The Wife of Bath: A Feminist before Her Time

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The Wife of Bath: A Feminist Before Her Time

The character of the Wife of Bath in Chaucer's The Wife of Bath's Prologue is a strong woman who knows what she wants from life. She is ahead of her time, seeing that women who portrayed themselves the way she does were not necessarily looked positively upon. In this sense, I believe that the Wife of Bath is a feminist. When I use the word feminist I do not mean bra-burning, men hating feminist. I mean a woman who is in touch with herself. She is her own genre when it comes to feminism. She is comfortable with her sexuality and what she wants from life. Through Chaucer, she is viewed as a promiscuous; however, she is actually in control of her sexual adventures.

"I wol bistowe the flour of myn age, in the actes and in fruyt of mariage" (119-120). What the Wife of Bath is saying here is that the flower of her age (her virginity or sexuality) is hers to give. She has intentions of devoting her sexuality of all of her ages (from youth till maturity) to all of the acts and harvests of marriage. The Wife of Bath is implying that the reason she has married so often is not only because she enjoys having rich husbands (found in lines prior) but also because she enjoys the "fruyt of mariage" (120), which would mean the act of sex. This is where her unique feministic attitude comes into play. She has allowed herself to enjoy the perks of marriage, and she is vocal about it. However, because she has married so many times the connotation between her "flour of myn age" and the number of husbands she has had becomes a negative one.

Previous to her exclamation of the acts and harvests of marriage, The Wife of Bath begins to discuss virtues other than chastity that are expected to be mastered and practiced by all "good" Christians (115-118). She readily admits that she has no intentions of obtaining perfect chastity.

"Al that he hadde, and gyve it to the poore,

And in swich wise folwe hym and his foore

He spak to hem that wolde lyve parfitly,

And lordynges by youre leve, that am not I." (115-118)

In these lines "He" is Christ. She is referring to all of the things that Christ has done for his followers and all he asks from them is to try to live perfectly.

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The Wife of Bath is sure of herself enough to admit she is not perfect. What defines her as a strong-minded woman is that she is comfortable with the actions and decisions she has made regarding her life. She is not interested in proving herself to anyone because she does not care what they think of her. Her confidence is illuminated in these lines as she admits to the most powerful man in the world, Jesus Christ, that she is far from perfect and that she accepts that fact.

She strengthens her argument by asking the reader, and supposedly her listeners, "were members maad of generacion, and of so parfit wys a wright wroght?" (123) The Wife of Bath is referring to the purpose of the genitals. It is said in line 127, that while it is obvious that they are used to things like the excretion of urine and to differentiate women from men (128), they have another purpose: pleasure and procreation. Again, the strength of her self-identity is shown clearly in these lines. She reinforces her argument that while sex is something to be enjoyed it is also frowned upon. Regarding this idea, the Wife of Bath does not seem to care. "And for noon other cause,-say ye no? The experience woot wel it is noght so. So that the clerkes be nat with me wrothe, I sey this: that they maked ben for bothe," (129-132) She is asking "And for no other cause, you say no?" She realizes people are not stupid and they know what else the genitals could be used for. She is breaking the mold of a good Christian and a stereotypical woman by discussing these ideas in great length, as she proclaims "that they maked ben for bothe," (131). She is not embarrassed to say that she has had sex, enjoyed it and will continue to enjoy it until she can no longer have it.

Finally, the Wife of Bath discusses the idea of owing debt to your spouse. "Why sholde men elles in hir bookes sette, that shal yelde to his wyf hire dette? Now wherewith shoulde he make his paiement, if he ne used his sely instrument" (135-138). She is asking why more husbands do not offer to use their "sely instrument[s]" (138) in ways other than procreation and urination. These lines reflect an almost appalled reaction to relationships where sex is not had as often as possible. Again, her feministic traits are strengthened with her ability to talk about sex in a casual manner, which was not something done in the time this was written. She has enough strength and self-assurance to talk about sex as a casual topic and that reflects on her strength of womanhood.

The Wife of Bath's Prologue says many things. It tells a sort of autobiography of woman who is not only comfortable in her sexuality enough to talk about it, she is also comfortable enough ask the question: "Why not have sex for pleasure rather than just procreation?" The Wife of Bath is a woman before her time in the sense that she is confident in her ability to ask for and to get exactly what she wants from life. Many people would look down on her then, and even today, as being a loose, promiscuous woman. However, I see her as an honest woman in control of her own destiny.



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