THE WIFE OF BATH REVISITED
By Dr. Willis E. McNelly
It is with considerable humility and not a little diffidence that I approach once more the enigma and the magnificence of the Wife of Bath. Can anything really new be said about her? Perhaps, and perhaps not, yet she must certainly be reinterpreted by each succeeding generation of Chaucer's readers according to the lights and tenets of that generation. Consequently we should not hesitate to make this kind of re-analysis today; everyone else has done it before us; it's our turn now. For example, in preparing this paper, I checked the writings of over twenty-five different critics about the Wife of Bath. These included such noted medievalists as William Mathews, James Cook, George Lyman Kittredge, and Sister Mary Madeleva. There were early tentative feminist approaches, middle moderate feminist approaches, and recent extreme feminist approaches, to say nothing of the screed of an occasional cranky misogynist.
All of them see the Wife of Bath as they choose to see her, which is of course their right. They have made of her (what I am doing now is the standard scholarly technique known as "reviewing the literature and citing the sources") a deeply religious personage (that article was NOT written by Madeleva); a tragic figure; a Marxist; an archetype; a sexual deviant; a misandrist; a nymphomaniac, although basically frigid; a jealous wife seeking revenge; a comic old woman; a senile female staving off her dotage by her anecdotage as she babbles too much about sex. The critics have made of her an allegory and her tale allegorical. They have made of her almost everything except the Virgin Mary, and I'm waiting for that one; it's inevitable, although I have not checked the journals in the last month or so - stay tuned. In fact, I can hardly wait until the deconstructionists get hold of her. I might find that she never existed at all.
We have all read these extensive interpretations; each succeeding issue of "The Chaucer Review" or "PMLA" begets still another. Our tiny literary world is crowded with analyses of the character, dress, habits, and foibles of Dame Alice of Bath. We are virtually drenched with paper, which is not quite to say that the critics are all wet. Damp, perhaps, but not all wet. So I ask once more: Can anything new be said about her? Perhaps. May I offer a hesitant solution (even an immodest proposal) that our fault has been that we have considered her almost exclusively as a woman, and not as a fully mature, individual, distinctive human being. We have concentrated so much on her femininity that we have ignored her humanity, her individual person-ness.
In this connection, it might be appropriate to consider, albeit briefly, some of the major female characters in American or British fiction or drama. What strikes us immediately when we begin to make such a list is how few names we can come up with compared with the multitude of their male counterparts. We all know the reason for the preponderance of so-called great male characters and it need not detain us here. However, that aside, who are the great women of literature? May I suggest a few? Cleopatra; Dame Alice of Bath; Molly Bloom; Moll Flanders; Hester Prynne; Tess; Lady Brett Ashley; Catherine Earnshaw or Jane Eyre, not to mention Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina from the continent. These ladies might be contrasted with an occasional Margarete or Pearl or Portia or Dorothea Brooke or Elizabeth Bennett or Emma, to say nothing about an occasional amazon or crone such as Lady Macbeth or Juliet's nurse.
What I am suggesting here is that it is customary for critics, the majority of them male, to concentrate on those women characters whom Jung might term "hetaira" or others might call shady ladies, or the chief of the LA police force might term hookers. I decry such a limited focus and cry shame to my male colleagues who find the horizontal supine fictional woman more fascinating than the upright one. Moreover, I might suggest that it is our masculine, rational, objective critical society that has produced the writers who have created these large cast of . . horizontal female characters.
Sad to relate, the vast majority of our "great" women characters in Western fiction are those who might loosely be called hetaira. One more point, however: if these women do indeed constitute some kind of projected male ideal, what does that so-called ideal tell us not only about the male mind but about the society that created them? Shame. Shame. I apologize, insofar as I am able, for the foibles of my sex.
But I digress. Or do I? Is not the way we see our world and its peoples, either male or female, colored by our own prejudices or preferences? Lawrence Durrell's great fictional novelist Pursewarden says somewhere, "We live lives based on selected fictions. Our view of reality is conditioned by time and space, not by our personalities as we like to think. Thus every interpretation of reality is based upon a unique position. Two paces east or west and the whole picture is changed."
Exactly. Thus our view of Dame Alice or Molly Bloom and the rest is conditioned by our distorted notions, too often derived from that bastion of adolescent lubricity, Playboy-the belief that genital congress equals love. Hence my modest proposal that our views of Dame Alice as woman have been detrimental to our view of her as person. For this distortion, Dame Alice herself has given us an ample start and she herself must bear some of the blame. She opens her prologue abruptly:
Experience, though noon auctoritiee
Were in this world, is rigt enogh for me
To speke of wo that is in mariage.
Thus she immediately establishes the distinction between the female point of view - experience - and the male - authority. Ironically, yet full of fun, she continues her self-serving treatise on women and marriage by defending de-flowering and multi-marriages, sequential, that is. How modern. Even in her bold attack on the conventions of the time she will not quite defend simultaneous sacramental marriage, bigamy or octogamy, but of course she is not afraid to mention "other company" in her youth. By "glozen up and doun" that same auctoritee's words that condemn her, Alice proves that she is not a simpering, skirted, bubble-head riding side-saddle. Indeed, she can twist a text as well as any country parson or Clerk of Oxenford.
But to what end? Why does she, at one and the same time, make such revealing comments about herself, her sex, and her sexuality, and attack males, male institutions, and male sexuality? It is merely to establish "sovereignity" in marriage? I think not. If I have learned only one thing from Chaucer in the decades that I have been reading him, it is that Chaucer almost never does a thing simply; he dissembles constantly. Each time he says that he is saying one thing, he is saying something else. His work is full of double, triple, or even quadruple meanings; it is replete with suggestions, hints, and allusions, to say nothing of outright directness. In fact Chaucer's single most important statement might be "Blameth nat me," as he merrily proceeds to jolt you, amuse you, shock you, entertain you, and most importantly, mislead you.
As far as the Wife of Bath is concerned, then, I suspect that there is far more here than meets the eye, that her verbal persiflage is mere dissembling. In fact, under the guise of seeking sovereignty in marriage, she is really seeking something else. But if my thesis has any validity, what is her true goal? Briefly, it is my hesitant, if not immodest proposal, that she advances her "heresy" of soverignity in marriage to prove that women are not merely equal, that in fact they are people, genuine human beings. To confute her "heresy" of superiority is virtually to admit her true thesis of equality of women and thus of their "person-ness."
It might be appropriate here to ask a simple question: could Dame Alice read? A contemporary of Chaucer, say John of Gaunt, might answer that question by asking another: Of what possible use would it be for a woman to read? Of course she couldn't read. After all, in a time when not five males in a hundred - if that many - could read, and not one woman in a thousand, it might appear that the chances of Dame Alice being able to read were somewhere between very slim and none. Yet are they any slimmer than her chances of making three extraordinary pilgrimages to Jerusalem? I think not. In fact, Chaucer tells us that she had indeed made those journeys, and no critics cavil about this remarkable achievement.
In short, I suggest, strongly, that she cajoled, wheedled, or seduced her fifth husband until he taught her to read-and for that matter nowhere does Chaucer even intimate that she could not read, and he has her city chaptee and verse of scripture and other "auctorites" often enough to suggest strongly that she could indeed read. Certainly she must be able to read or she must possess a truly extraordinary memory, at least of scripture, if she can out-quote her male compatriots, as she quite obviously does. So we have, then the distinct probability that this much-traveled, much-married woman was in point of fact, a well-educated one, that her education in a male-dominated society, her considerable travels, her experience, her success in business, and her native wit and acumen had convinced her, as it convinces me, that she was far superior intellectually, socially, ethically, psychologically, and even morally to the louts and dolts who patronized and condescended to her. Inevitably, then, in order to achieve some recognition from the misogynistic society of the time, she had to put the males on the defensive in order to gain the territory she craved, the territory common to all humanity, that of being a person.
In addition, I suspect that the critics themselves have been at fault. They have, as I observed earlier, seen her from one limited point of view, perhaps having been misled by Dame Alice herself. After all, she seems to talk so much about female sexuality in an age when only trollops took pride in their loins that the critics have concentrated on her "bele chose," ignoring her other manifest qualities as they set off on their loin country safari." Critics, men and women alike, seem to find what they want to find. Dame Alice would certainly agree with feminist critic Marlene Dixon that "...the institution of marriage is the chief vehicle for the perpetuation of the oppression of women; it is through the role of wife that the subjugation of women is maintained." Have Ms. Dixon or other so-called radical feminists been reading Chaucer recently? Many of them sound like they are quoting what Dame Alice said in 1386. No matter. Yet modern claims of restrictions on women pale when compared with the incredible restrictions of the Middle Ages. In those benighted times, there were simply no roles for women whatever except for wife, nun, or Lady, not to mention the occasional trollop. Despite these restrictions, Dame Alice did indeed choose the wife role five times and moreover she avers, "Welcome be the sixth" simply because she was not cut out to be nun, Lady, or harlot. She was an individual, a person, neither type nor archetype.
Moreover, few, if any, of her marriages followed the standard medieval pattern of being arranged marriages. This particular depersonalization was undoubtedly one of the bitterest experiences a fourteenth century woman could face. Yet Dame Alice breaks precedent, again. She has arranged at least the last four of her own. "I was never without some plan for marriage," she states, gracefully including "other arrangements" in her claim. Thus from planning who her future mates might be, it is only a very short step for her to rebel against many other medieval marriage customs, which included widows never remarrying; the "lex prima noctis" which permitted the lord of a manor the right to deflower all maidens on their wedding nights. Medieval customs also included total subservience of the female to the male in every aspect of society and detail of daily life. A wife could not own her own dowry. As in some backward states today, there were no community property laws. In the Fourteenth Century the wife was, in law as well as in effect and practice, the husband's chattel. "Wifeship," if I may coin a word, was hardly the most elevated of conditions in 1386.
So we have Dame Alice breaking several taboos: She argues convincingly for re-marriage after the death of the spouse. She wishes to select her own spouse, and if they are both rich and old, who can blame her considering the miserable conditions women suffered under 500 years ago. And heresy of heresies, she takes considerable pleasure in the act of sex without being a trollop. Moreover, she maintains ownership not only of her own property but of her husband's as well-and all this long before a community property law, a palimony settlement or an equal rights amendment.
How short a step is it then, for her to maintain that women are equal, to say nothing of being superior, with the superiority being evidenced by sovereignty in marriage? She marshals her arguments not only in her long preamble of a tale, as the Friar inelegantly puts it, but in the tale itself. We learn from Bryant and Dempster's "Sources and Analogues" that her tale is of ancient origin. Its archetype has been termed the "transformed hag" or the "loathly lady," as we all know. What many of us do not realize, however, is the rape which begins her tale is of more recent origin, if it was not actually invented by Chaucer himself. (Here the critics again disagree, although current scholarship strongly suggests it was Chaucer's own invention.)
Let us consider, then, the possibility that Chaucer invented the rape if indeed he did not merely intensify an older source to suit his artistic purpose. If that be the case, we must understand one more thing very carefully: the Middle Ages, whatever its other faults, considered rape to be an even more reprehensible act than we do today. Not only was virginity more highly prized at that time, as Dame Alice herself admits, but "raptus carnalis" was direct evidence not only of a violation of the person or assault, but it was also one of the seven deadly sins, "luxuria," in a time when virtually everyone, save for some of Chaucer's clerical Pilgrims, took sin very seriously indeed. Rape branded the perpetrator as a public sinner as well as a criminal. Now I strongly suspect that Chaucer, speaking through the Wife of Bath (and here we must remember that despite all of Chaucer's disavowals and his continually reiterated "Blameth nat me" that Geoffrey Chaucer did in fact write the words ascribed to the Wife of Bath and that they represent to a greater or less extent his own opinion or comment upon some facet of his society or a social condition) that the Wife of bath, then, has this heinous crime committed by a Knight of Arthur's house. His sentence is the proverbial "fate worse than death,"-trying to discover what women most desire. There may be some satire here, but I doubt it. It is an extraordinary punishment. Death is indeed too kind a fate for the knight, both sinner and criminal.
So Chaucer, speaking through Dame Alice, deplores "raptus carnalis" in the most extreme terms. His earlier association with the marvelously named Cecily Champagne who had sued him "de meo raptu" had probably brought home to him the seriousness of the felony of rape, the rascality of some men, as well as the heinousness of the crime. Recall further that Cicily's suit was probably an early version of a palimony claim and that Chaucer was released as innocent. After all, even five centuries later the man must be presumed innocent until proved guilty. It seems, therefore, that Chaucer wished his readers to understand what women have known for centuries and what Dame Alice makes quite clear: that some males can be guilty of the most dastardly of crimes. Indeed, as her prologue and her tale progress, the sins accounted to men multiply: they include avarice, greed, pride, anger, and so on. The very Latin names resound in her story as well as in the Parson's sermon: "luxuria," "superbia," "invidia," "accidia," "avaritia," "ira," "gula," and the Wife of Bath's husbands or the Arthurian knight seem to have violated all of them.
To be sure, the Wife of Bath may somewhat overstate her case, but such hyperbolical exaggeration was undoubtedly necessary to acquaint her hearers or, more accurately, Chaucer's readers, with certain undeniable facts. Yet in one sense her animadversions seem curiously moderate: the knight is given a second chance, by the Queen and the ladies of the court at that. Moreover, when the knight insults the Olde Wyf by refusing to love her, the woman who has saved him, he is given still one more chance. The Olde Wyf presents him with the choice of having her young, beautiful, and faithless or untrue, or, on the other hand, old, loathly or ugly, and faithful and true. Finally, almost at the last minute, he has learned his lesson. He gives her the power to make the decision and thus exercise the sovereignty in marriage. She becomes both beautiful and faithful, and they live happily ever after in the best fairy tale tradition.
Some critics maintain that the knight got far better treatment than he deserved, considering his atrocious track record, but such a reaction probably never occurred to the Wife of Bath. It was not germane to her tale or to her hidden - but primary - purpose of establishing the equality of women. Almost certainly her extravagant metaphor comes to this: Be a person, she says, and I'll be a person. Hyperbole has served its purpose. We must accept her and her tale on metaphorical terms, saying "Women will be people before men are people." women and men are equal, and anticipating Orwell, She might have added under her breath, women are more equal. She remains unreconstructed.
Let me cite only one quality which Alice possesses fully, one which her husbands or her male characters uniformly lack - gentilesse. Difficult to define, gentilesse includes those qualities which we would expect someone of breeding to have, with a flavor of magnanimity, wisdom, prudence, and most importantly, compassion, in the best sense of the word. It is also "caritas," a genuine caring quality that is always concerned wit the other, wishing and doing the other well. In this discussion the Olde Wyf, and surely here she speaks with Dame Alice's as well as Chaucer's voice, refers, a bit indirectly to be sure, to the Aristotelian concept of the virtuous man, or person we would say today. How do we learn of any virtue-gentilesse or whatever? By observing the virtuous person performing virtuous acts. As poet Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, "The just man justices." Alice states it this way:
Looke who that is moost vertuous alway,
Privee and apert, and most entendeth ay
To do the gentil dedis that he kan'
Taak him for the gretest gentil man.
In gentilesse, then, the Wife of Bath outshines virtually everyone on the Pilgrimage, not even excluding the Prioress, the Clerk, the Parson or the Nun's Priest. She behaves with gentilesse to everyone, save for the Friar and his unwanted, unwarranted interruption. She destroys him by suggesting that only Friars act as incubi anymore, and the poltroon doesn't even know what hit him. But he had it coming. Moreover, her gentilesse has a forthrightness and a boldness we do not normally associate with humans of either sex in the inconsiderate Fourtheenth Century. While I am not quite making of her a great Mother in the Jungian sense, she can give us all a lesson in proper behavior. As Carolyn Heilbron has put it, she is a woman with "a bold heart and steady knees."
One final word: It has always been a matter of great regret to me that we see the Wife of Bath in only one story. We have already seen a remarkable progression in her character from the possible narrator of the Shipman's Tale to her complex character and sophistication revealed in both her Prologue and Tale. What would the Second Wife of Bath's Tale have been? Or the Third? Or the Fourth? Welcome be the sixth!
Would Chaucer have perfected his magnificent creation and permitted her, for example, to speak of the woe or sufferings women faced in political, economic or even the religious life of the time as well as the woe in marriage? Probably. For that matter, cannot we all regret that Shakespeare, who knew Chaucer well enough to use "Troilus and Creseyde" as a source for "Troilus and Cressida," did not see fit to use Dame Alice as a proper foil for Sir John Falstaff. What a meeting that would have been! After all, they were contemporaries.
Because she is a more complete person, a more well-rounded human being, I'd bet on Dame Alice to outmatch Sir John every day. And overcome him at night too, for that matter.