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The Role of Women in The Canterbery Tales
Chaucer, in his female pilgrimage thought of women as having an evil-like quality that they always tempt and take from men. They were depicted as untrustworthy, selfish and vain and often like caricatures not like real people at all. Through the faults of both men and women, Chaucer showed what is right and wrong and how one should live. Under the surface, however, lies a jaded look of women in the form that in his writings he seems to crate them as caricatures and show how they cause the downfall of men by sometimes appealing to their desires and other times their fears. Chaucer obviously had very opinionated views of the manners and behaviours of women and expressed it strongly in The Canterbury Tales. In his collection of tales, he portrayed two extremes in his prospect of women. The Wife of Bath represented the extravagant and lusty woman where as the Prioress represented the admirable and devoted followers of church. Chaucer delineated the two characters contrastingly in their appearances, general manners, education and most evidently in their behaviour towards men. Yet, in the midst of disparities, both tales left its readers with an unsolved enigma.
The Wife of Bath represents the "liberal" extreme in regards to female stereotypes of the Middle Ages. Unlike most women being anonymous during the Middle Ages, she has a mind of her own and voices herself. Furthermore, she thinks extremely highly of herself and enjoys showing off her Sunday clothes whenever the opportunity arises. She intimidates men and women alike due to the power she possesses. Because of her obnoxious attitude Chaucer makes her toothless, fat and large. Doubtlessly, she is very ugly, almost to the point of "not-presentable. This to me shows how Chaucer depicts what men don't want. The Prioress, on the other hand, serves as a foil to the Wife of Bath. Chaucer describes her as "tender-hearted" who cannot bear the sight of pain or physical suffering. She will cry at the thought of a dog dying. It could represent that she has a frail soul with low tolerance for pain and suffering. The latter description carries over into the modern stereotypes about women as skittish and afraid members of society who need to be cared for.
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The Wife of Bath is radical especially when it comes to relationship with men. She is characterized as knowing much about love, which is illustrated by her physical defect-being gap-toothed symbolizing "sexual accomplishment." The Wife of Bath cannot resist telling her companions about all of her sexual experiences. She also had five husbands and countless affairs, thus breaking innocent men's hearts. Her husbands fell into two categories. The first categories of husbands were rich but also old and unable to fulfil her "sexual" demands. The other husbands were sexually vigorous, but harder to control. None of her five marriages were successful because the Wife of Bath was constantly seeking to have power and control over them, Chaucer I think characterises the Wife of Bath in this way to show men's fears. For instance, her fifth but not the last (it was said that she is on her way of marrying the sixth before she told her tale) marriage was unhappy because her husband who is half of her age beats her. To anger him, she tore three pages from his book. After this he beats her again. She pretended to be dead and he felt so guilty that he threw his whole book in the fire. This gave her the upper hand for the rest of her life. This contrast between the Wife of Bath and the Prioress describes fully the difference between what men do and do not want in a woman. First, the violent and deceitful act of tearing books then the deceitful act of lying to her husband will never be done by the Prioress as the Prioress is well mannered, educated, "powerful" and above all, is loving. Second, is the issue of marriage and "sexual demand" which will never have its roots in the Prioress's life as she has taken the vow of chastity. This being the case appeals to both fear and desire, as all men would desire the Prioress, but fear they could not have her. The Prioress is pure in heart and thinks of men and women alike. It's interesting how the Wife of Bath was always striving to have sovereignty and the Prioress was granted sovereignty even though she didn't seek for it intentionally.
The Wife of Bath and the Prioress alike have power over men once again this characterisation would scare men. It is rare that women are given such high stature during the medieval period. The Prioress as her name suggests is "a superior being in a monastic community for women" is so important that three priests were in her company; as this shows her status as the boss, this dominance would be very fearful for men of the time. The hag, whom the Wife of Bath identifies with, initially was granted sovereignty and power over man. This is proven when the hag offers her husband the choice: he can have her old and ugly and faithful or young, beautiful, and possible unchaste. He tells her to choose; he grants her the sovereignty.
As mentioned above, the Wife of Bath desires what most women want and that is power over men, her being described as being ugly and wanting power to probably exploit that power as she did with husband number five definitely shows a representation of what men don't want. Early in the tale, there is a quotation said by the Wife of Bath supporting this idea. "I don't deny that I will have my husbands both my debtor and my slave, and as long as I am his wife he shall suffer in the flesh. I will have command over his body during all his life, not he." In other words, she is saying that she will have total control over herself, her husband, and their household and very specifically, not just the husband. However, there are also situations where she seems to submit to her husband. "Nevertheless, since I know your pleasure I will satisfy your physical pleasure." This was said by the Wife of Bath and supports the non-feministic view. It is considered non-feministic because the woman is giving in to the man's desire, which goes against feministic beliefs. The Wife of Bath has a choice of not giving in to the man, but she decides to let the man have pleasure for his desire not hers, because from her past experience she knew how much men enjoy it when women are submissive. This quotation obviously goes against feministic beliefs, leaving an unanswered contradiction about the Wife of Bath. However, Chaucer does show through this characterisation that the Wife of Bath is desirable in one way to men because she is willing to be submissive to their desires. This raises an unseen question of desire for her as I think most men of the time would desire a woman who would grant this. The character of the Prioress in the same light, certainly keeps one guessing. Is her tale the product of the simple mind, or of one poisoned by anti-Semitism? The Prioress is, well mannered, educated, powerful, and loving. Ironically, her prologue and tale contain strong elements of anti-Semitism. This is shown through her use of the Jew as the villain of her tale. However, there is no historical evidence of ritual murder of Christian children by Jews, but that would not have mattered to the pilgrims. Anti-Semitism, directed at a people thought to have both rejected and murdered Christ, was distressingly deep-seated. This bigotry unfortunately was rampant at the time, and both the sentiments and their being expressed in the context of a religious story would not have seemed strange to Chaucer's pilgrimage. Nevertheless, on a less depressing note, her tale can tell us something of the medieval attitude towards simple piety and miracles, which also was quite prevalent. I don't think it is about the Jews because; they were expelled from England in 1290. Yet, whether this tale is the product of the simple mind or anti-Semitism still remains an enigma. This story also reinforces her devotion to the church and this characterisation can be seen as a fear to some men as they are unable to obtain her. It is here we see the only time when the Wife of Bath and the Prioress relate to each other. In this we can see that Chaucer is telling us that the Prioress is not as perfect as she might of first seemed, and in this way we can see that both women have both got parts that men desire and men fear.
The Wife of Bath seems to be feministic yet there are also some situations in which she does as the men wish. The Prioress on the other hand keeps you wondering and seems to be a perfect lady however she is unobtainable and probably to well educated and out of reach for most men. Chaucer portrays the tale of Wife of Bath as hypocritical but between the lines there is some helpful advice for many women in the world today. In this way Chaucer is trying to educate women through her tale, and say that there are times one should be a feminist and times one should not. This characterisation of her strong head would have scared the men of the time. In his contrast with the two he shows in both women what men fear. In the Wife of Bath it's that men don't want to be controlled and in the Prioress it's the fact that she is unobtainable and maybe too clever for everyday man. These representations however when put together, create a women that seems to be perfect for what most men want and desire.