His rape is repaid by a forced marriage, an irony of situation, but he has not learned his lesson and grumbles about his situation: he has yet to accept reality. The Wife rarely compresses her narrative but she does employ the device of occupatio [refusal to describe something] when she will not give an account of the wedding. But when the Loathly Lady is in bed with the Knight the similarity between her and the Wife is hilarious, particularly as the Wife is wholly supportive of her. The Knight complains in ungentlemanly fashion that she is loathsome, old and lowly of birth (l. 1100-2) but the hag picks on the last of these and provides a digression on the quality of “gentillesse” or nobility of character, delivered in a serious tone which shows that the wife herself is wholly behind the argument that nobility is a matter of action not birth.

What is undermining in this argument is that the hag compares herself to Christ while quoting numerous authorities, textual and homely, and that we and the pilgrims have a clear mental image of her holding forth as the Knight waits in fear and repulsion the moment when he has to perform his marital duties. Although her argument gains our sympathy she wastes her authorities (l.1150-1180) by rushing through them and by the vagueness of her references. She encourages the poor Knight to be content and quotes wholly irrelevant examples of happiness in poverty. We notice at l. 1208-1210 that the words used are similar to those of the Wife at the very start of her Preamble: “thogh noon auctoritee/Were in no book”.

The choice usually given to the victim in the analogues is that between a wife fair by day or by night (a little thought will show you the disadvantages of each) but here the hag tells him he must choose between a fair but unfaithful wife and an ugly but faithful one. All her listeners realise that it is possible to have an ugly and unfaithful Wife! After all this, the Knight merely succumbs as Janekin eventually gave in: she has gained “maistrie” by wearing him down, not by force of argument but she gains total supremacy: the irony is that neither the Loathly Lady norof pilgrims and readers the Wife realises this although the audience does. They now live in bliss but the Wife cannot resist a last diatribe against old miserly husbands and in praise of those who are “meeke, yonge, and fresshe abedde” which is what she always wanted. There are several levels to the narration which create irony: Chaucer’s who creates and views the Wife with a sceptical eye; the Wife’s who assumes she is carrying her listeners with her; and the audience(s), pilgrims and listeners/readers, who have diverse reactions. The Preamble and Tale are both lengthy instances of the rhetorical device of amplificatio!