Thursday, February 12, 2009

Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath

"An Obsession with the Wife of Bath," that is what the title of this article should be. As my college years recede into the past, the memory of my readings of the Wife of Bath, oddly enough, seem to grow stronger than in the past.

Why my fascination with such character? Aren't there others that are even more recent, interesting, and as critics call them well "rounded” characters? There may be, but The Wife is immortal and always educating and entertaining.

Here are my reasons for preferring the Wife of Bath to many other characters in any language. Two main reasons actually.

Virginity and Euphemisms:

In the first place, the Wife seems to be the first feminist character of all English literature. Despite having had five husbands─some of whom mistreated and battered her─she never denies her love for men. Furthermore, she questions the value of virginity; she uses ribald expressions and euphemisms (my belle chose) as well as erudite language to make her point. To wit: she mentions Dante, Juvenal, Seneca, Ptolemy’s Almagest, Solomon, and Ovid’s Art of Love. And I should also mention that she reminds the readers that Xantippe─Socrates’ wife─once poured a piss-pot on his head. Really? So much for Socrates philosophical head!


In the second place, the actual tale (not the prologue) is a study in equality. “What is the thing that women most desire?” is the theme, to which the only acceptable answer is equality:

A woman wants the self-same sovereignty
Over her husband as over her lover
And master him; he must not be above her

I can just picture her in gayest scarlet dress, smiling her gap-toothed smile, teasing people about her belle chose, enjoying life, breaking the rules, questioning and challenging hypocrisy and ill-founded morals.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales have endured more than 600 years and will go on entertaining us and filling us with wisdom for many years to come. Always fresh. That is what a classic is all about.

The writing techniques I employ in this article are all explained in Mary Duffy's writing manual:

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