Does the wife of Bath subvert traditional gender hierarchies inherent in marriage? Comment in context of the prologue.

The ‘Wife of Bath’ by the very virtue of her address is situated in the very center of the debate on marriage and all its inherent controversies and problems. She herself has no qualms about taking up the issue head on and from the very advent of her narrative declares her self an authority on the matter by virtue of her experience and the example she herself has set as a wife of five. She is unabashedly there ‘To speke of wo that is in marriage’ and does categorically present a case against the traditional power structure involved and subverts them both by her professes ion and actions.

The traditional voice of information being male the very act of the wife’s perspective being presented that too in her own voice itself becomes an event of subversion. This as well as her expertise at the articulation of her sexual and economic concerns give her the authority of being the source of the stories and an ably manipulative mediator between her own experience of the marriages and the readers understanding of the same, allowing her space for projecting the relationship as conducive to her argument. She is thus projected as the assertive and influential partner in all her relationships with the exception of that with Janekyn, her autonomy extending

(almost negotiating its way) into the realms of the economic the sexual and even the emotional not to disregard her exertion of physical force in hitting out on Janekyn eventually.

Major considerations in the wife’s scheme of things remain her ambitions of material and monitory prosperity. She uses her beauty and sexual attractiveness to furnish a fortune for herself through the inheritances from her rich but old husbands. Men as the images of financial authority remain only to be manipulated and utilized for the gains of the wife. The only merit she looks for in a husband (with the exception of her 5th) is financial in nature. This kind of reduction of a man’s worth to his material status and promised financial benefits echoes in some ways the basic skeletal idea of dowry as it existed where the same is done to a woman. She sees marriage only as a means to money and nothing else and has put her sexuality in the market for barter.

There is in her narrative a sharp image of the pinning husband, craving for the love and attention of his wife. The projection contrasts and almost caricatures the oft witnessed image of the wife in a similar situation of neglect. She is also a woman acutely aware of her needs and resources, especially those erotic in nature. As opposed to the traditional image of a celibate and chaste woman she uses her sexuality to achieve her ends at  the same time appreciating her need for sexual gratification. She mocks her old impotent husbands on their lack of stamina and the labour that they need put in to match up to her in bed. She holds her sexual favors ransom and uses them to get financial and material security and comfort. This being close to the concept of prostitution though not unheard of is definitely problematic working inside the framework of marriage. She also sees her sexual gratification as an obligation for her husbands to fulfill. We see her as utilizing the existing patriarchal paradigm to justify her own preoccupation with the erotic mounting her sexual cravings on that of her husband. She even reads the bible and other scriptures against the grain to extract from them arguments in favour of female sexuality subverting the existing understanding of sexuality and the use of sexual organs. She thus, despite being a woman is commenting not only on issues of sex but also that of physiognomy and man understanding of his body, challenging the male paradigm in general and his interpretation of the institution of marriage in specific.

There is also a strong assertion of sovereignty on the wife’s side in all her relationships, even in that with Janekyn eventually. ‘We love no man that taketh keep or charge’ is an explicit expression of disregard for any kind of policing, moral or otherwise. She is initiating a direct confrontation between herself and her husbands, asserting a right to her own space where she can stand peerless and unanswerable to any authority. Going beyond that she also sees herself as monitoring and controlling the lives of her husbands’ to a great extent. ‘ I governed them so well after my law’ besides the initial mention of her schooling her husbands paint a picture where the wife is in the lead and is responsible for the schooling of her husbands as opposed to the prevalent notion of men educating women, Adam educating Eve.

An important tool used for subverting the patriarchal structure of marriage is patriarchy itself. The wife of Bath in putting in her husbands mouth various abuses for herself is utilizing male and female stereotypes and the patriarchal discourse to the best of its effect. The wife almost for quite a while uses the patriarchal discourse, speaking literally as men do, growing into a very masculine role and voice. She thus borrows directly from the power enjoyed by men in the process going beyond the precincts of her own gendered authority. Her endless tirade against her husbands works towards creating disillusionment with the self in them, getting patriarchy to stand trial in its own court. In doing so and by drawing from Ptolemy an argument in favour of the man who ‘cares not as to who commands the world’ she subverts the very point of the discourse which is to prove masculine rule and superiority over women. Subverting the virile dominating image of masculinity by embodying it in her old and impotent husbands she weakens its basic premise grounded in the physical and sexual strength of men. The masculine domination of religion and religious understanding and interpretation is also questioned in her preference of the apostle’s interpretation of the scriptures rather than her husband’s or men in general. She also subverts this masculine privilege by showing men’s deeper understanding as making them liable to be more understanding, forgiving and suffering as opposed to the woman as she says, ‘Suffereth away sin ye so wel can preche’.

Other than is initially the case with Janekyn, her fifth husband, the wife of Bath is remains a figure defying the authority of patriarchal norms and structures. Even in his case she can just take so much, and challenges his authority on the subject of women and their history by exposing his bias against them, showing him to be knowledgeable only about wicked women and not about the fair ones. Her hitting out at him in the end also is a definite physical act of protest and the assertion of her rights which registers itself in the way she apparently tames even Janekyn from that time onwards. However despite the case of Janekyn being an obvious aberration its important to see that her motivations in giving in to his authority initially was not an awe or subjugation to patriarchy but her own attraction towards the power, sexual and physical, that he exercised. Even the economic liberties enjoyed by him are shown to be given to him by Alisoun.

The wife of Bath thus successfully subverts masculine power structures and also ruptures hard bound sections of male dominance. The inherent contradictions thus created in her gender identity and the power exerted by her are finally reconciled in her projection of her self as an embodiment of both Mars and Venus and their particular qualities traditionally associated with the sexes. With this last instance she totally disintegrates the gender distinctions built in to the idea of patriarchy and any institution formed under its precincts, subverting once and for all the gender hierarchies in the particular institution of marriage.


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