THE ALLURING LANGUAGE OF LITERATURE IN CHAUCER’S WIFE OF BATH
Many of us have felt it- the ability of literature to captivate us, intrigue us, even take us to a whole new universe. Sometimes when I read, the whole world seems to fade, and the story in front of me just lights up, carnival colours and all. For some, it is a fantasy in reality, for others, a safe haven from the stress of life. Yet what we all seem to share is a certain susceptibility to being almost hypnotised by the vivid stories and characters that seem to unfold and materialise when we read.
The Wife of Bath, though written hundreds of years ago, continues to enchant and delight readers (at least it does when you can get past the tricky language in which it is written!). It is the rich language Chaucer writes in- rhythmic and often mysteriously ambiguous- that has kept generations of readers fascinated by it, and it is something I hope to explore today.
Intriguing for both a medieval and a modern audience is the unique form of the Wife’s Prologue and Tale– her prologue is twice the length of the story that follows. It is the context in which Chaucer was writing that makes this point particularly significant- to a medieval reader, the idea of a woman having a considerable role and strong voice would have been very unusual and thus the tale would have appealed more in its originality. Even today, it appeals to us for the same reason- that in the fourteenth-century, when the voice of women was all but nil, an in-ignorable female character, with more than a little to say, was created. The question why drags us to the bookstore, persuading us to read the text ourselves, in an effort to try to gauge whether she is a negative stereotype of women, or actually a spark for feminism.
Chaucer’s style of language contributes to the rich, ambiguous figure that is the Wife. His technique of writing in iambic pentameter, such as “O Lord! The peyne I dide hem and the wo, Ful giltelees, by Goddess sweete pine!” is close to natural speech. The Wife’s colloquial language makes it easier for the reader to treat the Wife as a realistic character, in effect increasing the complexity and uniqueness of the character of Alisoun and the appeal of the text as a whole. Moreover, critics have seen the Wife’s use of rhetorical questions as challenging the reader to consider her views, demanding a response from her listeners; “where commanded he virginitee?”. Depending on how far one assumes Chaucer is actually voicing his opinions through the Wife, these techniques could be seen to increase the entertaining factor of the tale, or, more significantly, to encourage his reader to question their own social or moral attitudes.
Chaucer’s use of irony and satire is also significant in provoking an intense argument within the reader. Particularly funny (or scary) is the fact that the Wife draws upon the anti-feminist literature of her time: “Deceite, weping, spinning God hath yive/ To wommen kindely, whil that they may live”, ironically listing her defects with approval. Although some critics use this to suggest that Chaucer meant to undermine women by accusing them of faults such as these through the Wife, others have pointed to the ridiculous way in which the controversial Wife, who probably embodies every critisism made of women, as Chaucer’s satirical attack on the hypocritical and often extreme anti-women beliefs and accusations on women in literature.
Symbolism in literature can often have deeper messages within, and this is true too in the Wife’s Prologue and Tale. The Wife’s forcing of Jankyn to burn his beloved “book of wikked wives”, for example, has been seen by some critics as an allegory to the threat of a wider destruction of male authority by women. Perhaps less controversially, one might also observe the Wife’s justification of marriage by comparing it to “barly-bread”, for, although it is not “pured whete-seed” like virginity, she assures the reader that “yet with barly-bread, Mark telle kan, Oure Lord Jhesu refresshed many a man” (she is referring to the barley bread distributed by Jesus as related to the miracle of the loaves and the fishes in St Mark 6, verse 38, Chapter 8, giving the impression of marriage as a perfectly respectable status to accentuate her argument defending it). Whatever Chaucer’s motives in doing so, his use of allegory certainly appealed to his original audience, who were familiar with allegory in the Bible, such as Christ’s parables (religion was momentously important in Chaucer’s time, which was dominated by the church; his fourteenth century audience would have known the Bible very well).
Poets have, for centuries, used language to reveal deeper meanings and ideas than their subject matters might suggest, immediately making their poetry more appealing in its mystery. We are all invited to bring these ideas to life using our imaginations, and it is this forging of a link between poet and reader, even hundreds of years after that piece of literature was first composed, which continues to allure us, and which gives literature such a magical appeal.
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