The “Women Question” in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” Essay

28 April 2009

The “Women Question” in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”

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            This essay seeks to clarify the “women question” as exposed by Geoffrey Chaucer in “Canterbury Tales.”

            The “women question” functions as a matter of argument in “Canterbury Tales” because of the role of women in the society with which Chaucer through the characters has been fascinated with - The “Women Question” in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” Essay introduction. In fact, out of twenty-three tales, fifteen of these involve a woman who is either portrayed as “good” or “bad” depending on the purpose and belief of the pilgrim about the nature of women. These examples of “good” or “bad” women have been used as a support to the arguments of the pilgrims. Aside from the Wife of Bath, three pilgrims namely, the Clerk, the Merchant and the Franklin speak about different women with diverse personalities.  The issue about women is illustrated in these pilgrims’ tales as having to do with the “natural differences” of men and women to the extent of portraying women as aggressive, dominant, unfaithful and wicked when there are worse tales of men’s evil deeds.

The Wife of Bath who already had five husbands and is now a widow is an example herself of a woman who dominates her husband with nagging and false accusations of infidelity. She tells a tale of a knight of King Arthur who raped a “maiden” and was given the chance to be free on the condition that he answers the Queen’s question, “What thing is that women most desiren[?]” Consequently, he answered the question through the help of an old and ugly woman, and he was freed from punishment. Though unhappy, he marries the old woman as a reward for helping him. Seeing this, the wife asks him to choose whether he wants a young and beautiful wife but is dominating or an old and ugly wife but submissive. He chose to have a young and beautiful wife yet dominating so; the old, ugly woman transformed herself into one. The Wife of Bath concludes that it is good when a woman has mastery over the man in marriage. This tale leads to other tales about women, marriage, sex and adultery of the other pilgrims and it is impossible not to discuss this tale in relation to the other tales in the Marriage Group. Furthermore, it is not possible to address the “women question” without mentioning the prologue and tale of the Wife of Bath, for it is this that introduced to the pilgrims and the readers the question of women dominating their husbands or men controlling their wives.

The Clerk narrates the tale of Griselda who is ever-patient, long-suffering, and very submissive. Despite the tests her husband gives her, she willingly accepts her husband’s will that her two children be murdered and she will be divorced from him. Eventually, she is reunited with her children and her husband after her husband realizes her worthiness as a wife. To counter-attack this idea of an ideal woman, the Merchant describes a woman named May who is a “bad” woman because she has sex with the squire Damian deceiving her blind husband. But she was discovered when Pluto gave back January’s sight. Finally, the Franklin narrates a story that advocates a balance between the husband and the wife in marriage. His story is about Dorigen who resolves to be faithful to her husband but is tested by another lover. She almost fell into the trap when she made an agreement with Aurelius. Fortunately, she was saved from that sin of committing adultery against her husband.

            In these tales, the “women question” can be found to encompass the fundamental issues of marriage, sex and adultery which involve the relationships of women with men. When women are faithful and patient as they should be as wives, marriage can be successful and blissful. But of course, this should also be coupled with the husband’s fidelity to the wife. When the husband and wife understand each other’s needs, they can satisfy each other’s sexual and other needs. Furthermore, when they are both faithful and satisfied, temptations of adultery cannot destroy their marriage. Therefore, it is not only the role of the woman that is crucial but it also involves the man’s role in marriage and relationships.

Work Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canterbury Tales” A Reader-Friendly Edition. Ed. Michael Murphy. 25 April 2009.

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