What Aspects Of Marriage Are Portrayed In

The Wife Of Bath?s Prologue Essay, Research Paper

The Canterbury Tales, begun in 1387 by Geoffrey

Chaucer, are written in heroic couplets iambic pentameters, and consist of a

series of twenty-four linked tales told by a group of superbly characterised

pilgrims ranging from Knight to Plowman. The characters meet at an Inn, in

London, before journeying to the shrine of St Thomas a Becket at Canterbury.

The Wife of Bath is one of these characters. She bases her both her tale and

her prologue on marriage and brings humour and intrigue to the tales, as she is

lively and very often crudely spoken. Her role as a dominant female contrasts

greatly with the others in the tales, like the prim and proper Prioress

represents the argument for virginity, whereas the Wife upholds the state of

marriage. Women were very much perceived as second class

citizens in the Fourteenth Century, they were rarely educated and had little

status in society. In contrast, the two female characters in the book are from

areas of society where it was possible for women to have influence probably as

these characters would hold more interest for his readership. The prioress was

undoubtedly the most powerful person in the nunnery and the Wife?s position as

a weaver would gain her respect and power although it is implied that she

achieves this through other means. Through the Wife Chaucer shows how women

achieved authority through marriage, using humour typical of modern

mother-in-law comedy. His tongue in cheek approach shows how the Wife controls

her husbands, by terrorising them so that each were ?ful glad? when she ?spake

to hem faire?. The reason for the Wife?s cruel treatment after marriage was

that she no longer needed ?to winne hir love, or doon hem reverence? proving

her motives for marriage to be purely material and showing Chaucer?s opinion

that some men get misled and tricked into marriage. The wife is also able to

dominate her husbands by other methods, which she often recommends to other

?wys wyfs?. Here Chaucer is obviously appealing to his audience as there are no

other wives on the pilgrimage but also the Wife may be suggesting that is not

only her who acts in this manner therefore condoning it. She firstly accuses

them of indecent behaviour thus covering her own faults and then reverts back

to nagging. Her ability to nag and argue is complemented by her knowledge of

many parables, fables and even astrology and she uses this to get the upper

hand on her husbands but is defeated by Jankin as a scholar at Oxford which

demonstrates the repression of women through lack of education. Wealth and property feature heavily in the wife?s

portrayal of marriage and along with the issue of her independence is

responsible for many of her marital conflicts. The first three husbands ?riche

and olde? were married each for ?hir land and hir tresoor? then discarded as

the Wife looks for other prospects. When one of these husbands tries to

restrict the Wife?s spending she refuses to let him be both ?maister of my body

and of my good? so refuses sexual favours in return for her freedom as she will

not become a mere possession. She generalises that women ?love no man that

taketh or keepth charge? suggesting an element of independence and

individualism in 14th century marriage.? The wife resents being controlled, she drinks ?sweete wyn? and

wears ?clothing with precious array? despite objections from her husbands which

is why the character of the Wife of Bath is sometimes thought to be the first

feminist in recorded literature. She likes to have men in her ?thrall?. One of the main features in the Wife?s prologue is

the theme of sex, appearing frequently in euphemisms such as ?chambre of Venus?

and as a general theme. Her appetite for ?meat? is seemingly insatiable and

creates the impression that she is predatory. Her brash character is also

complemented by her use of coarse language such as ?queynte? and ability to

talk unashamedly about more taboo subjects such as the use of ?sely

instruments? shows an openness in society especially among women. Yet the Wife

does not only talk about sex, she uses it to control men, by refusing them

sexual favours and threatening to sell her ?bele chose? forcing each to

appreciate what they have. Her sexual boastfulness appears as an advertisement

to the pilgrims, which puts her motives for the pilgrimage into questionThe Wife respects virginity with the popular opinion

at the time but uses homely tales to show that not all people were cut out to

be virgins. She also suggests that sexual organs were not only made to ?purge

urine? or comically ?to knowe a femele from a male? but also for procreation

which was necessary due to the decrease in population that resulted from the

plague. Her argument towards sex presumably comes from past challenges towards

her promiscuous nature and despite flaws, which Chaucer adds to bring realism,

she concludes that sex within marriage is acceptable and in wife hood she will

use her ?instrument as frely as the Makere hath it sent?. She tries to

establish married women to be as important as virgins for, she argues, where

would the next generation of virgins come from? Ultimately the wife defends

women, who seem to be faced with unrealistic ideals of perfection, in the forms

of virginity and abstinence dictated by scholars and the church. Age is also an element in the wife of Bath?s marital

affairs. It appears that she cherishes youthful virtues, as she recalls the

joys of her youth and says that age, has ?biraft beautee and pith? although she

may just be looking for compliments. It becomes clear that she needs to be more

in demand than her husband is to have the upper hand. In her marriages to the

younger husbands it becomes apparent that this is harder as she is more in

their thrall, but despite this the worldly wife manages to change roles ?in his

owene grece I made him frie?. Her attraction to younger men seems to spring

from her dislike for ?olde meat? but it is only after she is endowed with the

wealth of her first three marriages that she can afford to marry for sexual

pleasures showing the wife?s priories.? Deceit is embedded within the wife?s relationships

as it is heavily entwined with her methods of domination. The wife believes

?Swere and lyen, as a woman kan?, deceit and trickery are skills all women

should use to keep men under control. She demonstrates this by referring to a

well know story of the time, as is often Chaucer?s style, where a wife

convinces her husband that the chough is mad when it tells of a lover?s visit.

It is debatable whether the wife is actually unfaithful but it is heavily

implied illustrating a complete lack of trust and fidelity. The gossiping

nature of the wife may have something to do with this and also shows that

marriage is not a private, intimate matter as she discloses even embarrassing

incidents like when her husband ?pissed on a wal?. Along with domestic violence

there seems to be little affection apart from when it is used to manipulate and

no love for which the wife only yearns from husband number five because it is

hard to obtain. The principles of the Church are distorted and contradicted as

she even disrespects the pope and there is no mention of family, or children a

matter important in the modern day church. The aspects of marriage portrayed in the Wife of

Bath?s prologue feature heavily around sexual pleasure and wealth. Her

description shows the struggle for power causes conflict, occasional violence and

abuse, all the while she is justifying her lifestyle and fighting for female

equality. Despite no fidelity, love, or trust as deceit and affairs that seem

to be commonplace the Wife of Bath ?s description of married life is very much a

comical one, which she does seem to enjoy especially if she achieves fulfilment.

Altogether Chaucer?s portrait of 14th Century married life is at

best a humorous battleground for independence, wealth and pleasures of the flesh.


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