It is probably inevitable that we should come to the topic of human relationships whilst covering Chaucer’s Wife of Bath.
I admit, inevitable is a very strong word to use, but since the Wife of Bath’s Prologue is dominated by the stories of her five marriages, the theme of relationships is not really one we can ignore. And nor would we want to, considering the significance and richness of the theme as presented by Chaucer. The Wife of Bath’s world is what many critics have called a ‘Mundus Inversus’– a world literally turned upside down, where the Wife, contrary to the traditionally submissive roles and characterisations women (who were inferior to men) in the 14th century were expected to possess, is actually the dominant figure in her first few marriages. She does this not once, not twice, but three times. In a row. This may be why she does not seem to distinguish between any of her first three husbands.
If we focus on marriage as the means of exploring the presentment of human relationships in the text, we can find several examples pointing to the presentment of human relationships as competitions of sovereignty- something, until her fourth marriage, the Wife is good at winning…
HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS IN CHAUCER’S WIIFE OF BATH– SOME EXAMPLES
We do not need a gossip magazine to get a glimpse of the Wife’s relationships- she tells all. With gleeful pride, the Wife boasts of her ability to control her husbands and establish superiority over them. Human relationships in The Wife of Bath, in other words, could be seen as predominantly power struggles. The Wife of Bath is powerful in her first three marriages, seems to lose control in her fourth and fifth marriages, but informs us that [at least for her] there is a happy ending by the end of her fifth marriage (it would be difficult to argue the same for Jankyn) because- you guessed it- she regains power as the dominant partner in her marriage. What is highlighted throughout this is the imbalance of power within relationships, evident in all her marriages. What might be interesting to question yourself is, does Chaucer want, through this, to convey the disadvantages of power imbalances, thus promoting more equal relationships? It is a question unanswered, left ambiguous in the text, yet a positive aspect of the Wife of Bath, for in the blanks left out by Chaucer, we have filled in colourful debates on the text, prolonging the mystery of Chaucer’s work, inviting us to look deeper for new interpretations, gifting us with the ability to be a part of this masterpiece.
Golden figures picture credit: Kate Ter Haar
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