After reading the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, I can say this: Alisoun (the titular Wife of Bath) may be many things, but subtle is not one of them. If she thinks it, she says it. If she likes it, she loves it. If she doesn’t like it, she’s going to raise hell until she gets it exactly how she does like it. You can tell that Chaucer has a particular fondness for her, in the way that he writes about her, and yet she is far from being an angel on a pedestal like Dante’s Beatrice. Personally, I still cannot decide if I adore her or hate her. On one hand, she is an acerbic caricature of everything medieval misogyny taught and thought about women; she’s been known to lie, she’s a borderline nympho, she’s manipulative and controlling of her husbands (yes, husbands plural), a gold-digger, and she presumes to know better than the men around her rather than bowing down to their assumed superiority. However, for a work of medieval literature, she is about as close to a feminist icon as we are likely to find.
While society might try to rein her in or put her in her place (like the Friar who starts throwing a little shade her way when he thinks her prologue has gone on too long), she doesn’t listen, she just keeps on doing her own thing while defending and promoting the unique privilege of being a woman. Alisoun is proud to be a woman in every possible way. She even has a name for her lady bits (she calls it her bele chose or pretty thing’). She enjoys and exercises her sexuality to the fullest (reminding her audience that once husband number five joins the choir invisible, she’s going to be on the lookout for husband number six, because she’s not about to be chaste). She brags about her five marriages as a thing of honor rather than something of which she should be ashamed, a stance which she would defend to any seemingly pious critics out there with a slew of bible verses to back her up. She states that her many marriages have made her something of an expert in the ways of love, and that such experience allows her to tell her story. Then we finally actually get to the story she was going to tell in the first place. Upon first reading, I was confused by the time she spent introducing the story, thinking to myself, seriously woman, how damn long are we going to dwell on your love life here? Is there a point? Is this at all related to the story which you intend to tell? Once I read this section in its entirety though, I understood she was trying to set up the main point of her tale, that happiness in marriage for women means having mastery over their husbands and lovers and that men would be happier if they would just go along with it. Such dominion is ultimately what all women most desire supposedly, according to the Wife of Bath’s Tale, although I would highly contest that idea both in my personal life and in the evidence given by the story itself. After all, the only husband that Alisoun supposedly married for love and physically desired the most was the one whom she initially couldn’t dominate or control! To me, she makes it clear when she says in lines 513-519 that:
I believe I loved him best, because he was of his love standoffish to me. We women have, if I shall not lie, in this matter a curious fantasy: note that whatever thing we may not easily have, we will cry all day and crave for it. Forbid us a thing, and we desire it
He wasn’t at her beck and call like every other man, and she loved him all the more for it. I felt that way about Jonathan. Believe it or not, I was once a hot commodity on the dating market and I had a veritable throng of guys hanging around hoping to either get a piece of tail or else hope to one day be my boyfriend, all of which were failing miserably in varying degrees. I was avoiding commitment like medieval pilgrims avoiding the plague. Then Jonathan stepped in. He was the only man who not only desired me for something more than a good time but also pursued me in a real way. He didn’t follow me around like a lovesick puppy, nor did he try to put himself in my good graces by being a nice guy or by playing it casual while never really asking for a commitment like some of the guys I had been out to dinner with around the same time. He made his intentions clear and he treated me with respect. He made it clear he wasn’t going to compete with a bunch of lunkheads and that he wasn’t looking to just have a good time. If I wanted him, he wanted me, and he thought we ought to make a go of it if I did. Otherwise he wasn’t going to waste his time. That made me want him like crazy, just by merit of the fact that I couldn’t just string him along. That’s why I just don’t buy Alisoun’s story, although now I understand all that misogynistic bullshit that Gawain was spouting in the end of his own tale in much better context. Sir Gawain is one sick mofo, who should have gotten his head cut off for his horrible crime of rape. He did not deserve a happy ending with a beautiful young woman. That really pissed me off.