answering one question how does the wife challenge sexual and social hierarchies in her “Prologue” and “Tale”?
In Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” the character of the Wife of Bath stands out as a formidable and complex figure who challenges prevailing sexual and social hierarchies of her time. Her character is introduced through her Prologue, where she candidly discusses her experiences in marriage and relationships, and later in her Tale, where she offers a narrative that critiques conventional notions of authority and gender roles. The Wife of Bath’s outspoken and unapologetic nature, her sexual agency, and her defiance of societal norms are all ways in which she subverts the established hierarchies. This essay will delve into the ways in which the Wife of Bath challenges sexual and social hierarchies in both her Prologue and Tale, exploring the multifaceted nature of her character and her role as a feminist icon in medieval literature.
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue begins with a bold declaration of her views on marriage and sexuality, setting the tone for her character’s challenges to sexual and social hierarchies. She boasts about her extensive experience as a wife, having had five husbands, and is unapologetic about her sexual agency. This immediately challenges the traditional perception of women as passive and submissive within marriage. She states, “Experience, though none authority, * * * if that men sooth sayen, shall not ye.”
Here, she asserts that her own life experiences are just as valid as any authority, rejecting the notion that women should be silenced and obedient in the face of male authority. She asserts herself as an expert in matters of marriage and sex, defying the gender hierarchy that places men as the ultimate authorities in these domains.
Furthermore, the Wife of Bath’s sexual confidence and agency challenge the societal norms of her time. She openly discusses her sexual desires and needs, which was unconventional in a society that often demanded female chastity and modesty. She proclaims, “I trowe I hadde ywedded be / * * * For hadde myn instrument been shaped like thine, / It sholde han been to me no plesance.” Her willingness to engage in such explicit discussions of her desires subverts the expectation that women should be passive in sexual matters and challenges the idea that female pleasure is inconsequential.
The Wife of Bath also employs humor and irony in her Prologue to challenge social hierarchies. She playfully admits to using her wit and cunning to manipulate her husbands, saying, “For, certes, I am al Venerien / In feelynge, and myn herte is Marcien.” By framing herself as a Venus-like figure and her heart as Martian, she not only asserts her own sexual prowess but also mocks the traditional association of masculinity with martial qualities and femininity with love and sensuality. This playful inversion of gender roles disrupts the established hierarchy that places men in positions of dominance and women in roles of submission.