The Canterbury Tales Gender Essay, Research Paper
Most of the Canterbury tales emphasize men and women and the roles that they play. Specifically in marriage, Geoffrey Chaucer has etched out a tradition of literary brilliance. He has taken it upon himself to reverse roles and give women favor over the men. In this way, Chaucer is considered as a pioneer. In several of his tales women are aggressive, self-willed, and powerful. Some of Chaucer s male characters are against tradition too.
Men in the Chaucer s tales are passive, na ve, and weak. Not all the men in the tales are as I just described, but enough of them are in order to make a literary impact. Two excellent examples of Chaucer s reversed roles appear in two excellent tales, The Wife Of Bath s Tale and The Miller s Tale. In these tales we see men who must solve riddles, men who sleep in tubs above houses, and men who get what they deserve. Many authors are influenced by this new way of displaying male and female roles.
We can see the impact of Chaucer s work in other texts where female characters are liberated and influential. In the novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, we see another example of a woman who is aggressive and self-willed. We even see a man who is reliant and passive. Before we take a look at Bronte s female character, we need to revert back to Chaucer.
In The Wife Of Bath s Tale the first female character introduced in very controversial. The wife of bath is a woman who has been married five times. She expresses this openly without any shame. It is almost like she is proud of it. My Lords, since when I was but twelve years old,/ Five husbands have I had at the church door; (Chaucer 258). A woman of that time was usually looked down upon if she were a widow. Men assisted widows in time of need, but they would never consider marrying them. The fact alone that she has had five husbands liberates her from women of her time. Then she goes on to say that she will take on a sixth husband when he comes along. Blessed be God that I have wedded five!/ Welcome the sixth, whenever he appears (259). The wife of bath is a woman who knows what she wants. She does not need a man to dictate her feelings for her. So, in her story we see similar women and men who depend upon them.
Shortly into the tale we read about a rape. One day as he came riding from the river He saw a maiden walking all forlorn Ahead of him, alone as she was born. And of that maiden, spite of all she said,By very force he took her maidenhead. (282) Although the incident occurs when a man violates a woman, the act also puts the man at the mercy of women for the rest of the tale. It is also important to see that the knight is weak for what he has done. Men in this tale display weakness by allowing their flesh to control them. When the knight raped the maiden, he did just that.
After the knight was condemned to death by the king for his crime, the queen takes pity on him and decides to spare his life. But that queen, and other ladies too,/ Implored the king to exercise his grace (282). Not only does the queen want to spare his life but other women do too. This implies that the knight will always be at the mercy of women. Then, as if to emphasize the knight s dependency, the queen tells him that he must solve her riddle in order to live. The queen asks, What is the thing that women most desire? If the knight is unable to answer the riddle in twelvemonth and a day, then he will loose his head. It is meaningful that the riddle centers on the will of women. In solving this riddle, the knight spends a year of his life in a passive state searching for the desires of women. On the same note, the women are dominant as they fill his ears with things they want the most. The knight becomes even more dependant upon women, as he gets more desperate to solve the riddle.
On the last day of his quest to answer the question, the knight comes across an old woman in the margin of the woods. She tells him that she will exchange the solution to the riddle for his hand in marriage. Give me your hand, she said, and swear to do/ Whatever I shall next require of you/ And you shall know the answer before night (285). Desperate for his life, the knight agrees. The old woman is described as a crone or a witch. This indicates the ugliness of the woman, who is a far cry from the lovely maiden that the knight raped at the beginning of the story. The knight is in an inferior state at this point in the tale. He and the crone go back to the queen and give the answer to the question, but even after his life is spared he is still at the mercy of women.
The knight gets what he deserves by having to marry the old woman. Already he has been demeaned by having to seek out the desires of women, and now he must beckon to the will of a crone. I say there was no joy or feast at all, Nothing but heaviness of heart and sorrow. He married her in private on the morrow And all day long stayed hidden like an owl, It was such torture that his wife looked foul. (287) The tale also goes on to describe how much the knight hated being in bed with her. Now, because of his act of rape, he has gone from acting on the will of a queen to acting on the will of an ugly witch. Up until the end of this tale we see how women govern the knight s life.
At the end after the knight continues to complain about her ugliness, the crone decides to please him. She makes herself beautiful and the two live happily ever after. So, it is only by the act of this ugly woman that the knight is able to regain happiness. The roles of men and women in this tale are clearly reversed. In another one of Chaucer s tales we find reversed roles of men and women.
In The Miller s Tale there is representation of aggressive women and lovesick na ve men. In this tale the premise centers on a woman who has men going in circles for her. At the beginning of the tale we learn about a young wife who is only eighteen years old. Alison is described as wild because of her age. Her husband John is an older man who tries his best to keep her caged. She was a girl of eighteen years of age./ Jealous he was and kept her in the cage (89). Already we know that John is helplessly in love with his wife. We also learn of a man named Nicholas who moves onto John s property. He is a young student who is sly and eager.
This lad was known as Nicholas the Gallant,
And making love in secret was his talent,
For he was very close and sly, and took
Advantage of his meek and girlish look. (89)
John is willing to trick John in order to be with Alison. He desires her that much. He lay awake all night, and all day,/ Sent her sweet wine and mead and spicy ale (94). John wants to win Alison s heart. He even sings to her at her window. John loves Alison, but it is her and her husband John who display actions that are out of character for a their gender.
To start, Alison appears to be a fair and young woman but she is really sneaky and fickle. When Nicholas makes a pass at her she acts as if she is offended. No, I won t kiss you! Stop it! Let me go/ Or I shall scream! I ll let the neighbors know! (91). Then, a few lines later the storyteller lets us know that she agrees to tricking her husband. And so they both agreed to it, and swore/ to watch their chance, as I have said before (91). Alison is an aggressive woman who knows what she wants. She then would sleep with Nicholas all night,/ For such was his desire and hers as well (94). Alison knows that she wants to be with John as much as he wants to be with her. In the tale it is okay for a woman to be sexually confident and aggressive in what she wants. So, in the same way that Chaucer has liberated women through their roles in his tales, he also allows men to act outside of their roles too.
In particular, John is na ve and easy to fool. Even though he is an old man he seems to be the dumbest out of the three characters. When John and Alison decide to trick him, he falls for it hook, line, and sinker. He already suspects that his wife and Nicholas are in love, yet when Nicholas comes to him and tells him about the flood he believes him. John even degrades himself by asking, Alas, my wife!/ My little Alison! Is she to drown? (97). John asks about the same woman who is tricking him in order to obtain pleasure behind his back. When John asks Nicholas what he should do, Nicholas tells him to place a tub on the roof of his house and sit in it. After receiving his instructions, Nicholas is described by the storyteller as, This silly carpenter then went his way/ Muttering to himself, Alas the day! (99). John looks even dumber when he falls asleep in the tub, allowing Nicholas and Alison to climb from their tubs so that they can make love.
Another example of John s na ve nature is shown when Alison tricks him into kissing her arse. Put up his mouth and kissed her naked arse/ Most savorously before he knew of this (103). Not only are Alison and Nicholas making an ass of John by sleeping together behind his back, they are literally turning him into one by making him kiss theirs. From this tale we see how one woman drives the men, and how one man is helplessly naively in love with her. Even more we see how a woman is fickle, sneaky, and aggressive. She is not an obedient housewife. These reversed roles are what influenced authors to come. As a product of these tales woman were given more self-reliance in literature.
In the novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte we see another liberated female character. Jane is an orphaned girl who is left in the care of her Aunt. Throughout her entire life Jane felt a sort of self-dependence and a desire to explore the world. She is independent and she stands up to men.
By allowing his male and female characters to act outside of their normal roles, Chaucer has liberated women through literature. He almost seems to favor women and the influence that they have over men.
December 8, 2000
Work Cited Page
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Signet Classics,
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Trans.
Nevill Coghill. New York: Penguin Books, 1951.