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Western Literature 102: Silent Stories Unveiled


The Western Literature series serves as a vital resource for English Language and Literature students aiming to deepen their understanding of Western literature’s diverse and dynamic aspects. With a comprehensive exploration of literary works, this series offers a profound insight into the evolution and complexities of Western literary traditions. Beginning with Series 101, delving into the ancient literature from its origin in the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Aeneid of Virgil, which marks a critical juncture in the transition from earlier works to the concept of modernisation. By analysing the genre’s transformation, Western Literature 102 provides readers with a rich appreciation for Medieval literature. Through six captivating chapters, readers embark on an enlightening journey through the world of heroes, poets, and rebels, unravelling the intricacies of this mesmerising era and its profound impact on Western literature.

The 102 series is divided into six articles:

Western Literature 102: Silent Stories Unveiled

This article endeavours to comprehensively examine the role of women in medieval literature, specifically focusing on the portrayal of female characters in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Wife of Bath. This meticulous analysis of Chaucer's work explores the complexities surrounding the character of the Wife of Bath and her significant role in challenging traditional gender roles within medieval society. By scrutinising her portrayal, the study aims to shed light on the multifaceted nature of women in Chaucer's narrative, examining their agency, autonomy, and resistance to societal expectations. By delving into the character of the Wife of Bath and her defiance of conventional norms, this article seeks to illuminate how Chaucer's work disrupts and subverts prevailing gender conventions of the time, thus contributing to a more nuanced understanding of the role of women in medieval literature.

Figure 1: Opening page of The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale (1410)
Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343 - c. 1400)

Geoffrey Chaucer, known as the "Father of English Literature", was a notable poet, philosopher, and bureaucrat during the fourteenth century. Chaucer's life and literary works offer invaluable insights into the medieval period, its literature, and the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Born in London, England, circa 1343, into a family of middle-class merchants, Chaucer benefitted from his father's success as a wine merchant, which provided him with opportunities for education and upward social mobility. While the specifics of his early life and education remain enigmatic, it is widely believed that Chaucer received a formal education, likely encompassing Latin, French, and Italian. In 1357, he entered the service of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster and served King Edward III as a diplomat and customs officer. Chaucer's governmental career exposed him to diverse cultures and languages, profoundly influencing his worldview and literary style. His diplomatic missions took him to France, Italy, and other parts of Europe, where he encountered the works of renowned poets such as Dante and Petrarch, significantly shaping his writing (Bestul & Pearsall, 1994; Biography of Geoffrey Chaucer. (n.d.)).

His magnum opus, The Canterbury Tales, comprising a collection of stories composed in Middle English, vividly depicted the social and cultural milieu of the era. Written between 1380 and 1400, this frame narrative comprises a collection of stories narrated by a diverse group of pilgrims journeying to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury. The tales offer a vivid portrayal of English society, presenting a wide array of characters from different social classes and professions. Chaucer's writing reflects the socio-political context of his era, characterised by the waning of feudalism, the rise of the middle class, and the influence of the Church. He delivers a critical yet compassionate depiction of human nature and societal conventions through a skilful blend of humour, satire, and moral commentary. Chaucer's use of vernacular English, particularly the London dialect, played a crucial role in shaping the English language and broadening its accessibility to a broader audience. His influence extended well beyond his lifetime, establishing a precedent for English literature and inspiring generations of poets and writers. Chaucer's narrative prowess and exploration of the human condition continue to resonate with contemporary readers. His significant contributions to literature and language have secured him an esteemed place in literary history, solidifying his enduring legacy as a trailblazer in English literature (Bestul & Pearsall, 1994; Biography of Geoffrey Chaucer. (n.d.)).

Figure 2: Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer (19th century)
The Wife of Bath’s Tale

The Wife of Bath's Tale, found within The Canterbury Tales, is one of the most intricate and renowned narratives. It is narrated by the character of the Wife of Bath called Alisoun, a strong-willed and outspoken woman who boldly challenges traditional gender roles and conducts a critical examination of gender, marriage, and power dynamics. At the heart of The Wife of Bath's Tale lies the pervasive theme of gender. Alisoun herself is an intriguing figure who defies societal expectations of femininity. Having had five husbands, she is portrayed as a sexually liberated woman who takes pride in her experience and command over men. Through her tale, Chaucer delves into the concept of gender roles and casts doubt upon the conventional medieval perception of women as subordinate to men (Carosone, 2014).

The Wife of Bath's Tale presents a narrative wherein a knight commits a grave offence by raping a young woman. In retribution, the queen grants him a year to uncover what women truly desire most. The knight embarks on a quest, seeking answers from various women. Eventually, he encounters an elderly woman who claims to possess the knowledge he seeks but insists on marrying her in return. The theme of marriage assumes a central role within the tale, particularly through the knight's coerced union with the aged woman. The woman presents the knight with a choice: she can either be beautiful but unfaithful or ugly yet faithful. Though initially repulsed by her appearance, the knight reluctantly grants her the decision. In a transformative twist, she morphs into a stunning and virtuous wife, thereby underscoring the notion that authentic beauty and loyalty emanate from an individual's character rather than external aesthetics. This exploration of marriage disrupts traditional power dynamics, challenging the dominance of males and highlighting the significance of equality and mutual respect within marital relationships. The metamorphosis of the older woman accentuates the idea that power should not be exclusively rooted in physical beauty or gender but rather in an equilibrium of comprehension, trust, and collaborative decision-making (Kittredge, 1912; Harris, 2017).

Figure 3: Arthur's Queen propounds a difficult question (Scannell, 1884)

The Wife of Bath's Tale, vv. 1219-1227

"Choose now," she said, "one of these two things:

To have me ugly and old until I die,

And be to you a true, humble wife,

And never displease you in all my life,

Or else you will have me young and fair,

And take your chances of the crowd

That shall be at your house because of me,

Or in some other place, as it may well be.

Now choose yourself, whichever you please."

The tale engenders inquiries into the dynamics of power and control. The knight's transgression and subsequent quest stem from his abuse of power and entitlement. The intervention of the queen and the old woman's demand for agency over her destiny subvert these power dynamics. Chaucer, through the allocation of agency to female characters, critiques the oppressive and exploitative exercise of power while emphasising the potential for power to be shared and harmonised within relationships. The Wife of Bath's Tale presents a nuanced exploration of gender, marriage, and power dynamics. It challenges conventional gender roles, critiques abusive power structures, and advances the notion of equality and mutual respect in relationships. Through the character of Alisoun and her narrative, Chaucer delivers a sophisticated and thought-provoking commentary on these themes, illuminating the intricacies of human relationships and societal expectations (Smith, 2014).

Figure 4: "Sir Knight, your way does not lie hither" (Prout, 1907)
The Wife of Bath’s Character and the Role of Women

The character of the Wife of Bath, Alisoun, stands as a remarkable and influential figure who disrupts traditional gender roles and expectations prevalent in medieval society. Chaucer's portrayal of the Wife of Bath offers a multifaceted and complex representation of a woman who defies societal norms and asserts her own agency and power. Through her character, Chaucer challenges and subverts conventional depictions of women, providing valuable insights into the role of women in medieval literature. The Wife of Bath's Tale, as part of Chaucer's larger work, further contributes to this exploration by presenting a narrative that delves into the complexities of female agency, desires, and societal expectations. Chaucer's portrayal of Alisoun and her tale significantly explores the multifaceted nature of women, shedding light on their struggles, capacities for power, and self-determination within the literary and social context of medieval society (Blake, 1994).

Additionally, Alisoun embodies a remarkable sense of autonomy and independence. As a strong-willed and assertive woman, she controls over her own life and relationships, in stark contrast to societal expectations of women as passive and submissive in marriage. The Wife of Bath's defiance of conventional norms is evident through her multiple marriages, challenging the notion that women should rely on men for their well-being and identity. Her autonomy and ability to navigate her marital experiences on her own terms disrupt the prevailing notion of female dependence, emphasising her agency and self-determination. By embodying a desire for control and independence, she manifests a yearning for agency within a patriarchal society that restricts women's roles and choices (Aubry, 2017).

Figure 5: “…The knight saugh verraily al this..." (Sir Flint, 1913)

Moreover, she emerges as a symbol of sexual agency and liberation. With unabashed openness, Alisoun candidly discusses her own sexuality and her enjoyment of it, rejecting the prevailing societal notion that women should be passive objects of male desire. Her unapologetic attitude towards her sexual experiences challenges the deeply ingrained expectation that women should conform to ideals of chastity and demureness. Through the Wife of Bath's character, Chaucer presents a narrative that highlights the significance of sexual desire and pleasure for women. The tale associated with her character underscores the transformative power of love and sexuality, asserting that women possess their own sexual desires and should be free to express them. This representation of female desire disrupts the traditional and restrictive notion of women as chaste and passive objects existing solely for male desire (Smith, 2014).

The character of the Wife of Bath in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales exhibits a notable presence of economic power. Through her own business ventures and multiple marriages, she has amassed significant wealth, granting her financial independence that defies traditional expectations of women as financially dependent on men. Her economic autonomy contributes to her overall power and freedom, challenging the established power dynamics within marital relationships. Additionally, the Wife of Bath's character is distinguished by her extensive knowledge and experience, particularly in love, relationships, and marriage. Drawing upon her personal encounters and extensive readings on the subject, she asserts her expertise, challenging the prevalent notion that women are intellectually inferior and lack wisdom in matters of the heart. Her possession of knowledge and experience further elevates her status and challenges societal assumptions about women's intellectual capacities and depth of understanding in romantic matters (Yildiz, 2013).

Furthermore, Yildiz (2013) and Smith (2014) argue that the Wife of Bath emerges as a vocal challenger of male authority and dominance. Through her manipulative tactics and assertive demeanour, she consistently challenges established power structures that privilege men at the apex of the social hierarchy. Alisoun's confrontational attitude and outspokenness disrupt the traditional norms that uphold male authority. In the portrayal of her character, Chaucer offers a critique of the institution of marriage and the power imbalances inherent within it. The Wife of Bath's own experiences with multiple marriages serve as a vehicle to expose the challenges faced by women within marital relationships, particularly their struggle for power and autonomy. Her emphasis on the concept of "sovereignty" in marriage serves as a direct challenge to the prevailing notion that women should be submissive to their husbands. Through her character and narrative, Alisoun presents a subversive perspective that challenges patriarchal structures and highlights the complexities of power dynamics within the institution of marriage (Yildiz, 2013; Smith, 2014).

Figure 6: The Reader of Novels (Wiertz, 1853)

Geoffrey Chaucer's exploration of shifting gender roles in The Wife of Bath's Tale challenges traditional notions and power dynamics associated with gender. Within the tale, the knight's transformation is catalysed by a powerful female figure, the older woman, who exemplifies the potential for women to exert authority and shape their own destinies. This role reversal disrupts established gender roles and emphasises the significance of mutual respect and equality in relationships. Additionally, Chaucer's decision to grant the Wife of Bath her own narrative voice allows her to tell her own story and present her unique perspective. By doing so, Chaucer challenges the male-dominated literary tradition of the time and acknowledges the importance of female experiences and voices. The Wife of Bath's narrative authority serves as a potent critique against the notion that women's stories and perspectives are inherently less significant or valid than those of men (Smith, 2014).

Chaucer depicts Alisoun as a pioneering figure who challenges and defies traditional gender roles and expectations prevailing in medieval society. Her embodiment of autonomy, sexual agency, economic power, and her defiance of male authority profoundly disrupts the social norms of the time. Through her character, Chaucer offers a rich and multifaceted portrayal of a woman who refuses to conform to societal expectations and instead embraces her own agency and power. The Wife of Bath stands as a symbol of empowerment and inspires women seeking to challenge and redefine traditional gender roles. Chaucer's exploration of the Wife of Bath's character and her tale significantly disrupts and questions traditional gender roles, presenting women as complex and autonomous individuals with their own desires and agency. His deliberate portrayal of women's experiences, desires, and struggles within a patriarchal society contributes to a nuanced understanding of the roles and expectations imposed upon women in medieval literature. Furthermore, Chaucer's presentation of the Wife of Bath and her narrative voice foreshadows the emergence of later feminist literature, underscoring the importance of women's stories and perspectives in shaping the literary landscape and fostering a broader societal understanding of gender dynamics (Ulaby, 2023).

Figure 7: Rosie no. 1. (Okamura, 2016)
The Significance of Chaucer and His Tale

As a prominent figure in medieval literature, Geoffrey Chaucer holds substantial importance in the literary canon and has left an indelible mark on European literature and culture, particularly in relation to feminist perspectives. His works, including The Canterbury Tales, have contributed to the advancement of vernacular literature. Chaucer's decision to write in Middle English rather than the traditional Latin or French, was groundbreaking for its time. By utilising the vernacular, Chaucer expanded the accessibility of literature, allowing a wider range of readers, including women, to engage with and contribute to literary discourse. This linguistic shift empowered women to share their experiences and perspectives, fostering the emergence of feminist perspectives in literature and contributing to a more inclusive and diverse literary landscape. Chaucer's pioneering use of the vernacular thus played a significant role in shaping the trajectory of European literature and advancing feminist discourse within the literary canon (Bestul & Pearsall, 1994; Biography of Geoffrey Chaucer. (n.d.)).

The Wife of Bath's Tale showcases the author's ability to create complex female characters that defy traditional gender roles. She emerges as strong and independent, asserting her agency and pushing against the conventional perception of women as passive or subordinate. This portrayal of a dynamic female character reflects Chaucer's exploration of gender and power dynamics in his work. Through the tale, he offers a critique of patriarchal structures and examines how power can be abused or balanced within relationships. Chaucer's insightful examination of gender and power in The Wife of Bath's Tale laid the groundwork for subsequent feminist discourse in literature and broader cultural conversations, making his work a significant contribution to the study of gender dynamics and the representation of women in medieval literature. Feminist scholars and writers have lauded Geoffrey Chaucer's work, particularly his nuanced depiction of female characters, for its significant contributions to feminist perspectives. Chaucer's literary corpus has served as a rich source for feminist interpretations and discussions, stimulating critical analyses of gender dynamics, power relations, and the representation of women in literature. The complex and multifaceted female characters crafted by Chaucer have become emblematic figures within feminist literary traditions, inspiring discussions on female agency, autonomy, and resistance against patriarchal norms. Chaucer's legacy in fostering feminist discourse continues to resonate, making his work a vital cornerstone in the exploration and celebration of women's experiences and perspectives in literature (Aubrey, 2017; Ulaby, 2023).

Geoffrey Chaucer's innovative storytelling techniques, nuanced characterisations, and examination of social issues have left an indelible mark on European literature. His works have served as a wellspring of inspiration for writers across the continent, including renowned figures like Giovanni Boccaccio, Miguel de Cervantes, and William Shakespeare. Chaucer's ability to employ diverse narrative voices and prioritise individual experiences set a precedent for the development of the novel as a distinct literary form, influencing the trajectory of European literature for centuries to come. Moreover, Chaucer's cultural impact extends beyond the realm of literature and encompasses a broader understanding of European society and its cultural milieu. His works provide valuable insights into the social fabric of medieval society, shedding light on its values, norms, and evolving dynamics. Chaucer's depictions of women, which challenge traditional gender norms and present complex female characters, have resonated with subsequent generations, sparking ongoing discussions about gender equality and social justice. His exploration of power relationships, both within and outside of marriage, continues to stimulate critical thought and cultural dialogue, reinforcing the relevance of Chaucer's work in contemporary discussions on social issues (Bestul & Pearsall, 1994; Smith, 2014; Biography of Geoffrey Chaucer. (n.d.)).

Figure 8: Title page of Canterbury Tales (Chaucer, 1400)

In conclusion, the examination of women's roles in medieval literature through the lens of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Wife of Bath provides valuable insights into the complexities of gender representation and societal expectations during that period. Chaucer's portrayal of Alisoun as a strong, independent, and outspoken character challenges the traditional gender roles and power dynamics in medieval society. Her agency, autonomy, and resistance to societal norms offer a compelling critique of the patriarchal structures of the time. Furthermore, Chaucer's work continues to resonate with contemporary readers, as it not only highlights the historical struggles faced by women but also serves as a catalyst for ongoing discussions on gender equality and social justice. By exploring the character of the Wife of Bath, this study contributes to a deeper understanding of the multifaceted nature of women in medieval literature and reinforces the importance of diverse and empowered female voices in shaping our perceptions of the past.

Bibliographical References

Aubry, T. (2017). Feminist Expression in the “Wife of Bath Prologue and Tale”. Research Paper. City University of New York.

Bestul, T.H., & Pearsall, D. (1994) The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography. Speculum, 69(3), pp.871-873. doi:10.2307/3040937

Biography of Geoffrey Chaucer. (n.d.).

Blake, J. (1994). Struggle For Female Equality in “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.”

Carosone, M. (2014). Geoffrey Chaucer: Feminist Or Not? Stjohns.

Harris, C.M. (2017). Rape and Justice in the Wife of Bath’s Tale. The Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales.

Kittredge, G.L. (1912). Chaucer's Discussion of Marriage. Modern Philology, 9(4), pp. 435-467. The University of Chicago Press.

Smith, T.J. (2014). The matriarch of Bath – Chaucer’s feminist insights. International Journal of Literature and Arts, 2(3), pp. 76-83. doi: 10.11648/j.ijla.20140203.14.

Ulaby, N. (2023). A Wife of Bath “biography” brings a modern woman out of the Middle Ages. NPR.

Yildiz, N. (2013). A Medieval Madwoman in the Attic: Chaucer’s Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales. In Davis, F. & Gonzales, L. (2013). Madness, Women and the Power of Art. (pp. 117-136). Inter-Disciplinary Press.

3.1 The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. (n.d.). Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer Website.

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Deborah Zaccai

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