Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”: Feminist and non-feminist elements examined Essay
“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer is a story that takes place in an Arthurian setting, and was part of a larger group of stories written in the medieval times by the author that is widely known as The Canterbury Tales. This tale has a great many aspects to it that could be referred to as feminist in nature because of the strength of presence of the female characters and the way in which the tale unfolds; however, the tale is also very much a product of the time period in which it was written, a time when many women had no legal or social power, inside or outside of their own home. At closer examination it becomes clear that “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” has many elements of the feminist, but just as many elements that make it problematic from a feminist perspective and in fact only perpetuates the idea that women need a man in order to be supported and protected.
“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is a simple story in many ways. It begins with a “lusty bachelor”, a knight, who rapes a young maiden, taking her virginity against her will (Chaucer). Afterward, King Arthur hears about the incident and according to the law of the time, the knight was to be put to death; however, Queen Guinevere and her ladies begged the King to allow it that the women could choose the knight’s punishment. The king granted this request, and the women chose to send the knight out for 12 months to seek an answer to the question, “What thing it is that women most desire?” (Chaucer). The knight then sets out to find an answer within the 12 months, or else he would be killed, and he spends the months asking women of all stations, classes, and marital status, and getting different answers from each. In the end, he get the answer from an old widow, who will only help him if he promises to give her whatever she wishes after his life is saved. When he gives the right answer and his life is saved, the old woman then demands that he marry her, which he must because of his giving his word to her that he would do whatever she wished, but “in order to win a beautiful wife, the knight must allow the crone to decide her own fate” (Betcher).
This tale has many feminist aspects to it that are surprising given the provenance of the writing itself, and this element is the respect given to women and their opinion throughout the tale. The first interesting feminist element of the story is that instead of following the law of the land and killing the knight because of his dishonor of the young maiden, King Arthur allows his wife, the queen, and her ladies decide the knight’s fate. It is shocking that the King would given women this type of power over a man, but the fact that the crime was against a woman makes it seem as if it is only fitting that women would be the ones to choose the punishment for his taking the innocence of a maiden. The other feminist aspect that is intensely felt throughout the story is the fact that the knight goes searching for an answer to the Queen’s question throughout the kingdom, and speaks to women of many different classes and stations of life. This helps to prove two feminist elements that are in the story, the first being that a man must search for an answer amongst women, which gives them a sense of importance and respect, and secondly, the fact that he gives equal merit to the words of wisdom from all different kinds of women during a time when there was clear divisions between classes. In each of these cases the men bow to the women’s wisdom and give them a great deal of respect, something that is definitely feminist in nature.
The relationship between the knight and the old widow shows a particular element of feminism in that it shows a women’s strength and shows the type of power that she has in the tale. When the old woman gives the knight the right answer and helps to save his life, she earns the right to ask for anything that she desires. Surprisingly, she is given what she wants, which is marriage to the knight, but only because to be a knight required a certain code of honor and ethics, and by his agreeing to do whatever she wanted he had to keep his word in order to keep his title and status. The old woman’s tale “gives women legal and magical power”, mostly because she is able to demand what is rightfully hers (the knight) and because she is able to demand from the knight that she decide her own fate (Betcher). The fact that the story shows a woman who is allowed to decide fate for herself is feminist in nature because it shows her as her own person, someone that is legally and socially responsible for her own decisions, something that in these times would have been rare to find because of the social status of women.
There are some elements of this tale that make it problematic from a feminist perspective, however, because of the general social and cultural norms of the time. Perhaps the most blatant of these is the idea of class, because it is obvious at the beginning that the only reason the Queen and her ladies were given the power over life or death for this knight was because of the queen’s status. As the wife of the king, Guinevere was perhaps the most powerful woman in all of Great Britain and had a status that was far different from that of normal, everyday women in her world. It is not so shocking that a queen could gain this sort of power, after begging her husband. The truth is that the queen didn’t even have the power to begin with; she had to get it by begging her husband, the king, for the power to do so. She was at the will of her husband, as were all women during the time, because she did not have a legal right to anything. Guinevere has to depend on her husband for everything, and must get his permission before she can proceed with the knight’s punishment. In essence, her character is totally dependent upon her husband and her having to beg for what she wants negates any feminist actions.
Another element of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” that, from a feminist perspective, becomes hard to equate with feminism is the way that the knight treats the old woman who demands that he marry her. His treatment of her shows a complete disrespect for her as a woman. Instead of looking beyond her appearance into her heart, he is obsessed with her looks and this gives the audience the idea that a woman’s worth comes not from her mind and her spirit, but from her appearance. The knight would rather die than be married to her, and in the story he says, “You are so loathsome, and so old also, and therewith of so low a race were born, It’s little wonder that I toss and turn” (Chaucer). The knight, despite the twelve months he spent on a quest to understand women and their feelings, has still not understood that women have feelings and, despite their looks, are important as human beings. The old woman becomes not a feminist character anymore, but simply a woman desiring a husband to love and care for her, which is what is required of women during that period. Instead of showing a strong female character that can care for herself and is not afraid of giving her own opinions, she turns into a woman who is desperate for the love of a good-looking knight and who is desperate to have a man care for her and support her. The answer to the queen’s question that she gives to him is, in itself, opposite from a feminist ideal, because it basically puts complete emphasis on having a husband and to have a man above them. The tale shows how women were expected to be one thing and one thing only, a wife, and without that status they had nothing to give them value.
The story “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is an interesting look at the way that writers, and a culture, viewed women during the years in which Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his stories. Chaucer’s tale has both elements of the feminist and the non-feminist, with the female characters ranging from opinionated and powerful to weak and needy. The idea that women are equal in status and that they can have the power to make decisions becomes important in this story, but it falls short of giving women that power. When the queen sends the knight out to seek out what it is that women want most of all she does not specify that it must have something to do with marriage and love, but that is what all the women agree upon. If this was truly a feminist tale the women would be asking for something much deeper and stronger than that, they would be asking for the right to be equal to men, regardless of class or marital status. Chaucer’s tale, however, is able to show some of the worst aspects of man through the character of the knight, but what is concerning is that despite all of his bad character the knight is not considered to be too far different from the rest of the men of the kingdom. This tale is not feminist in nature because it does not given the true power to women alone, only power that women can gain through a man.
Betcher, G. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Iowa State University. 3 Feb. 2007 <http://www.public.iastate.edu/~gbetcher/373/Wife.htm>.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” The Canterbury Tales. Librarius. 2 Feb. 2007 <http://www.librarius.com/canttran/wftltrfs.htm>.