The portrayal of gender in The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale

Gender and power

The struggle in The Wife of Bath's Prologue is ‘gendered'. It is not so much a struggle between two different people as a struggle between a man and a woman. Jankin the clerk has a book of wicked wives, not a book of wicked people.

The gender distinctions in The Prologue seem distinctly marked. Men seem to be economically powerful and educated, women seem to have to get what they need by appealing to - or tricking - men. In this respect, the Wife exposes the weaker side of the men she marries, who can be manipulated through their desire for sex and status. But the location of wealth changes the situation. The widowed Wife is powerful and independent - until she gives her assets to Jankin l. 630. (See social / political context > Marriage in England in the fourteenth century.)

Gender stereotypes

In many ways the Wife and her spouses conform to traditional gender ‘types':

  • Dame Alison's older husbands are cantankerous, miserly, suspicious, yet easily duped and enslaved by their own desire for sex
  • Jankin adds to the mix with clerical misogyny which reinforces the male suspicion of all women as the inheritors of Eve and thus the cause of men's downfall. Maritally, he is also a bully who expects to be obeyed at every turn
  • The Wife is bossy, garrulous, compelled to gossip, deceitful and sexually voracious.

Yet we engage with the Wife as a rounded person whose fictional character encompasses more than the stereotype suggests. We enjoy her lust for life and new experiences, her heartfelt desire for love and acceptance, the way in which she makes the best of the circumstances she faces, combined with the realisation that the years are robbing her of her charms. Chaucer enables us to laugh at her and feel for her at the same time.  

Ambivalent gender

The interruption of the Pardoner shifts the sense of clear gender distinction, although we have to know the description of the Pardoner in Chaucer's General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales to be aware of this. The Pardoner lacks a beard and has a voice like a goat. Having attempted to stem the flow of female diatribe by a ‘masculine' undercutting of her account, his sexual ambivalence in fact makes a joke of his interruption (l.163) stating that he was about to marry.

Gender in the Tale

Gender is partly the subject of The Wife of Bath's Tale:

  • Initially, the Knight commits the ultimate gender crime, denying the personhood of the girl he rapes
  • In return, he is then put at the mercy of the Queen and an entirely female court
  • The Knight's quest is not about what people most desire, but discovering what women most want. Ostensibly it is about female ‘maistrie' over men.

Yet ultimately, the gender opposition this implies breaks down. The marriage between the Knight and the magical lady seems successful because both are prepared to compromise, taking – and relinquishing – control within the relationship.

Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.