The Wife of Bath as a Feminist Character

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While reading Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, it is apparent that the Wife of Bath is not a normal woman. She acts out in many different ways and catches the attention of everyone in doing so. These actions make her stand out as an independent woman who is trying to break the constraints of society. Chaucer has adequately sculpted the Wife of Bath as a feminist character through her prologue by acting in ways customarily reserved for men, by controlling her husbands instead of vice versa, and by being open with her sexuality. The most evident aspect of the Wife of Bath that makes her a feminist character is her many actions that are atypical for a woman who lived in the 14th century. Most women did not have occupations and were housewives, but Lady Alisoun was a capable cloth-maker. In the general prologue, Chaucer describes her cloth making skills showing “so great a bent she bettered those of Ypres and of Ghent” (Chaucer 15). Ypres and Ghent were famous cloth making centers in Belgium (Hodges 360). Mary Carruthers also agrees with this idea: “[t]here is every reason to believe that Alisoun’s cloth making … was big business” (Carruthers 210). Lady Alisoun somehow managed to acquire or start a very successful cloth making business. It is doubtful that very many women, if any at all, could say that they owned a business of any sort, not to mention one that is even more successful than the top cloth making centers in Europe at the time. Nonetheless, it would not be unusual for a woman to assist her husband in running a business, although the husband was more often than not the one who actually owned the business. This was by no means a small accomplishment; it was extremely rare for a woman to accomplish such a feat during her time. Another uncommon characteristic of Alisoun is her financial independence. After a short interaction with the Pardoner, she continues her personal tale and mentions that her husbands “[had] given [her] their treasure” and “yielded [her] their gold and land” (Chaucer 264). In The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions, Mary Carruthers supports this point when she says, “[w]e can thus reasonably suppose that the Wife did indeed own … all the property her husbands had given to her and that she was accustomed to trade in her own name” (Carruthers 210). The Wife of Bath’s society was largely based on a fundamentally patriarchal system, which made it normal for the men to own all of the property and, in some cases, their wives. One perspective on this point, by Theresa Tinkle, is that “[f]inancial independence equates with autonomous sexual desires and with separation from patriarchal interests” (Tinkle 286). Lady Alisoun did not have to depend on a husband to provide for her, so she did not have to face any sort of repression by one. This cements the fact that Alisoun is rising above the “norm” and constraints of society by possessing her own financial freedom, which is exactly what feminist characters are created to do. Alisoun also frequently travelled by herself on pilgrimages. She journeyed to Jerusalem three times and to Rome, Boulogne, St. James of Compostella, and Cologne once each (Chaucer 15). In general, however, husbands were in charge of their wives and would most likely have not allowed them to travel alone. Carruthers believes that the “husband deserves control of the wife because he controls the estate” (Carruthers 214). Alisoun, on the other hand, controlled her own estate and, as a result, was not controlled by her husbands. Therefore, she was able to “own herself” one might say. She could then make more of her own decisions and participate in what she wants to do, rather than what her husband wanted to do. Carruthers goes on further to say that sovereignty lies with whomever possesses the wealth (Carruthers 214). As previously mentioned, Lady Alisoun was financially independent. She possessed her own wealth, and probably far more than what any of her husbands had; in a patriarchal...
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