How would one be able to identify the use of oppressed women and distinctive rank of social classes throughout The Canterbury Tales? In specific tales, there are several prime examples of Anti-feminism and the differences of the social classes between the characters. During this time, men were known for their choices and women were known for how they looked. The rank of characters in the tales provide interesting interactions that represent how money and power in society was at the time. With this evidence, one is able to exert information from the tales and form it into an Antifeminist criticism as well as a Marxist criticism. Throughout the tales, the different social classes between characters interact interestingly with each other because of this distinction. Not only is this shown, but women are described to be inferior to men, as well as oppressed by society with their lack of power.
Anti-feminism is shown greatly in some of The Canterbury Tales. The tale that has the most antifeminist elements throughout the story is in “The Knights Tale.” Women may be considered “The Amazons” in this tale, but they are still infective, passive, and take on no role. Chaucer depicts the women as people who are only dependent on others. In another sense, he is saying that they are incapable of living their life without a man by their side. “We do not grudge your glory in our grief, but rather beg for your mercy and relief. Have pity on our sorrowful distress!” (Chaucer 28). A woman here is exclaiming her emotional distress from the loss of her husband, almost acting like she will not be able to live because she cannot be independent on her own. Throughout this scene, Chaucer even depicts the women as a shadow behind their husbands, meaning they are all inferior to him with no power or control. Additionally, to this example of degrading women in “The Knights Tale”, Anti-feminism is also shown in “The Millers Tale.”
Another tale that displays Anti-feminism is “The Millers Tale.” There are four main characters, John, Absalon, Nicholas, and Alison. Alison is described only on how she looks, with no focus on the person she is and her personality. Chaucer is directly stripping her from her social identity, making her seem though if she is of little or no value. “And her complexion had a brighter tint than a new florin from the Royal Mint. Her mouth was sweet as mead or honey- say a hoard of apples lying in a hay. Skittish she was, and jolly as a colt” (Chaucer 90). Furthermore, Chaucer also depicts women as “easy” and cheaters because they are not intelligent during this time. For example, at the start of the tale, Alison refuses to sleep with Nicholas. As time goes on, she finally gives in. Here is when Chaucer is trying to show women as people who lack intelligence and will do whatever the men want, also extracting the power of women away. At the end of the tale, all three men are given very harsh punishments, while Alison has none, even though she is the cause of all of this chaos. Chaucer once again is stripping her of her value, and making it known that what she does will not matter since she is a woman and her actions have no meaning. On top of the anti-feminist examples throughout The Canterbury Tales, there are also several areas that show the different social classes, the interactions they have, and how money played a role in society.
“The Pardoners Tale” has the most elements of a Marxist Criticism through majority of the characters. At the start of the tale, society is shown to value drinking, gambling, and swearing, however they will do anything to get money. Those who gamble are middle class, and those who drink are poor because of the way they use their money. There is a defined class conflict throughout the tale within the three men that go on a quest to find death. Much of Chaucer’s work displays feudalism, which is shown through the men. The youngest man is of the lower class, while the two others sit in the upper class. Once the youngest man goes down to get food, the other men plot to kill him. At this point of the tale, Chaucer is depicting the upper class as one that oppresses the lower class to benefit themselves. Luckily, the lower-class man was able to poison them both. In these couple scenes, there is a negative interaction between the classes because of who is wealthier. They are not focused on each other, they are focused only on who is of greater class and who will take all the gold with them that they find behind the oak tree. These interactions and social class differences are shown in “The Wife of Bath” as well.
The differences of classes in The Canterbury Tales are not only present in “The Pardoners Tale”, but “The Wife of Bath” too. The amount of land a man would own signified the amount of money he had. When the father died, the land would be left to the eldest son which required reproducing from the husband and wife. When searching for the “ideal wife”, women were supposed to be virgins and faithful. Alisoun was a woman that was not a virgin but was unfaithful to her fourth husband. However, she looked like she was a pure virgin, which was all that mattered to the men because it meant more money. Later in this tale, the reader can learn that fertile did not really mean giving birth to children, but rather capitalism. Because of Alisoun’s previous marriages, she was able to gain status, wealth, and power. The death of her previous husbands allowed her to acquire their land, providing her wealth and power. Alisoun was not marrying men for the babies, but for her own personal gain and wealth. She ended up using this strategy to her advantage to become an upper class woman in society, while her husbands passed away and she gained all authority. Both “The Pardoners Tale” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” were able to provide a distinction between classes and how money was a major role during the time.
There are many examples of Anti-feminism, differences in social class, and different interactions caused by feudalism between characters in The Canterbury Tales. In “The Knights Tale” and “The Millers Tale”, elements of Anti-feminism are present through women in society and female characters. In “The Pardoners Tale” and “The Wife of Baths Tale”, interactions between characters of different social classes are shown. Additionally, the role of money, wealth, and power is present to show the way society was during the time. All of these tales provide evidence to an Anti-feminism and Marxist critique view in areas of The Canterbury Tales.
- Chaucer, Geoffrey, and Peter Ackroyd. The Canterbury Tales. Createspace, 2015.
- Purdue Writing Lab. “Marxist Criticism // Purdue Writing Lab.” Purdue Writing Lab, owl.purdue.edu/owl/subject_specific_writing/writing_in_literature/literary_theory_and_schools_of_criticism/marxist_criticism.html.