Based on the tradition of the medieval genre of allegorical “confession” where a personified vice such as Gluttony or Lust “confesses” his or her sins to the audience in a life story, the character of the Wife of Bath is exactly what the medieval Church saw as a “wicked woman.” There are references to a number of satires published in Chaucer’s time, which half-comically portrayed women as unfaithful, superficial, evil creatures, always out to undermine their husbands. However, the web of ambiguity regarding the voice of Chaucer himself makes the Wife’s character far more complex than a mere literary stereotype, or a social reformer. Through such a portrayal, Chaucer attempts to address some of the problems regarding gender issues inherent within medieval society, while also conceding the fact that his perspective is not shared universally.
The Wife of Bath is certainly a reformer. After all, she has some severely radical ideas for a woman of the Christian Middle Ages. The first feminist idea Chaucer brings up through the Wife is her view that women should have the right to marry more than once when men do the same. The Wife of Bath asks “Why can’t a Samaritan woman marry five times?” and argues that Jesus Christ’s statement that “…thou has had five men husband unto thee and he that even now thou hast is not thy husband” should not be interpreted to mean that women can only marry once. Another issue the Wife of Bath repeatedly brings up is whether the man or woman should have more power in a marriage. A third feminist idea Chaucer expresses through the Wife is that virginity is not superior to marriage: “…if there were no women that reproduced, how could the seed of virginity even be sown?” These were all ideas that presented the Wife as a reformer in her times, because these were views that would give women more power and freedom than traditional views of the time allowed.
However, despite all of the Wife’s radical ideas, Chaucer at times undermines her role as a true reformer. In her prologue, she is characterized as dishonest, and she even states herself that women are better than men at deceiving. For example, she would lie to her first three husbands that while they were drunk, they said thing such as “every woman is out to get her husband!” so that they would feel guilty and give her what she wanted. This sly and evil characteristic of women she admits to conform with stereotype of the time that women were evil creatures who tricked their husbands.
The means by which she has obtained her experience with men come from her marriages to “three good ones” and “two bad ones.” She would chastise the “good ones,” usually elderly and wealthy, and get their money using deceit, sexual blackmail, and other dishonest means. By no means an ideal woman to either medieval or modern audiences, she openly uses her sexuality as a tool. We find that she is no stranger to using quotes from accepted literature to counter the restrictions foisted on her. On closer examination, though, we find that some quotes are incorrect or interpreted in a skewed manner. She also seems preoccupied with her aging and is sensitive to comments about her looks. What really humanizes her, however, is the way she talks about her two “young” husbands, who have done unto her as she has done unto men. She, the victimizer, has become the victim of love with her last two husbands. While advocating the empowerment of women as a reformer, she also ends with the conclusion that a happy marriage is one where both sides give up their power. With this, she goes back on her ideas.
Because misogyny was pretty much accepted during the middle ages, it is certainly strange that Chaucer did not use obvious irony and satire of the Wife of Bath in her prologue and tale. Even stranger was the fact that he gave her a certain degree of reason and correctness. Although Chaucer clearly criticizes the Pardoner and Friar with their views on life, we don’t see criticism of the Wife of Bath. It may even be enough to assume that he did agree with her. Despite varying opinions, however, the Wife of Bath remains an enigma that resonates through literary history.