Professor Ulanda Forbess
27 January 2018
The Canterbury Tales – Analysis
Chaucer opening lines in The General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales start with the welcoming spring description implying that there is a rebirth or awakening – “When that April with his showers sweet / The drought of March has pierced root deep, / And bathed each vein with liquor of such power / That engendered from it is the flower” (General Prologue, 1-4). The speaker starts to describe the place, purpose, and destination of his journey. He then starts to describe the characters and his companions who are traveling to the pilgrim. While describing these characters, he is very detailed in both objective figures and his own opinions. These figures are based and described according to their estates. Chaucer exposes their characteristics, behavior, and criticizes the failings of their characteristic responsibility in a satire method.
The speaker has characterized these figures based on their social position and then criticized various these figures based on their estates. The figures such as the Prioress, nuns, the Monk, the Friar, and the Parson represent the religious aspect of the society. Chaucer has criticized these characters for their misconduct and failure to perform their duties as the religious people. Madame, the Prioress is criticized for imitating her behavior as a royal person – “Pleasant and amiable in her behavior, / Took pains to imitate the ways of court, / Display a stately bearing as she ought, / And be considered worthy of reverence.” (General Prologue, 139-141).
Chaucer portraits the Monk as another satire of religion. The monk is shown as a luxurious person which is very unlikely of his character. Although Chaucer seems like he agrees with his behavior, he sarcastically criticizes the Monk for his lust and disrespect of old tradition – “The rule of Maurus or Saint Benedict, / By reason it was somewhat old and strict, / This same monk let such old things slowly pace / And followed new-world manners in their place.” (General Prologue, 173-176). The Friar is strongly condemned for being greedy by ripping off people for confessions, hearings, and forgiveness. He is also criticized for seducing multiple women – “Therefore, instead of weeping and of prayers, / Men should give silver to the poor friars. / His tippet was always stuffed with pocket-knives / And pins, to give to young and pleasing wives.” (General Prologue, 231-234).
The other figures such as the Franklin, the Clerk, the Man of Law, the Guildsmen, the Physician, the Shipman, the Cook, the Miller, the Summoner, and the Pardoner represent laity aspect of the society with different duties and responsibility. Chaucer exposes the harsh reality of the indebted and unhappy Merchant who looks rick and happy to general people – “There was no person that knew he was in debt, / So well he managed all his trade affairs / With bargains and with borrowings and with shares.” (General Prologue, 282-284). The Summoner and the Pardoner are criticized for not following their own preaching. Although spiritual, Chaucer condemns these characters for being imposters, pulling tricks and trading people’s soul – “Secretly, though he knew how a trick to pull.” (General Prologue, 654)
Although it might appear as a stereotype to few, Chaucer has brilliantly used figures from religious, social, and hierarchical aspect to expose the harsh reality of failing humanity and to condemn the misbehaviors from all sectors using satire as his medium.
Using this same method, Chaucer has created The Wife of Bath’s Tale within The Canterbury Tales. The Wife of Bath is portrayed as a woman hungry for power. To truly understand the tale, one must understand the position of the women and their status in Medieval society. It is the tale of the days when woman lacked the power and justice. Although, one of the most realistic characters among the Canterbury pilgrims, Chaucer has presented Alice in generalizations. It is also true that Chaucer has presented Dame Alice as a powerful feminist character who excels in knowledge and debate.
Dame Alice who is already married five times is seeking for another Christian husband whom she can control – “Welcome the sixth, whenever he befall! / Forsooth, I will not keep me chaste in all; / When my husband from this world is gone, / Some Christian man shall wed me anon.” (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, 51-54). The Wife of Bath’s Tale, told by Dame Alice during the journey also relates to her real life. Although Alice married five husbands for money, possessions, and sexual satisfaction, she only enjoyed three marriages. Alice was successful to control over first three husbands, however, the last two weren’t controllable. She says, “I shall speak true: those husbands that I had / Three of them were good, and two were bad.” (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, 201-202). The Wife of Bath’s Tale also relates to this philosophy. The tale shows the journey of the Knight who learns to give the woman her sovereignty.
The first plot teaches the Knight to be humble when the King hands the Knight over to the queen giving an option to “choose whether she would save or kill.” (The Wife of Bath’s Tale, 904). This plot shows that even the King was ready to do whatever the Queen wishes. The second plot in the tale teaches the Knight to submit and surrender when the ugly woman is the only one ready to answer his question – “‘That the next thing I require of thee You shall do, / if it lies within your might, / And I will tell you of it ere it be night.’ / ‘Here, by my truth!’ quoth the knight, ‘Agreed.'” (The Wife of Bath’s Tale, 1016 – 1019). The last plot teaches to hand over the sovereignty when the Knight lets her decide whether he wants her beautiful or faithful:”At last he replied to her in this manner: ‘My lady and my love, and wife so dear,I place myself in your wise governance.Choose yourself which is the most pleasant, And brings most honour to me and you. I do not care which it is of the two, For as you like it, that suffices me.'” (1235 – 1241)
In this manner, Chaucer has interrelated the tale with Dame’s tale. Chaucer has shown Dame’s character with logical reasoning. Dame frequently quotes from Bible to make her argument strong. Chaucer must have felt that her reasons and arguments were valid. It seems as if the Chaucer has handed over his control to Dame Alice just like in Tale. Chaucer has put along the tale as if he is very supportive of Dame’s philosophy. The tale can be interpreted as a mockery to churchmen who use scriptures to justify their actions and a satire upon sexual thirst.
Although one can argue that Chaucer has used the character of the wife to make fun of women empowerment and feminism, it is also important to understand that Chaucer is supportive and promoting feminism. He has added religious facts, logic and, reasonings into the character that debates on the issue with the world. It is easy to understand the Wife’s philosophy and Chaucer’s opinion on Dame Alice’s point of view if one truly understands the situation of the period the tale was told.