Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
The Wife of Bath is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating of the Canterbury pilgrims. At the same time she is one of those literary figures whose complex character constantly seems to elude the reader's judgement. Alisoun presents herself as a feminist advocating male subjection and female sovereignty in marriage, but her self-assertive behaviour cannot conceal an equally powerful longing for love and acceptance. Some critics therefore praise the psychological depth of the Wife's portrayal while others label her a stock character and join in the derisive laughter they believe her fellow pilgrims to bestow on her.
This thesis explores how the Wife, oscillating among several roles, plays with and manipulates different images of women, and to what didactic and rhetorical purposes she does so. The first part of her Prologue is dominated by her defense against—or, rather, attack on—the antifeminist image of women. She convincingly demonstrates that the authority on which the clerks base their negative attitude towards the female sex is more than dubious and that it can easily be refuted in the light of experience. In her account of her five marriages she consequently turns the marital hierarchy upside down and advocates female supremacy. She herself has gained personal independence in her first three marriages by bartering sexuality for material gain, at the cost, however, of love and affection. It is in her fifth marriage with Jankyn the clerk that Alisoun tries to make up for what so far she has been missing, but only after a violent clash do both spouses find a viable mode of living a happy marriage. What leads the male protagonist to a new attitude towards women is only hinted at in the Prologue but amply elaborated in the ensuing tale.
The 'lusty bachelor' who meets a young maiden and rapes her is the representative of an attitude that regards women as little else than commodities and objects of sexual gratification. The ensuing quest, however, and the hag's pillow lecture teach him that his attitude towards women is not based on personal experience but on a questionable tradition which ignores his actual partner. Moreover, he comes to realize that the way in which women present themselves to him corresponds directly to the image he has of them. Only after he has discarded all these images is he able to see his wife as she really is and can she free herself of her ugly guise. What both the hag's marriage to the knight and the Wife's fifth marriage point to is a marital state in which the notion of dominance has altogether been abandoned, giving room to mutual love and acceptance based on the self-realization of both partners.
Köhn, Thomas W., "“What thyng it is that wommen moost desiren”: Image and Self-Realization in The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale" (1987). Masters Theses. 2617.
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