THE WIFE FROM BESIDE BATH
Chaucer, the father of English poetry, knew how to tell more than a "locker room" story (Fabliaux in Medieval parlance). Perhaps no other writer in the English tradition next to Shakespeare so humorously and poignantly explored what it means to be human. His portrait of the Wife offers a splendid example of how appearance is not the reality. As with all great writers, Chaucer was ahead of his time. His portrait of the Military group, for example, predicts the decline of the Feudal order long before it occurred, and his study of the Wife anticipates the "prism of gender" so expertly studied by Martha Nussbaum in Cultivating Humanity. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.) As the first great feminist character in literature, the Wife offers an insightful portrait of what it meant to be a women in a man's universe.
THE GENERAL PROLOGUE:
We remember that Chaucer's knowledge of the "problem of universals," the nominalist - realist" controversy influenced how he created character. The poet / realist has a broader perspective than the pilgrim-persona / nominalist, and we must view each pilgrim from the vantage of both.
What do we know of the Wife from the pilgrim's perspective...
1--She is from BESIDE Bath; not "of Bath" as is sometimes said. Click here to discover the City of Bath. Note any nominalist and / or realist elements. Why do you suppose she is from Beside the city, and not of it?
2--She is referred to as WORTHY twice. To whom else does Chaucer refer in the GP as worthy? Why?
3--In Chaucer and the Medieval Sciences , (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1960, Chapter V), Professor Walter Clyde Curry discusses medieval Physiognomy; perhaps the antecedent of modern psychology; this 'science' purported to discern psychological-moral personality traits from physical appearance. What do we know of the Wife?
We also know she is self-employed as a seamstress, has had five husbands, has been on many pilgrimages in the past, and is well-versed in matters of love. Further, she seems to be a bit of a gossip with a good sense of humor.
What does Chaucer want us to know? Any first impressions? Is / was she pretty? Why did she go on this pilgrimage? The pilgrim seems to be impressed with her. Are you?
|As with the Pardoner the appearance may hide the reality...
1-The wife seems to be concerned with authority and experience, which she apparently regards as means to an end..
2-What is that end? Correlate her Prologue with its many references to time to the tale, noting especially its ending.
3-What does she really want? Note the irony.
THE WIFE'S PROLOGUE:
Chaucer allows the Wife to tell her story, and what a story it is. Initially, we know she draws a distinction between AUTHORITY and EXPERIENCE. Discover what she means by each. Can you relate them the realist - nominalist controversy?
Several motifs appear with regularity. Note her use of the following...
A study of these motifs suggests that the Wife's character is much more sophisticated than appearance suggests. She appears...
But what is the reality?
A special note on astrology and the Wife based on Curry's book, Chapter V. Three astrological signs influence her character:
LOVES TO TRAVEL
HAPPY AND CHARMING
TENDER AND GENTLE
EVIL AND VICE-PRONE
WILL CUCKOLD HER HUSBAND
GREEDY AND CRUDE
USES VILE LANGUAGE
LARGE FIGURE AND FACE
LOVES TO GOSSIP
LIGHTLY GIVEN TO SIN
LOVES TO BE LOVED
GENTLE AND WANTS TO GIVE AND RECEIVE AFFECTION
Now, what do we know of the Wife's character from what she says about herself? Keep in mind the poet - pilgrim distinction and the use of dramatic irony.
THE WIFE'S TALE:
That the tale reflects the teller is axiomatic in Chaucer, but with the wife, much much more is revealed than appears even to her.
1--Why does she tell a story about a woman's violation?
2--We seem to be told that what women most want is control? Is that true?
3--What do women really want?
4--Study carefully the end of the tale. The Wife has an impressively sophisticated imagination. What does she imagine as her tale concludes? What one of the motifs mentioned above is most in evidence?
By integrating the above, what do you conclude regarding the Wife's character? Check Nussbaum's chapter on feminist issues. Is the Wife a victim of the "prism of gender"? Why is she an important feminist? What does she believe?