(Yes – the following is an actual essay question I had to answer for a test in my British Literature class. Imagine the face of my teacher as she read this. She gave me an A and wrote, “Nicely Done” on the paper, but I can just imagine what she really thought of it. Enjoy.)
“Is the Wife of Bath meant to contradict the misogynist ideas of her time, or to uphold them? Use the text to back up your argument.”
This is one of those complex question fallacies, ie: “have you stopped beating your wife?” It presupposes the immoral nature of the medieval society in which Chaucer was writing.
Worse, the sin-term “misogynist” is highly ambiguous, especially as applied by the editor of our text-book (a Harvard professor armed with radically feminist ideals and an axe to grind).
Despite our friendly editor’s attempt to indoctrinate unsuspecting rural college kids, the honorable nature of Chaucer’s time-period shines through his loveable and memorable characters, especially the Wife of Bath who, far from being an avant-garde neo-feminist (parroting the views of left-wing Harvard professors), is right at home in her social class and revels in the dignities afforded her station.
I say “honorable nature” when describing Chaucer’s time, but how can this be? Space doesn’t afford an adequate response, nevertheless, history records (through the pen of Cicero) the respect and honor given to ladies in the barbarous lands (the Celts). This almost mythical status of women in early European tribes is reflected in Beowulf, as well as other early literature. The martial culture of these honorable folk, including their treatment of women, matured with the onset of chivalry and the rules of courtly love. True, the society wasn’t radically egalitarian, but each class had an inherent dignity and, unlike today’s “enlightened” world, (where 80-year-old grandmothers are brutally tazed by police, and young mothers are humiliated by unwarranted strip searches, not to mention countless other indignities faced by our ladies on a daily basis), the honorable status of women was seldom breached.
Thus, the Wife of Bath was comfortable asserting her rights as a widow, and comfortable in her station as wife. She was, no doubt, a peculiarity, nevertheless, her accounting of her exploits supports the social hierarchy of the day; it certainly doesn’t diminish it.