Chaucer was a great painter in the field of portraying the characters. In fact, after Shakespeare, he was the greatest in the art of characterization. He was a realist and had, of course, begun by writing of dreams and allegories. But when he came to “The Prologue to the Canterburry Tales,” he started to paint human life as he saw around him. He became original when he started to depict the characters of the pilgrims. He was able to create real human beings because he had the ability to penetrate into a person’s mind and heart and know his real thoughts and feelings. He knew human psychology centuries before this became a branch of human knowledge. We can say that Chaucer’s power of observation and vividness made his characters superb and not monotonous. His characterization is at its best on account of his acute faculty of observation. He was a man of the world and used his opportunities to observe the little peculiarities of human nature. He had the Seeing Eye, the rentive memory, the judgment to select and the capacity to expound.
Chaucer’s distinguished art of characterization has made his characters unique and exemplary. One such character is “The Wife of Bath.” But before going into further details, we must analyze the approach of Chaucer and his contemporaries towards women. It would definitely help us to understand the character of that peculiar woman and the advancement in her character.
Chaucer was born in an age when the condition of women was really pitiable in England. They had no respect in the eyes of men and were thought to be liars, betrayers and unfaithful. It was thought that they were only to satisfy man’s lust. No doubt, women of the upper classes enjoyed a better social standard but they were thought to be slaves to their husbands and had no rights.
In medieval times, it was a fashion to satirize women because they were considered responsible for every fault. Even the church had no regard for women. It considered the woman a source of all evils because she was the daughter of Eve who caused “The Fall of Man.” She was considered to be the agent of the devil to pursue and persuade a man. In “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”, the narrator who is a priest says:
“Wommennes conseils been ful ofte cold;
And made Adam fro Paradys to go,
Ther as he was ful myrie and web at ese.”
Similarly in a number of stories, Chaucer shows us examples of unfaithful wives. In “The Miller’s Tale”, Alison, in league with her young lover, befools and defrauds her husband. In “The Reeve’s Tale”, Miller’s wife also proves herself an unfaithful wife by throwing dust in her husband’s eyes. She sleeps with one of the customers and her daughter sleeps with another. In “The Man of Law’s Tale”, the Merchant’s wife is another unfaithful woman who deceives her husband. She allows the Monk to sleep with her. In “The Merchant’s Tale”, July takes advantage of the blindness of her husband to embrace her lover in his absence.
But Chaucer’s condemnation and censure did not come from his heart. That is clear from the sympathetic portraits of women that he has painted. He also compensated for the injury he had done to women by writing “The Legend of Good Women.” Having discussed the attitude of Chaucer’s contemporaries toward women, it is very easy for a common reader to have a clear view of the poet towards “The Wife of Bath.”
Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath”, is perhaps the best known of Chaucer’s pilgrims. She is the finest weaver in the country. Indeed her woven clothes outdo those women in Ypres and Ghent. The main qualities of her character are the following.
First, “The Wife of Bath” is an important and distinguished member of her community. Like all the other women, she is very careful in the selection of her dress according to her position and status in society. On Sunday, she wears a specific dress that is very fine in texture and weighs ten pounds. She wears the best clothes pretentiously to impress and show others that she is a successful businesswoman. She wears her bright scarlet stockings neatly and straight. Her kerchiefs are of fine quality. Her shoes are soft and new.
“Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed,
Ful streite y-tyed, and shoes ful moyste and newe.”
Second, “The Wife of Bath” has red face, bold expressions, a soft and sexually attractive body, gaps in her teeth, broad wimple adoring her head and her heavy and fine kerchief. All these add to a startlingly vivid character of flesh and blood. She is a sentimental and narrow-minded woman who has not the courage to tolerate any other woman of her perish to give the offering before her at church. She is fully insistent on her rights of precedence, as she thinks that she is a rich woman and a prominent member of her parish. If any confusion about precedence occurs, she is out of all charity and tolerance.
“In al the parisshe wif ne was ther noon
That to the offrynge bifore hire sholde goon;
And if ther dide, certeyn so wrooth was she,
That she was out of alle charitee.”
Third, “The Wife of Bath” is a woman with a forceful personality. She has a firm mind which knows its wants clearly. She knows how to get what she wants. She is a jolly, gossiper and popular woman. She is a widely travelled woman and we are told that she has visited Jerusalem thrice besides other places of pilgrimage.
“And thries hadde she been at Jerusalem.”
Fourth, “The Wife of Bath” is a much-married woman. She has five husbands and is ready for the sixth.
“She was a worthy womman al hir lyve
Housbondes at chirche doore she hadde fyve.”
Her readiness and willingness in getting husbands would not have surprised her fellow pilgrims. In the Middle Ages, it was difficult for a woman to remain single because some man or other with covetous eyes wanted to marry her. However, “The Wife of Bath” even at the level of maturity is unable to remove her sexual lust. With her eager willingness to get married, she can find husbands with even greater promptitude. She is the dominant partner in the marriage. She cannot allow her husband to rule the home. She wants to have firm control over her home as well as her husband. Besides these five husbands, she had so many affairs with young men in her youth. We can say that she has experienced not merely marital love, but has had a number of affairs also in her youth. That’s why, she is perfect in this art of that old game. She knows the remedies of love.
“Of remedies of love she knew per chaunce,
For she koude of that art the old daunce.”
Fifth, “The Wife of Bath” seems impolite in her freedom of speech and in her attitude toward life. She is an extrovert refreshing in her lack of restraint. We like Unashamedly because she is blunt and direct in her speech and behaviour. We also like her for her immense good humour, and her own friendliness, no matter how often and how strongly we disapprove of her want of decorum. She has got social importance with her gay companions and with her wide variety of love affairs. Her bold and red appearance is attractive in its vigour. She has her teeth wide apart and a fondness for crossing “many a strange stream”. Such a woman always wants to escape from the restrictions imposed by her husband.
Sixth, the most vivid physical attributes of “The Wife of Bath” are perhaps, that she is “somewhat deaf” and “gap-toothed.” Gaps in teeth indicate an amorous, envious, faithless, irreverent, luxurious and dominating nature. She has all these features in her personality.
In a nutshell, we can say that Chaucer’s sarcasm against women is not the result of deliberate satire or animosity against women. It was purely a tradition in medieval to satirize women. He saw women of all types in London and other places. He depicted them in a true sense in his poems. The worst qualities of his women are lust and the desire to dominate their husbands by all means, fair or foul. Their highest virtues are sympathy, faithful chastity, patience and the spirit of self-sacrifice. On the whole, we can say that no doubt, there are some portraits of women which have been drawn mercilessly but this attitude was the prominent and traditional feature of Chaucer’s age but Chaucer has drawn the characters of women with rather a polite and sympathetic attitude. His purpose is not to satirize them rather he wants to make us laugh at their follies.