Dash out of the Hedge of Patriarchy: A Study of Feminism in The Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer, crowned as the the founding father of English poetry, is a representative among the earliest humanist writers in England. The renowned critic Mathew Arnold regards him as the greatest poet in the English literature.1John Dryden views Chaucer as the source of humanism.2 Fang Zhong, an expert in the research of Chaucer, claims him the first poet in the new era.3 He has exerted far-reaching impact on the English literature and the linguistic history. Additionally, as the forefather of humanism in the Middle Ages, he has made great contribution to the advancement of humanism in England. American poet Henry Wadswoth Longfellow once sings a sonnet to eulogize Chaucer, stating: “He is the poet of the dawn.”4 His masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, perpetuated as a monument in the English literature, is a classic which sings a trumpet for humanism and advocates rebellion to the stale feudal idea in the Middle Ages.
After the turbulence caused by the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt, the late medieval England of Chaucer (1342 -1400) saw the decay of the feudal system and the development of bourgeoisie. During this age of transition, Geoffrey Chaucer was born into a wealthy family of wine merchants in London. The great writer served in his lifetime in a great variety of occupations, working as courtier, soldier, ambassador and legislator. With broad and intimate acquaintance with people high and low in all walks of life, he knew well the whole social life and the miserable life of the innocent civilians of his time, which had its impact on his writing, especially evident in his masterwork The Canterbury Tales.
William Shakespeare was baptised in 26 April, 1564 and died in 23 April, 1616. He was an English poet and playwright, widely known as the greatest writer in the English language. He is often called England’s national poet. His surviving works consist of about 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and several other poems. His plays have been translated into every major living ...
The most noticeable literary period in his life is the Italian period ranging from 1370s to 1386 which witnessed Chaucer’s transition from romantic writing to realistic writing. He wrote with London dialect to explore the real life of the English people and intimately concerned the tough life innocent people had to endure. In the process of his exploration, women’s inferiority and miserable life became one of his intense concerns and he set out to call for women’s liberation with his pen. The female figures in Chaucer’s works are no longer evil or disastrous but just women of flesh and blood, whose bitterness and happiness in life are acutely reflected.
With The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer tells us a story about a group of pilgrims including Chaucer on the way to pay their pilgrimage to Canterbury. To make the journey alive, each pilgrim is to tell a story on the way to Canterbury and another on the way back. These tales, comprised of beast-fables and anecdotes etc., impress us with a vivid panorama of the medieval England. But more essentially, with the portrait of the wife of Bath and the priest, Chaucer sings a trumpet for feminism and advocates rebellion against the stale feudal idea in the Middle Ages. He boldly stands for such feminist ideas that the female should determine their own fate and enjoy equal status with the male. Noticeably, the portrait of the the wife of Bath and the nun’s priest in The Canterbury Tales can be taken as a text of his feminine consciousness. The forceful and vivacious wife of Bath indomitably challenges the rooted feudal idea and enjoys supreme position in family life, meanwhile, with her tale, tinged with feminist tone, she presents us an unconventional female image who totally reverses the feudal convention in the male-dominant culture. The timid and obedient priest echoes Chaucer’s feminist idea from another aspect. With his subordination and submission to the capable nun who enjoys sovereign position in the convent as well as the feminine governance in family life evident in his tale, Chaucer tends to convey to the public that the social roles of the female should be fulfilled.
The Equality of Women in Chaucers Wife of Bath There have been many different interpretations of what Geoffrey Chaucer stood for, but one of the most argued is that of the equality of women. As seen in several of Chaucers works, this is especially exhibited in the Canterbury Tales. Although some scholars debate that he was only writing down what he saw in his present society, others insist that he ...
Women’s liberation, an eternal course for us mankind, could never be achieved overnight, and it’s obvious that women’s inferiority in family and social life hasn’t been eradicated even today. But it’s of primal importance that women themselves should boldly stand up against the social biases, take hands on their own fate, and strives for their equal rights with men as the two prominent female figures mentioned above to create a new myth of power and autonomy and success for both men and women.
Ⅰ. On Feminism
It’s hard to pinpoint the term feminism as different times and ages, different productive forces and different backgrounds lead to different understanding of it. Many reviewers attempt to define it since it came into being. A more authoritative definition from the The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Thought compiled by the English scholar, David Miller is that feminism is a common word depicting a complicated phenomenon, which cares about women’s status, searches for the equality between men and women and strives to eliminate all the barriers preventing the liberation and development of the women.5 Even if there’re different perceptions about feminism, the core of it is that men and women should be equal socially and politically.6
The three waves of feminism surged one after another and have considerably propelled the liberation of women, which symbolize a huge step in our history of civilization. The solution of women’s problems and the development of women’s emancipation are more important signs of civilization and advancement of the human. In 1792, the publication of Mary Wolstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women marks the advent of feminism. It was “certainly the first great feminist statement in English”7. In the first wave of feminism, women fought for the abolishment of slavery, the right for women to have the vote. These women also won the right to own and inherit property, the right to divorce and to join custody. The 1960s saw the inception of the women’s liberation movement in Britain and America, which is the second wave of feminism. The feminists of the second wave campaigned in favor of equal social and political rights for women, and protested against the objectification of women as the passive objects of male desire. Chaucer’s feminist idea is to some extent in line with the second feminist wave, that is to transcend the traditional roles assigned to women and to establish women’s identity as a self, a subject in the struggle for her own rights.
AndrocentrismWhen I started to think about what to write for this paper I wanted to learn more about. Well, I guess I know what it means, but I wanted to see what it means to other people. In Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary 2 nd Edition the definition for is centered on emphasizing, or dominated by males or masculine interests. Then I went online and mostly the same definition. The ...
Among Chaucer’s abundance of distinguished works, The Canterbury Tales is perhaps his major novel which has evoked the significant responses in the area of criticism. Jill Mann in his Feminizing Chaucer points out that with The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer reveals the nature of women and portrays an ideal place where there’s no boundary between men and women.8 Mary Carruthers and Louise Fradenburg pinpoints that Chaucer dashes out the hedge of patriarchy and produces brand new images that are unconventional and inspiring in The Canterbury Tales.9 Prominently, Chaucer creates two representative figures, namely, the wife of Bath and the priest to challenge the social and literary conventions for women, which may be perceived as a resounding voice of his feminist idea. The wife doesn’t want to be a traditional woman whose existence is defined by men and also for men and struggles to establish her identity as a self, living the way following her inclination. The priest, on the other hand, reflects Chaucer’s feminist idea from another perspective. Because men everywhere tend to have more prestige than women and because men are usually associated with social roles of dominance and authority, women who exercise power are seen as deviants, manipulators, or, at best, exceptions. The priest is always submissive to his female master who exercises supreme power in the convent, which forms a sharp contrast to the rooted convention.
Ⅱ. Chaucer’s Unique Idea for Women’s Liberation in the Medieval England
Since the entry into the class society of us mankind, women were unfairly treated as the second sex, shackled in almost every aspect of their life in the male-dominant culture. There are many cases to the point in eastern and western cultures. In ancient China, women were enslaved and deprived of the right of education, submissive to the arranged marriages. Confucianism, advocating the doctrine that women are inferior to men has a huge leverage in Chinese culture. An ascetic philosopher in 3 A.D. claims: “Women are temples built over a sewer.”10 Evidence can also be traced in the literary images of women described in some works. As a most noticeable citation, Eve, made of the rib of Adam in the Bible is deemed to trigger off great sufferings of human beings. Moreover, in Beowulf, women are the very objects that are traded in the market or debased as the devil incarnate. In a word, women are mistakenly labeled as the devil that bring about huge disasters and misfortunes to human society. Such bias hadn’t changed a bit in the Middle Ages, or even aggravated. The Medieval England Chaucer lived in was overwhelmed by the doctrines of Catholics which suppressed such humanist ideas as individualism, freedom and equality between the two sexes. The conservative public got confused with the outside world and even themselves as the religion had tinged the world with a weird tone. But Chaucer stands out in the time of suppression and ignorance, intensely contemplating on the destiny of women and singing a trumpet for women’s liberation which is unique and praiseworthy in the Middle Ages.
Where did all those romantic fellas go? With all that can be, all that is within us, romance lives forever! So why not take advantage of it. Did you ever look around and wonder why a woman will chose another man over you? Maybe you are more handsome, intelligent, richer and so much more than that other plain fellow what's his name. But he's romantic and obviously knows how to treat a woman and ...
A. Women’s Status in the Medieval England
Women’s status in the Medieval England was extremely low. The dominant male, in the name of preventing disasters, set up a variety of restraints to bind on women, who should be the tender and obedient second sex, submissive to their inferiority and all sorts of arrangements. Their holy mission in life, according to the unwritten convention, was to be a caring wife and a loving mother. Immersed in such tradition, the female, were always repeating their role the society had set for them generation after generation. As the old saying goes that ignorance is a woman’s virtue, they were deprived of the right to education and had to submit to all their fathers’ decisions when they were young. At the age of 12, they were forced to get married in an arranged marriage. Then their life was all about giving birth to children, caring about their husbands and the household chores. What’s abhorrent was that their husbands were legitimate or even bolstered to beat them under the Cannon Law. However arduous and miserable their life was, they were banned to sue for divorce. After the deaths of their husbands, they were forbidden to remarry and deprived of the right to inherit. So miserable was their family life, thus there’s no doubt that they were bereft of the hope to engage in politics or social affairs. Besides, they’d be regarded as the witches or the heretics that spelled epidemics and catastrophes if they had some improper behavior, and then be cruelly tortured or persecuted.
In Todays writing, writers conform to the readers wants and needs, contrary to the writers of the 13th and 14th centuries. In these times writers wrote from the heart not from the pocket book. They wrote on their beliefs and morals and dreams. But never did they judge. Their styles taken from their trials and tribulations. As so in Geoffery Chaucers works he used his life experiences to influence ...
These facts reveal the horrible life of women in the dark Medieval England, which form a sharp contrast with the portrait of the rebellious wife of Bath and the obedient nun’s priest in The Canterbury Tales. The wife, bearing her unique attitudes towards fidelity and marriage, doesn’t want to be a traditional woman whose existence is defined by men and also for men. She strives to pursue the freedom in marriage and obtain sovereignty in family life. The priest, on the other hand, reflects Chaucer’s feminist idea from another angle. Because men everywhere tend to have more prestige than women and because men are usually associated with social roles of dominance and authority, it is by no means for women to enjoy a handsome social position in the gloomy patriarchal society. But Chaucer presents us a priest who is always submissive to his female master exercising supreme power in the convent, which forms a sharp contrast to the rooted convention. With the two unconventional images, Chaucer’s feminist idea is firmly echoed.
B. The Cornerstones for Chaucer’s Feminist Idea
The time Chaucer lived was the time of transition. In all his lifetime, he got acquaintance with the social and religious storms that were rare in the English history and felt intensely the misery of the lower class.
In the 1400 A.D., romance flourished with the advent of Sir Gawain and the Greenknight. The female, appallingly, were worshipped as the goddess of love, beauty and peace. Such ideas overturned the doctrines of the Catholic Church, which upheld abstinence and debased human’s pursuit of happiness. Chaucer’s humanistic idea was nourished in such a fertile land, which paved the way for his feminist idea.
Meanwhile, the Renaissance Movement which centered on humanism first rose in Italy. It eulogized the nature and value of mankind while firmly opposing the Divinity, upheld individualism and laid emphasis on the secular life and earthly love. Viewing the miserable life of women, many philosophers and poets boldly advanced their views for equality between male and female
THE EVOLUTION OF EQUALITY Women in today's society are almost always viewed as equals. Acheiving equality has been a tremendous strain on women, but times have finally started to change. Looking back on English literature from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, male domination is portrayed to its fullest extent, and continued to be up until the nineteenth century. Not only were women authors ...
It’s just in this period that Chaucer, the foreign ambassador of England, was designated to Europe frequently. His visits to Italy ensured his access to such humanistic works of Dante, Petrarch and so forth. He turned to realistic writing with London dialect, exploring the real life of the English people. In the process of his exploration, women’s inferiority and miserable life became one of his concerns. In his later works, Chaucer creates a series of virtuous and kind-hearted female images whose happiness and bitterness are broadly revealed. They symbolize a departure from the evil or weird images in the monk literature for they are reshaped as women of flesh and blood, who enjoy the same social status as men do. The creation of these unconventional images paves the way for the conception of the wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales.
Ⅲ. Feminism in The Canterbury Tales
The wife of Bath in Chaucer’s masterpiece is as rebellious as Eve, contemptuous of the so-called authority, valiantly challenges the rooted feudal idea and lives the way following her bent. She herself, rather than her husbands or the Church, takes hands on her own fate. Moreover, she enjoys the same position as her husbands in family life and even has dominance over them, which fiercely overthrows the stale marriage doctrine and can be taken as a voice for feminism in the Medieval England. Besides, feminism can be traced in her tale in which an unusual marriage between the knight, a representative of aristocracy, and the ugly hag, a token of the lower class, totally reverses the feudal tradition. As for the nun’s priest, in contrast to the forceful and powerful male in the patriarchal society, he is timid and obedient. Placed in subordination, he is under the thumb of the nun and sometimes has to flatter her to win her favor. The whole plots can be perceived as a token of the fulfillment of the female dictation in the social roles. Besides, with the feminine governance in family life obvious in his beast-fable, Chaucer attempts to convey to the public that men are not the norm and the female hold half of the sky.
A. A Trumpet for Women’s Liberation——Feminism Voiced by the Wife of Bath
1. The Wife of Bath——A Forceful and Vivacious Woman
a. Her Unconventional Appearance
First and foremost, the appearance of the wife of Bath, a forceful and vivacious rather than beautiful and tender woman, is a flaying to the traditional biases and prejudices. Chaucer describes the unusual appearance of the wife in the preface: “In contrast to the elegant and obedient ladies of the court, she rode on a sturdy horse; her bright clothes and elaborate head-dress were ostentatious rather than elegant; her hat was as broad as a buckler; her clothes were of good quality; and her shoes were new and moist.”11 Ms. Yang Jie once states that her appearance demonstrates a woman strong in body as well as in spirit who possesses the capacity to take her fate into her own hands.12 She joins in the company of male pilgrims, enjoying the cheerful and pleasant journey to their destination. She echoes that there’s no distinction between men and women, and more importantly, women can do whatever men shine at. In the depiction of Chaucer, the Wife of Bath, instead of being debased as the evil, is well received by the male pilgrims, who have no biases against her and are willing to listen to her. And at times, they even flatter her to win her favor. A case to the point is that the Pardoner cannot help calling out that she is a noble preacher. Thus it’s fair enough to say the male pilgrims get rid of the prejudices, accept her and treat her equally as one of them.
b. Her Rebellious and Unique Idea about Fidelity and Marriage
For centuries, moralists and theologians had been constructing a picture of woman and her place in the world which hardly accorded with the facts. Chaucer tends to turnover the definition or the label assigned to women who were said to be the Devil’s ally——a sensual and deceitful creature who was a constant occasion of sin and the cause of most of man’s misfortunes. Joseph E. Grennen in Geofferey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales states that: “The wife’s prologue is a sarcastic condemnation of some of the more naïve theories about fidelity and marriage. Merely by being the lively and robust performance which it is it lampoons the craved schematism of any number of ascetic moralists.”13 She begins by announcing her allegiance to the rule of experience rather than that of authority. Such authority, in the wife’s eyes, stands not so much for legal sway or power as it does for the opinions of older writers. “Of course, there was far too much reliance on this sort of authority in the Middle Ages, and when such authority was responsible for the grotesque distortion of woman’s character and place in society that it encouraged,” according to Grennen, “it invited satirical attack”14. In the wife Chaucer has created a ludicrous magnification of these complaints. She is a woman who freely admits to all the lust, the conniving, and the self-seeking which have been attributed to her, and who glories in the fact that she has thus been able to gain the mastery of her numerous husbands. As for her five marriages, she is in such an ecstasy and argued that: “Tell me, where, in any time, did God on high expressly prohibit marriage? The God made no mention of number of bigamy or of octogamy; why should men speak evil of it?”15 Again, she boldly declares:
Blessed be God that I have married five! Welcome the sixth, whenever he comes along. For indeed, I don’t want to keep myself entirely chaste….For the Apostle says that then I’m free to marry in God name where I please. He says it’s no sin to be married; it is better to marry than to burn. 16
Ms. He Zheng declares that the wife of Bath boldly challenges the doctrines of the church authority with her experience of marriage, which symbolizes a confrontation to the patriarchy.17And as for virginity, the wife says, is merely advised, not commanded; a lord, after all, does not have all his household vessels made of gold——some are of wood. Again, she points out that: “Virginity is a great perfection, and also devoted continence…. but Christ spoke to them that wished to live perfectly, and by your leave, my lord, that isn’t me. I will bestow the flower of my whole life in the acts and fruits of marriage.”18 These words reveal an untraditional female figure who takes hands on her own fate and is always firm and persistent in the pursuit of her own inclination in life.
Between the lines Chaucer vividly depicts the wife of Bath, who freely admits to all the lust, the conniving, and the self-seeking which have been attributed to her, eloquently voices her unique idea on fidelity and marriage and bravely stands up against the asceticism of the Catholic Church, the authority. Chaucer employs the figure, a symbol of free will who courageously expressing her rebellious ideas, catching hold of her own destiny and incessantly pursuing the happy earthly life under the reign of the Divinity to convey his feminist idea.
2. Her Pursuit of Freedom in Marriage and Her Sovereignty in Family Life
Women were placed in submission and subordination in the patriarchal society. They are the object rather than the subject. Freedom in marriage life, unimaginable in the male–centered culture, however, Chaucer intricately portrays the wife of Bath with her indomitable personality and incessant revolt, presenting us a strikingly new female image in the suppressive society. Her declaration of her pursuit in life is flat but eloquent: “I always follow my inclination….As surely as God is my salvation, I never had any discrimination in love, but always followed my appetite, be he short or tall, dark or fair; I didn’t care, so long as he pleased me, how poor he was, nor of what rank.”19
Chaucer valiantly challenges the rooted convention with the conception of the wife of Bath who is no longer taciturn as to the prevailing arranged-marriage doctrines in her time and pursues the ideal marriage in her own inclination. Additionally, she clearly dictates to her husbands that she would like to be at large and free from snooping. Besides, Chaucer shapes her as the master in family life. She enjoys supreme position in family life and her husbands deeply love her and obey her in their marriages. They love her wholeheartedly and devote their lands and property to her. She is absolutely the master in the family, and her governance ensures their blessing and harmonious life as is demonstrated in her prologue: “I governed them so well in my way that each of them was most happy and eager to bring me gay things from the fair. They were glad indeed when I spoke pleasantly to them.” 20
A dramatic episode between the wife of Bath and her fifth husband pushes her feminine consciousness to the apex. “The wife of Bath,” according to Jill Mann, “manages to break away from traditional male perspectives, striving for their goals through tremendous, even huge heroic efforts”21. Her fifth husband is always delighted at the reading of wicked wives. Strained to the breaking point, the wife of Bath grabs and tears three leaves out of the book and deals Jankin such a blow that he falls backwards into the fire. Chaucer delineates the wife’s heroic deed, the tearing of the book, a symbol of authority in the Middle Ages to shatter the definition mistakenly placed on women by the church authority. He reveals the nature of women and transcends the traditional roles assigned to women and establishes women’s identity as a self, a subject in the struggle for her own rights.
3. Feminist Idea Evident in the Tale Told by the Wife of Bath
a. Women’s Dominance over Their Male Counterparts——The Theme of the Tale
Additionally, Chaucer’s feminist idea can be easily traced in the tale told by the Wife of Bath. The story goes like this: in old days, a knight of the court of King Arthur commits rape on the person of a young maiden. Justice is swift, and he is condemned to death. He would have lost his head summarily, but for the fact that the queen and her ladies-in-waiting sue for his life, his case is left up to the queen to decide. In the end, they decide that his life will be spared if he can find what women desire most. What women desire most here is posed as a question of which the correct answer can save the knight’s life. Indeed, this is an enlightening question. Jill again states: “Under the reign of the Divinity, the God and the Church rather than mankind should be placed in the limelight. In the male-dominant culture, men were naturally superior to women, and thus more concerned about. But here the focus has been shifted to the female.”22 Chaucer raises the question to the public and enlightens them to care about women’s miserable life and unfair treatment.
Finally, with the help of the hag, he pronounces to the queen and ladies-in-waiting that generally women desire to have dominion over their husbands as well as their lovers, and to be above them in mastery. Neither wife, nor maid could contradict this answer, and his life is spared. The myth has been disclosed——women’s dominance over their male counterparts clearly conveys to the public Chaucer’s concern for women’s equal status. The knight, a representative of the male, commits crime in the plot. What saves his life is women’s wisdom.23 With the delicate plot, Chaucer’s feminist idea is evident that the female are not a threat or disaster to the male, the so-called sins of women are actually the result of the grotesque distortion in the patriarchy, and only when such distortion is eliminated can men and women preserve a harmonious marriage.
b. The Marriage Between the Hag and the Knight——A Flaying to the Stale Marriage Doctrine
As is known, in the Middle Ages, the male would opt either a fair woman or a woman of fidelity to be his wife, but the knight’s marriage (he must carry out the promise made to the hag) with the old and ugly hag greatly satirizes such convention. Besides, the hag’s delivery of a speech on truly good breeding and gentleness: “Find who is always the most virtuous, and who always tries hardest to do what noble deeds he can, and consider him the greatest nobleman. Christ wants us to claim our nobility from him, not from our ancestors because of their ancient wealth.”24Chaucer tries to import to the public that gentility is not a mere matter of appearances and inheritance. Virtue is true nobility echoes that the value of women lies in their virtue and ability, which shakes off the biases against women in the male-dominant culture and saves the soul of the knight. Women and men are born equal, and virtue rather than gender is the gauge for nobility. Nevertheless, Chaucer arranges her compromise in the end, and offers the knight a choice of two alternatives: to have her ugly and old but faithful until death, or to have her young and fair, and to take his chances on her fidelity. Faced with such grim alternatives the young knight puts himself entirely in his wife’s governance. As soon as it is apparent that she has gained the mastery, the wife relents and tells her husband that he would be able to have her fair and good. He is in a transport of bliss, and they live in perfect joy ever after.
Ms. He Zheng views the transcendence of the hag a symbol of the knight’s break-away from the patriarchy. Once the male get rid of the prejudices against the female, the nature of women is actually of beauty and virtue.25 Chaucer portrays the female taking on the dominant role in family life, and her dominance over the knight in family life enables them to live a peaceful and happy life, which considerably reflects his feminist views——not only do women want to have the inalienable right to sovereignty which they desire most in marriage, but men cannot themselves be happy until they recognize this fact.
B. A New Assumption for Women’s Roles——Feminist Idea Evident in the Nun’s Priest
1. The Priest’s Respect and Submission to the Nun
The mock-heroic beast fable may be easily ignored when touching upon the feminist idea in The Canterbury Tales. But details may well resound with it. Male culture, as the mainstream of the patriarchal society noisily advocates that:
Women were born to be inferior to men. Men and women were not born equal. God creates women to be the servants of men. Women’s biological disadvantages doomed them to achieve nothing. To be a devoted mother and a dutiful wife was the best way to reflect the femininity of women; and it’s also the only duty of a women. Profession, after all, was an affair of men.26
But Chaucer reverses the tradition and portrays a very elegant fourteenth-century lady who also happens to be a nun, and a convent official. She is very well educated, she knows how to sing the divine services, and she can speak French. The nun is almost excessively dainty, pleasant. Her outstanding trait is her sensitivity. So full of charity and sympathy is she that she weeps at the sight of a mouse in a trap, or of a dog being beaten with a stick. Her clothing is neat, and her features are impressively handsome. She carries a set of rosary beads, on which there is a gold brooch bearing the motto Love conquers all. The nun is a wonderful nun, I assume, but she never ceases to be a woman. The female are raised to a supreme position, while the priest, a representative of the male, is placed in subordination. Between the lines of the priest’s tale, it’s strongly implied that he is somewhat under the thumb of the nun. Because men everywhere tend to have more prestige than women and because men are usually associated with social roles of dominance and authority, women who exercise power are seen as deviants, manipulators, or, at best, exceptions. But Chaucer exquisitely shapes the unconventional nun who enjoys supreme social position and whose social role is fulfilled and complete to transcend the labels and essence limiting her existence.
When it comes about that Pertelote’s (the heroine’s) advice has incurred the cock’s misfortune, the priest complains that women are to cause disasters. But he apologizes immediately with the awareness that he is subordinated to his female master. Chaucer arranges the nun, a representative of the female who actualize their social roles in the society to overthrow the passive women images in the patriarchy. These women, depend on their capability and diligence to create a meaningful existence in the male-culture. “They are,” according to Grennen, “the subject of the society. They are not inferior to men, if not better than, the same as men. Men are not the norm, and women can fulfill their destiny doing something complete and significant”27.
2. An Analysis of the Smart and Capable Heroine Pertelote in the Beast-fable Told by the Nun’s Priest
a. Love Between Pertelote and Her Husband——A Turnover to the Rooted Feudal Marriage Convention
The beast-fable centers on the two chicks, Pertelote and her husband Chauntecleer. Pertelote and Chauntecleer fall in love with each other and get married in the end. The tale is mainly about their ordinary family life and Chauntecleer’s nightmare. In the male culture, it’s impractical and even fantasy to marry in the name of love, even with the aristocracy, they are still bereft of the hope to pursue their true love,28 but Chaucer tends to employ the harmonious and happy marriage between Pertelote and Chauntecleer based on love rather than money and hierarchy as a turnover to the rooted feudal marriage convention. The female protagonist, Pertelote, in the depiction of Chaucer, like the wife of Bath, is unconventional as well. She is a combination of beauty, wit and profound knowledge: “The fair damsel Pertelote; she was courteous, discreet, debonair, and companionable, and she conducted herself so handsomely that since the day she was seven nights old she had truly held the heart of Chauntecleer bound and captive.”29 Besides, Chaucer reshapes the male protagonist Chauntecleer, instead of debasing or torturing his wife as other men do in their marriage life, greatly admires and respects Pertelote, cherishing her as an apple in his eyes. They boldly dash out the restraints of the society and pursue their beloved. With sincere love and affection of each other, they finally get married and live in perfect harmony and rejoice ever after. “In the tale,” as to Grennen, “Chaucer illustrates clearly the establishment of the ideal male-female relationship through the example of Pertelote and Chauntecleer. They hear each other’s thoughts, recognize each other in themselves. Their mutual understanding is the basis of their harmonious relationship.”30 In viewing women’s woeful life in the Medieval England, the tale again sings praise for secular love between men and women, and advocates women’s equality with men, which is a guarantee of pleasant family life.
b. Pertelote’s Dominance in Family Life
In her The Second Sex, Simone De Beauvoir argues that women are oppressed by virtue of their others, and women are the others because they are not men.31 And Miriam Schneir claims: “If a woman is to become a self, a subject, she must, like a woman, transcend the definitions, labels, and essences limiting her existence.”32 Pertelote serves as a case to the point. Her dominance in family life is evident in her self-determination and Chauntecleer’s submission. Like the wife of Bath, Pertelote’s superb status in family life is evident in details. Chaucer portrays her the same as the wife of Bath, brave and capable. She is a female, but isn’t haunted by the so-called feminine personality including being weak, useless, powerless, and submissive. On the contrary, she is confident of her ability for her power and mastery. The most noticeable plot to the point is Pertelote’s severe criticism on Chauntecleer’s cowardice of his nightmare. Grennen once comments on Pertelote: “Her incise criticism forms a sharp contrast with the muted women in the male-dominant culture.”33 The priest reveals in a solemn tone that one night Chauntecleer has been disturbed by an ominous dream. When Chauntecleer is over-agonized by his nightmare, Pertelote severely criticizes him for his superstition and accuses him of cowardice and inability. She says: “Alas, for by God above, now you have lost my heart and all my love. I cannot love a coward, by my faith. For certainly, whatever any women says, we all desire, if it might be, to have husbands who are bold, prudent, and generous, and discreet——neither niggards nor fools.”34
Chaucer portrays Pertelote the same as the wife of Bath, who boldly expresses her own views, her love and her hatred. She dashes out of the suppression of women in the patriarchal society and enjoys supreme position in family life. She is whatever she wants to be, who does not lose self-autonomy or subjectivity. Enjoying equality with her male counterpart and sovereign position in family life, Pertelote , like the wife of Bath, is a new image dashing out of the hedge of Patriarchy in the male-dominant society.
The founding father of English poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer, is the greatest writer in the second half of the 14th century. As a forerunner of feminism in the dark medieval England, Chaucer sings a trumpet for feminism and advocates rebellion to the stale feudal idea with his masterpiece The Canterbury Tales. Indeed, works on feminism are abundant in English literature, but Chaucer’s unique feminist idea in this work serves as a lighthouse in the dark medieval England. It’s hard to define the term feminism accurately since different times and ages and different backgrounds lead to different understanding of it. But this paper centers on its essence, the obtainment of equality between men and women with the analysis of the two figures, the wife of Bath and the nun’s priest.
In the dark medieval England, women, debased as the second sex, were shackled in almost every aspect of their life and even persecuted. But the wife, an untraditional figure, is resolute and rebellious, always challenging the rooted feudal idea of women’s role in marriage and society and unceasingly fighting for equal rights shared with men to live the way following her bent. And from the priest, with the writer’s exquisite depiction, we can obviously arrive at a new assumption——men are not the norm and the female can be raised to a supreme position in society. Such literary images effectively reflect Chaucer’s unique thought for women’s liberation in the male-dominant ages.
But in this work, though he has treated women from a totally new perspective and has raised women to a fair status in society, nothing has touched upon the concrete and explicit measures to set women free from the bondage of patriarchy or to enhance women’s position in society. However, it’s sensible for us to observe the age of transition Chaucer had lived in. It’s a time when the feudal system was on the verge of decay and bourgeoisie just began to sprout. Overwhelmed by the male-dominant culture for ages, it would by no means eradicate prejudice and cruelty against women overnight. As is known, women’s living hadn’t changed much until the Victorian Period and the first feminist movement was not carried out until the 19th century just for the enactment of The Married Women’s Property Act. Moreover, women’s campaign for the right to vote didn’t come out until 1920s. Thus, as a pioneer to seriously ponder over women’s liberation in the suppressive and dark feudal society, his sympathy for women and humanist idea for women’s equal rights are fairly admirable.
Mankind’s emancipation will not be achieved without the emancipation of women. As history advances, numerous pioneers have been striving for women’s liberation course for ages, including Chaucer. But it’s sensible for us to notice that women’s inferiority in family and social life hasn’t been eradicated, for example, domestic violence against women and the prejudice against women in the job market are still prevalent in today’s society. It is a long-lasting march for women’s liberation, in which the modern women should not be horrified or silent in the women myth but preserve and advance the pioneering spirit and strive to create a new myth of power and autonomy and success for both men and women.