Jeffery Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale revolves around the issue of feminine desire. A knight of King Arthur’s court rapes a maiden, which in the story is an offence punishable by death, but the queen grants him mercy. If in a year he could return to the court with the correct answer for her and her ladies to the question ‘What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren’ (Chaucer, l. 905) he could keep his head. This is not a straightforward question to answer yet the knight succeeds, stating that women most desire mastery over their husbands, bringing in the theme of female power.
The concept is laid out plainly enough; however, the delivery in action is somewhat confusing. The actions described, performed by women themselves, seem contradictory to this desire, casting this ultimate desire into a shadow of doubt, forcing the reader to scrutinise the text to make sense out of the contradictions and try and pinpoint Chaucer’s message on feminine desire and power. By chronologically analysing The Wife of Bath’s Tale, with reference to her accompanying prologue, it is possible to draw out a comprehensive understanding of the articulation of feminine desire in the text.
Hansen criticises this integrated perception of marriage and power stating that the Wife of Bath is “ironically trapped in the misogynist culture she explicitly names as the enemy and is blind to the ways in which her tactics further embed her in the assumptions she tries in vein to defy” (1996 p. 274). This statement insults Alisoun’s character as it oversimplifies her understanding of her situation and neglects to take into account the social context of the text. She is not a victim as she has knowingly embraced an institution associated with female confinement and oppression.
By willingly playing the game she manipulates marriage in her favour and uses it as a tool to help her achieve the power and autonomy she strives for, “What sholde I taken keep hem for to plese, / But it were for my profit and myn ese? ” (Chaucer, l. 213-214). This was not commonplace in medieval literature as in medieval marriage the woman was a legal non-entity. This further shows Alisoun’s cunning. However, only knowing how to achieve this goal through manipulating her husbands the Wife of Bath must continuously be married. To possibly portray this female control in a traditionally uppressing environment, the Wife of Bath writes herself into a masculine role, whilst still employing a feminine one. Her character is choosing to portray herself in a certain light. This gives Alisoun an amount of power on its own. Through her use of and reference to texts, she takes on the male role of a clerk while she also claims her authority on marriage comes from her experience, which is a female association (Dinshaw 1989, 114)). This can also be seen in her tale. However, it is the knight’s position, which is being inverted to a more female role, as he must learn about female desire through the experience of his quest.
This puts the women of the court and the queen in the more powerful position. The reader becomes aware that the initial rape scene is the link between the fictive world and reality. The Wife of Bath is using this story to criticise her own society, showing what it could and should be like instead. The crime the knight committed is punishable by execution. This shows the reader that men are not all powerful after all, but they are subject to justice. The queen postpones the execution and will completely deny it on the grounds that the knight has a year and a day in which to figure out a satisfactory answer to the queen’s question.
It can be read that this shows the folly of women. One could carry this argument throughout the rest of the text, pointing out that the women, such as the “wyf”, give up their gained mastery as soon as it is granted them. Showing the foolishness of women could make room for an argument that women do not have power because they should not have power. However, one can look at the queen and her ladies being aware of “an ironic connection between an unthinking act [the rape] and an unthinking punishment [the execution] for it, and also the waste in separating an act from its causes and underlying assumptions” (Van 1994, pp. 85-6). Van points out that “they want to change the insides of a head the law proposes to remove” (1994, p. 186). This means that the women are giving the knight a chance to go out and learn of his crime. By taking the time to talk and listen to women he will begin to see that women are not just objects of male gratification, but are humans who, like himself, desire. This would enable for him to become aware of his crime, which if he thought of women as there for no other reason than to pleasure himself with he probably could not wholly comprehend his own actions and why they were bad.
Changing one man’s perception of women is a large step forward for women in a male dominated world. The answer, women most desire mastery over their husbands, is given to the knight by the hag, yet it appears that she gives up her own mastery over her husband; she marries the knight as reward for her aid, to become completely subservient to him as soon as her desire is actualised. This puts strains on the trueness of the answer provided. There were so many varying answers the knight comes across on his year long quest, he was unable on his own to find a desire that spans all women.
However, this also suggests that the queen and her court of justice were not so much interested in him finding the perfect answer, but on female desire being vocalised and acknowledged as existent, especially by one who did not previously acknowledge it. Returning to the hag, she attains her desire for a fleeting moment only to have herself give it up in transforming into both a beautiful and faithful wife, both qualities her husband wanted, after posing the knight with an ultimatum between the two.
The tale goes on to say she served her husband’s happiness for the rest of their days and they lived those days happily. This seems to directly oppose her previous desire. However, as Mckinley states, “[her] transformation is evidence that he has chosen rightly—and that his choice effectively places her preferences first. His reward emphasizes the nature of reciprocity in marriage which Chaucer here suggests, where each spouse must give up ‘rights’ to self and so, paradoxically, receive benefits of a much greater kind” (McKinley 1996, 366).
The male must relinquish his socially inherited power, being able to give this up implies he was holding the power, but the wife must also choose to renounce her newly found authority, creating them both equal in their relationship. This view changes the meaning of the answer somewhat. The answer now seems to be a lesson in itself, to teach men to respect their wives, hosting them up to the status of equal, not superior. This is also the Wife of Bath’s wish, to have the perfect marriage, the union of two equals, and her tale shows how one is to go about this to achieve it.
Similarly, Marie de France’s Lanval deals with an element of feminine desire and power. The Wife of Bath’s Tale creates a world which becomes almost a Utopia, where women are seen as equals, in at least marriage, feminine desire is recognised and also realised. Lanval approaches the same concept of feminine desire and corresponding power in a different way. Mare de France constructs two worlds within her story; the known, human world of King Arthur’s court, and the fanciful, fairie land of Avalon.
She uses two women, one from each world, to show how female desire can only be achieved in a place removed from the known patriarchal society. In this way Lanval is very different from The Wife of Bath’s Tale, which uses the text as a didactic medium, showing how the world could function in a society of more equality. The two main women portrayed in Lanval, Queen Guinevere and the Fairy Queen, play an active role in the plot progression and wield considerable power. Arthur’s queen has counsel of his ear and appears to have some sway over him.
As the queen in The Wife of Bath’s Tale, her power is through her position in relation to her king. She shows she is a powerful woman when she first approaches Lanval. For whatever reason, the queen takes a shining to the foreign knight and proposes an affair. She seemingly overestimates her power, which she gains from her marriage and her beauty, in relation to Lanval’s loyalty to his king. Her desire is clear, and her confidence reinforces her power in society. Her rejection can be seen as a moral lesson for other women.
Not even having power should gain a person an immoral desire. Her desire is immoral as it would be an act of adultery and in fact treason. Immoral desire was not an issue in The Wife of Bath’s Tale, it dealt simply with the issue of desire itself. However, the queen’s desires change after her rejection. She then desires retribution for this rejection and his insulting her. She manipulates the situation, portraying herself as the victim of insult to her husband, and through him puts Lanval on trial and almost sees him punished.
One must remember that the king is also insulted by Lanval’s claims there are maids of the Fairy Queen more beautiful than his queen, and so there is also a male desire for retribution. However, this desire of the queen’s is also quelled it can be viewed that women do desire in the Arthurian world, and by extension the actual world, but their personal desires are not able to be realised. Again though, the morality associated with a desire, not solely a feminine desire, seems to impact the accessibility of said desire, and so Lanval can be treated as a moral text.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale and Lanval can, as has been shown, explored in relation to feminine desire. The Wife of Bath’s Tale brings the reader to the conclusion that feminine desire is not in fact mastery over their husbands, as directly stated in the text, but is rather a desire for equality, at least in marriage, with men, and that their desires are recognised and they are treated as persons, not objects of male gratification. Lanval, on the other hand, explores feminine desire in a moral sense.
It could be gleaned from the text that feminine desire is inaccessible in the real, patriarchal world, and the reason the Fairy Queen can attain her desires is the fact she lives outside said reality. However, by only exploring the two female characters, and the immoral one being from the human world it is unsubstantiated to claim that Marie de France believed it impossible for women to attain their desires unless they were otherworldly, but rather that women could attain their desires if they and their desires were morally in the clear. References: Chaucer, Jeffery. 1987. The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Published: Oxford University Press. 3rd edition. As in reader Marie de France, 1978, ‘Lanval’ in The Lais of Marie de France, trans. , intro. And notes Robert Hanning and Joan Ferraute, Published: Dutton, New York, as in reader. Dinshaw, Carolyn. 1989. “‘Glose/bele chose’: The Wife of Bath and Her Glossators. ” Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics. Published: Madison, The University of Winconson Press, 113-131. Hansen, Elaine Tuttle. 1996. “Of His Love Daungerous To Me: Liberation, Subversion, and Domestic Violence in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. The Wife of Bath. Ed. Peter G. Beidler. Published: New York, St Martin’s Press, 273-89 Lee, Brian S. 1995. “Exploitation and Excommunication in The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in Philological Quarterly V74 p17-35. Available at: http://araminta. fortunecity. com/chaucerlee. html McKinley, Kathryn L. 1996. “The Silenced Knight” Questions and Power and Reciprocity in the Wife of Bath’s Tale. ” The Chaucer Review 30, 359-78. Van, Thomas A. 1994. “False Texts and Disappearing Women in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. The Chaucer Review 29, 179-93.