New Readings: The Wife of Bath and The Pardoner.

February 17, 2009 at 3:49 pm Leave a comment

For this week, please read The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and The Wife of Bath’s Tale. Also read The Pardoner’s Prologue and the Pardoner’s Tale.

Here is the link to the translation once again. http://www.ronaldecker.com/ct.htm

The Wife of Bath and the Pardoner.

The Wife of Bath and the Pardoner are perhaps the most famous and brilliantly executed characters/tales in The Canterbury Tales. Both of them have had a great influence on literature in that Shakespeare was evidently influenced by them. In his creation of both the life bearing / colorful characters, like Falstaff and Rosalind, he was certainly drawing upon the Wife of Bath. In his creation of nihilistic, dark characters, such as Iago and Edmund, he was certainly influenced by the Pardoner.

The Wife of Bath.

The Wife of Bath has generated tremendous debate in literary and cultural studies.  Chaucer depicts her as someone who invites scandal, who seems to live and thrive upon being infamous. In both the General Prologue, and in her own individual Prologue, Chaucer challenges the reader toward how we feel about her, understand her and judge her. She has married five times, has affairs in between marriages, and prides herself on maintaining the driver’s seat with all of her husbands, which she calls sovereignty. She also has views towards marriage and woman’s role in marriage and the world. In many ways, she comes across very much like a proto-feminist.

The Argument for and Against a Feminist Reading.

Reading the Wife of Bath as an early feminist, however, must be balanced alongside of Chaucer’s cultural limitations. Just as thirty people from every single walk of life would not gather together for a pilgrimage in the 1300s, neither would a woman ever have as much liberty in her life as the Wife of Bath. And if she did, she would never turn it into public discourse with such impunity.

Remember that the audience reading The Canterbury Tales would have been white, male nobleman and aristocrats. It is highly unlikely that a woman ever read Chaucer’s works. With this in mind, it is helpful to assess how such an audience would respond to her. It seems highly likely that they would have found her Prologue and Tale hilarious. The audience would probably not consider her to be a realistic depiction. And it might be helpful to consider that Chaucer, aware of his potential audience, would have written her that way.

Judging a Literary Work from our own Contemporary Standpoint.

However, at the same time, the fact that feminism simply did not exist in the 1300s, it does not stop us from seeing the Wife of Bath from a different perspective than that of a white, male, British nobleman.

Part of the wonder of literature is the ability to close the gap between a past and our present. There are different, as they are called,, horizons of experience between out current time and the time when a piece of literature was written. No matter how formal and objective one might be, one can only read literature through the eyes of one’s time. We are always trying to discover things in literature that we can identify with our own experience.

Immoral? Or Wonderfully Colorful?

Over the centuries, the Wife of Bath has created great debate. We are faced with an ambivalent situation. The questions posed to us are: Is the Wife of Bath a loathsome, sinful woman who should be morally judged and perhaps condemned to hell? Or is the Wife of Bath an incredible, vivacious creation who we are meant to enjoy and appreciate aesthetically, beyond morality?

Both questions provoke very different interpretations of the Wife of Bath. Like the narrator of the poem who seems to stand aside from the rest of the pilgrims in an  ironic pose of moral disinterestedness, Chaucer allows us to respond to and interpret her character.

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Entry filed under: Assignments, British Literature.

A Pardigm Shift in Literature: Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales. The Pardoner in The Canterbury Tales.

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