The Wife of Bath has been described and depicted as an independent proto-feminist who long ago led the charge for sexual equality. Chaucers visionary protagonist was a refreshing and modern look at womens rights in the fifteenth century. She spends much of her prologue breaking down stereotypical barriers that have confined women of her time to passive and subservient roles in her society. As a result, her prologue, if standing alone, can be noted as one of the great calls for female independence in historical literature.
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But upon viewing her works as a whole, her section of the General Prologue, her prologue and her tale, it is well noted that she strikingly contradicts her own call for equality with her story of the knight and the hag. She builds her case so strongly and defiantly in her prologue, yet subsequently demolishes her argument in her following tale. By allowing the hag to compromise her position, rewarding the knight for his chauvinist deeds and countering her own stance with several questionable details, the Wife of Bath contradicts her position for sexual equality and retards the momentum she had built in her preceding works.
After the hag has put the knight in a position where she could take advantage and follow the Wife of Baths principles, she not only passes up on the chance to treach the knight a lesson, but actually entreats his disturbing persona. To procure their first encounter the hag (and this can be rightly assumed by her mysterious and later magical nature) attracts the knight the only way he could be lured. She supernaturally displays twenty-four dancing women to which, he drew ful yerne. 99)
This quick advancement upon the women by the knight can be derived as the hag controlling him by taking advantage of his carnal desires, already displayed by his Neanderthalic raping of the maiden in the woods. This form of bait and switch still grasps to the Wife of Baths ideals and leads the reader to expect more of the same. He listens intently to her advice and with their pact the hag has him trapped, setting up the perfect opportunity to further display her foundation for female independence and ability to control their counterpart.
Instead, though, of forcing him to learn to love her for who she is, her inner beauty so to speak, she rewards him in the end by changing into a beautiful woman after supposedly gaining sovereignty over him. Not only is the reader left with the surface impression that the hag may have no inner beauty to rely on, but digging deeper may decide that a womans only worthwhile qualities are her physical attributes.
The argument has been made that the hag gained sovereignty over the knight be leaving the decision of her beauty entirely up to him, but the knight was already made aware that such power was exactly what women want and feigns giving the hag power, instead satisfying his superficial interests. It could even be determined that she wanted to be beautiful all along and only needed a partial reason to do so. She leaves the audience with the closing moral that all relationships should be condemned unless a woman has sovereignty over her husband.
Housbondes meeke, yonge, and fressh abedde,/ And grace t’overbide hem that we wedde;/ And eek I praye Jesu shorte hir lives / That wol nat be governed by hir wives; (1259-62). This closing message reads as if the hag had conquered the knight into eternal submission and that no woman should settle for less, but like building a hut on the seashore, without a foundation her whole argument is washed away. When the time comes to repay the hags kindness and fulfill their promise, the knights unwilling and callous attitude is eventually rewarded.
In the most shocking display of his ignorance and heartlessness, the knight calmly rejects the hag with stinging words after her first request for marriage. She goes out on a limb by humbly requesting, that thou me take unto thy wife, (1061) following this request is her justification that she did, indeed, preserve his life on a point of contingency. He then strikes back in a most unchivalrous and demeaning response. This knyght answerde, allas! and weylawey! / I woot right wel that swich was my biheste. / For goddes love, as chees a newe requeste!
Taak al my good, and lat my body go, (1064-7). To supposedly be living by a code of honor, the knights sharp words are an attempt to break out of his bond. I only emphasize them to express the sheer lack of respect and appreciativeness he has for his savior. After she humbly replies that all she wants is his love above all the wealth in the world, he starkly fires back in shock, My love . . . Nay my dampnacioun! (1073). He continues to spout off lines of rejection; digging himself into a deeper hole with the woman he has already sworn indirectly to marry.
The story continues with a description of the sadness around the day of the marriage, all the while opposing the Wifes former views that a womens value lies less in her appearance and more in her performance in bed, that beauty is hardly an important factor in determining a womans value. Yet, the knight strongly rejects her merely on her lack of beauty. Whether the hag is simply desperate or confused is undetermined, but she gives in to the knights lack of supposedly ingrained chivalry by letting him off with a light lecture on true nobility.
Her quaint address is surmised by the simple statement, I shal fufille youre worldly appetit, (1224) as if to say, Look, I cant win here, heres a win-win proposition for us both. Subsequently, she gives him his options where his answer can easily be summed in the single line, I putte me in youre wise governaunce, (1237). As soon as he heard his options he perked up to hear that it was his choice. The hag leaves it entirely up to him knowing that he will pick up on the earlier message that women simply wanted sovereignty.
In that one line he displays a clear understanding of the concept and is, thus, unjustly rewarded for his dastardly efforts. The Wife of Bath rewards him with a beautiful wife who he then swiftly accepts as fast as he turned on her when she was to be his unsightly wife. Although major aspects of the tale may be disputed back and forth, either way the finer details and minor aspects also contradict the Wife of Baths previous position. For instance, the story about Midass wife who cannot keep a secret.
The Wife introduces her vignette by stating, And nat biwreye thyng that men us telle / But that tale is nat worth a rake-stele. / Pardee, we wommen konne no thyng hele; / Witnesse on Mida, — wol ye heere the tale? (954-6). The Wife is unabashedly asserting that women cannot even keep a secret, something that men thought women could be trusted with. She then divulges into her story about Midass wife being so incapable of keeping her husbands deformity between them that she has to bellow the secret into a mire.
Earlier than this is the materialistic list that women give to the night of what they want most. Somme seyde wommen loven best richesse, / Somme seyde honour, somme seyde jolynesse, / Somme riche array, somme seyden lust abedde, (931-3) yet another example that women care for little more than shallow pleasures. Although this may coincide a bit with the Wifes monetary ambitions described in her prologue, she does not discuss the methods of procuring such objectives and makes more of the point that a woman should depend on a man to provide their wants rather then attaining them themselves.
The Wife of Baths previous message was so strong and unique at a time when such an idea was unpopular and largely opposed. Yet, Chaucer decides to squelch this new standard by telling the tale of the knight and the hag through the Wife of Bath as narrator. The idea has been proposed that this story is simply told to presents new ideals of sovereignty as the great equalizer in relationships and that poverty can bring one closer to God.
This may be the case, but why didnt Chaucer tell it through someone elses voice to avoid such immanent contradictions that the story provokes? Was Chaucer not confident in creating such a self-empowered female protagonist? It may have been too much of a responsibility for such a widely read author or too early a time for such forward thinking. Whatever the explanation may be, the Wife of Bath clearly contradicts herself on many occasions within her tale and consequently hinders an otherwise monumental legacy.