The Canterbury Tales: Wife of Bath
In the Hollywood blockbuster Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone plays a devious,
manipulative, sex-driven woman who gets whatever she wants through her ploys for
control. Stone’s portrayal of this character is unforgettable and makes the
movie. In book or film, the most memorable female characters are those who
break out of the stereotypical “good wife” mold. When an author or actress uses
this technique effectively, the woman often carries the story. In Geoffrey
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, he portrays the Wife of Bath, Alison, as a woman
who bucks the tradition of her times with her brashness and desire for control
to present a woman’s point of view and to evoke some sympathy for her.
In the author’s time, much of the literature was devoted to validating the
frailties of women. However, in this story, the Wife is a woman who has
outlived four of five husbands for “of five housbodes scoleying” (P50) is she.
She holds not her tongue, and says exactly what she thinks, even if she
contradicts others, even Jesus. For in the Bible it states that Jesus “Spak in
repreve of the Samaritan:/Thou hast yhad five housbondes,’ quod he,/And that
ilke man that now hath thee/Is nat thyn housbonde'” (P16). Despite this quote
from the holy writ, the Wife states that ther are no other arguments “Eek wel I
woot he Jesus saide that myn housbonde/Sholde lete fader and moder and take
me,/But of no nombre mencion made he Jesus–/Of bigamye or of octagamye” (P30).
She maintains her position and dismisses the one contention in the Bible by
stating in relation to the above quote “Wat that he mente therby she can nat
sayn,/But that I axe why the fifthe man/Was noon housbonde to the Samaritan?/How
manye mighte she han in mariage?/Yit herde I nevere tellen in myn age/Upon this
nombre diffinicioun” (P20). A true account of her brashness is when she states
that sex organs are for pleasure as well as function. She states that “In
wifhood wol I use myn instrument/As freely as my Makere hath it sent” (P155).
She displays her ruthless side when she makes her cheating husband, the fourth,
think that she is cheating and revels in this victory by saying “in his own
greece I made him frye” (P493). It is obvious that the Wife of Bath is no
submissive woman who thinks what she is told to think. She is opinionated and
blunt, qualities which present her views accordingly.
As she is not docile, the Wife must be something to the contrary, and of course
she is, to a great degree. The Wife strives to gain complete mastery over her
husbands. And gain mastery she does as “she hadde hem hoolly in myn hand/And
sith that they hadde yiven me al hir land/What sholde I take keep hem for to
plese/But it were for my profit and myn ese” (P217). The Wife’s secret is
simple, “For half so boldely can ther no man/Swere and lie as a woman can”
(P234). She does something to every husband to maintain her control. However,
Jankyn, her fifth husband, believes in everything that disparages women, which
is exactly what Alison detests. She lashes out with all she has left: “she
with her fist so took him on the cheeke/That in oure fir he fil bakward adown”
(P799). Her deceptive scheme is to pretend to die from the blow dealt by Jankyn.
“And with his fist he smoot her on the heed/That in the floor I lay as I were
deed./And whan he sawgh how stille that I lay,/He was agast, and wolde have fled
his way,/Til atte laste out of my swough I braide:/ O hastou slain me, false
thief?’ I saide,/ And for my land thus hastou modred me?/Er I be deed yit wol I
kisse thee'”(P801). Obviously, this if very effective for Jankyn is so
distraught that he pleads “Myn own true wif,/Do as thee lust the terme of al thy
lif;/Keep thyn honour, and keep eek myn estat”(P825). And after he gives her
control, “we hadde never debat” (P828). She has won this battle of wits, but it
seems as though Jankyn has none. One way or another, Alison has made her
puppets dance, completely under her dominion. Her tale backs up her philosophy,
as the main point is that “Wommen desire to have sovereinetee/As wel over hir
housbonde and hir love,/And for to been in maistrye him above”(T1044). The Tale
backs up the Prologue and pleads for the emancipation of women. Alison is her
own ideal of what a woman should be. By gaining sovereignty, she has the power.
Chaucer has presented us with a fresh view of women, uncharacteristic of his
time. The Wife of Bath is unique, and her defining qualities allow what the
author thinks of women to reveal itself clearly. She is an immoral woman who
has done whatever she has needed to do to get what she wants, and the author
makes no apologies.