The Lady in the Wife of Bath

May 11, 2010
By Anonymous

The Wife of Bath and Christine worry about men because of the experiences they have had. In Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath is controlling and lustful and because of her past. She is given her name because of her lustful character, symbolizing that she is the main wife in the town. The Wife of Bath believes that husbands should always obey their wives. Chaucer’s story of this earthy woman resembles the same idealized picture of women’s rights, attributes, and interactions with men as seen in an earlier feminist work by De Pizan, the City of Ladies. Because of these interactions and experiences they live in fear of men and strive for equality.

The story of the City of Ladies begins when a lady named Christine is upset about the nature of women. Three women—Reason, Rectitude, and Justice—appear to her, each representing a new virtue for the women that the city will hold. They celebrate the good that women have brought to the world and fight for female and male equality within education. This is similar to the way the Wife of Bath praises women in front of all the men on the pilgrimage. The Wife of Bath is not devoting her life to the rights of women, but she has many of the same traits as Christine in the City of Ladies, through establishing authority over her husbands. She concludes her tale by saying, “They lived to the end of their lives in perfect joy; and Jesus Christ send us husbands who are meek, young, and lively in bed, and grace to outlive those that we marry. And also I pray Jesus to shorten the lives of those that won’t be governed by their wives” (359). According to the Lady of Bath, if men will not respect women’s virtue, they do not deserve to live.
Chaucer’s character the Wife of Bath has many of the same attitudes and beliefs at the women in the City of Ladies. In contrast to the Wife of Bath’s lifestyle, the women that make up the City of Ladies are brought up from childhood in the parental home, taught honesty, and then when they are grown live a life of monasticism. The City of Ladies expresses that women should have a formal education that advocates them to have to say in their lives and should be given a choice about their future. The City of Ladies even attacks men’s sexual aggression. The women there all look up to the Virgin Mary to strengthen their spiritual selves. The Wife of Bath knows that, according to the Church, virginity is important, but without it we would lose all creation. The Wife of Bath may seem to only love sex and communication, but she actually was raised with the same morals as the Ladies. She acknowledges in her tale that Christ is perfect, but she is not. She follows the City of Ladies’ idea to take control of her future, by marrying as much as she wants and taking authority as a woman.

In the City of Ladies, the women are worried about men dominating them. Christine believes that the better gender is not determined by sex, but by who holds more virtue. “The Man or the woman in whom resides greater virtue is the higher; neither the loftiness nor lowliness of a person lies in the body according to the sex…” This means that the person who brings forward more to the world actually dominates, other than domination because of size or gender. The Wife depicts this concept in both her tale and her actual life. Her way of stating this idea may be sharper, but in her tale the moral is that ugly or fair, women should be obeyed in all things by their husbands. In the Wife of Bath’s life, she manipulates her husbands’ through her sexual powers to get the higher power they are searching for in the City of Ladies, just through a different approach.

Chaucer chose to base the Wife of Bath’s character more on her voice and sex partially because she was the only woman on the pilgrimage. In the City of Ladies, the women are working to build a strong city while the Wife of Bath is only telling a story. As Christine builds her city, she uses each representative woman as a building block for the city and an active member of society that displays the model of women’s rights. Chaucer could not separate the Wife of Bath from the world if she was going to travel on the pilgrimage, so he chose to bring out a more extravagant side of the Wife. When the Wife of Bath wanted something from her husband that he was not offering, she would demand it and offer them sex in return.

It is hard to determine whether Canterbury Tale’s Wife of Bath is lying to save her relationship with her husband or to benefit her own personal interest. The Wife of Bath doesn’t have the choice to create the safeguard for herself like the City of Ladies does, so she has to do whatever she can in her own power to keep herself safe and support herself. Chaucer is responding to the City of Ladies by showing that their idea of a flawless unity of women could never occur in the real world. The Ladies are trying to avoid all their problems and challenges, mainly with men, and Chaucer wants to have the Wife of Bath face them instead.

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