The Wife of Bath
Her Feminine Mask
The characters in Chaucer’s stories are introduced and described to his reader in a unique and creative way. Chaucer is clever in the way he portrays them by not being to forward and saying word for word each characteristic they hold, but instead he uses symbolism and the characters actions. One character in particular he does this with is The Wife of Bath. Chaucer could simply give the reader a few adjectives to describe her as a character, but instead he unveils who she is layer by layer through her story telling. The clues Chaucer gives the reader to truly understand the character, The Wife of Bath is through her storytelling, the symbolism of her appearance and through her ex husbands.
In understanding The Wife of Bath, one has to listen to her story to understand exactly who she is and why she carries herself the way she does. According to the Norton Anthology English Literature, “In creating the Wife of Bath, Chaucer drew upon a centuries-old tradition of antifeminist writings that was particularly nurtured by the medieval church.” This was a crafty approach to creating this character in Chaucer’s defense. Most likely Chaucer took everything he had read and researched wrote the complete opposite making her actions and appearance taboo in her time. Chaucer’s research was clearly the beginning to the Wife of Bath’s story. Her story tells the reader that her past is the cause of the woman she is today. Through her story one learns she is an experienced and well-rounded woman.
The Wife of Bath is an experienced woman in the categories of love, deception and life; basically she is no young woman without knowledge of how this world operates. She gained this experience in love through two essential ways, being married for the first time at the age of twelve and having been in five marriages. Over time she mastered how to be deceptive or in other words she loved to have her way. She states this in her comment: “In which they were bounden unto me—ye woot wel what I mene of this, pardee. As help me God, I laughe whan I thinke how pitously anight I made hem swinke…” (1) In this statement she is discussing her first three husbands that she calls good. She talks about how she owned them and made them work for her. This statement tells a lot about her she felt no guilt over the way she treated and used her first three husbands. Lastly she is experienced in life. The Wife of Bath is able to argue on behalf of her lifestyle because she has been around long enough to know how to stand on her own. She is the type of woman that can stand side by side with the men because of her past and the life she continues to live presently. In all her past tells the reader that she is seen in her society as forbidden but desirable to men and to women as someone that should be banned.
One of Chaucer’s strongest clues as to how this woman was was through the way he describes how she looks. Throughout the description given on the Wife of Bath, the readers mind paints a picture of a woman who is not petit or slim, but rather large. One of the best descriptions given of her was: “I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound that on a Sonday weren upon hir heed. Hir horsen weren of fin scarlet reed, ful straite yteyd, and shoes ful moiste and newe. Bold was hir face and fair and reed of hewe.” (2) She wore a ten pound hat upon her head, her pantyhose/ leggings were red. Lastly she had a bold face that was fair and had a red hew. Her appearance says she has both masculine and feminine features. Having the ability to hold her head up with such a heavy hat, wearing spurs and being very skilful at riding a horse as well as the men at that time this gave her masculine features. The fact she wore red leggings and had a red hue to her fair skinned face brought feminine features to her.
The symbolisms in the Wife of Bath’s appearance are many, but a few stand out more than others. For instance the use of the color red in her face and in her leggings along with her being gap toothed all symbolize lust and feminism. Lust in the sense of the gap in her tooth was sexy to a man of this time. This gap was a timeless sex symbol she would always have and could use. The color red associates with lust in this passage because her leggings are red, but the red in her face relates to her being a woman. She is a woman that just from her appearance one could assume the personality that it hides.
“Of remedies of love she knew parchaunce, for she coude of that art the olde daunce.” (3) In this one sentence Chaucer lets the reader know she does well in bed and love and sex is not new to her. The Wife of Bath’s husbands gives the reader the most knowledge about her and shows just how skillful Chaucer was in creating this character. The reader can assume that her first three husbands were her favorite because they all were old, rich and therefore good. With them being in this condition she was able to get what she wanted from them, order them around, or act as the male figure in the marriage and home as well as use her body as a tool to receive whatever she wanted. It is her first three husbands that bring forth the masciculine side that is naturally in her. That is because with them she is the head and treats them as a man in her time would treat a woman. Her fourth husband brought back the realism that she is still a woman through her trying to make him jealous. She did indeed love him, but she also made it clear in this marriage she still had her independence and her feminine side was something she could control. “I weep, algate, and made sory cheere, as wives moten, for it is usage, and with my coverchief covered my visage; but for I was purveyed of a make. I wepte but smale, and that I undertake.” (4) The Wife of Bath is very clever as well as she knows when and where to turn on her feminine side. Here at a funeral as well as when she is in the process of attracting a man to her. He fifth husband was different from the rest, he was a younger man and one that truly shows not only the reader but that character that at the end of the day she is a woman and there are something that one cannot just turn on and off. The reader learns this strong woman is deaf from the result of her ripping a page out of her husband’s book causing him to smack her in the ear. Learning about her past with her ex husbands helps one understand why she carries herself the way she does.
The Wife of Bath challenges the idea of how an ordinary woman appeared and carried herself in this time. Chaucer challenged the idea of feminism through her, she was unorthodox. She was the type of woman that was a woman in the physical and emotional sense. Although mentally she had masculine characteristics and at times those characteristics came forth. From the way she felt she could do as the men would do to the way she thought and spoke. Chaucer intelligence shined in making his reader understand exactly who this woman was through simply and crafty details. The Wife of Bath is a woman that is strong, confident, independent, but at the same time sees herself equal to any other man as she has certain needs that need to be met like any other man.