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wife of bath & wife of bertilak

literary theory
reading women's writing
the novel
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Exploding Literary Paradigms:

The Wife of Bath and The Wife of Bertilak

In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath is, as Lillian M. Bisson put it “an explosive presence,” as she begins a new act in the story-telling drama, drawing her listeners into taking a lively interest in her style, while provoking them into exploring the ramifications of her subject in their own tales. In the Pearl-poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on the other hand, Bertilak’s wife is the only principal character who is never given a name, just as she is never given definition within the colour structure, sharing instead Gawain’s red.

Her multiple roles are all conventional: as the beautiful unattainable lady of courtly romance, as the archetypal temptress, and finally, revealed as the obedient wife, she appears as an embodiment of various patriarchal representations of women. The Wife of Bath’s role as the ‘wykked wyve’ is, of course, just as conventional – and while some critics have argued that Alisoun successfully subverts this role, there is some truth in Elaine Tuttle Hansen’s view of her as “a product of masculine imagination against which she only ineffectually and superficially rebels.”

Thus, in their different ways, both these characters are deeply entrenched within long-standing literary paradigms. However, it could be argued that in speaking within them, their speaking out – however ultimately superficial, or in Bertilak’s wife’s case, staged – has an ‘explosive’ effect, functioning as an investigation simultaneously into the right to interpret, and the right to construct, these paradigms.

Burning Books and Untying Knots

The Wife of Bath begins her drama of self-revelation with an announcement to the effect that society is unnatural: “Alack that ever love was synne” and immediately launches into a long and complex argument “garnished…with scraps of Holy Writ” which demonstrates, in Kittredge’s words, her “usurpation of clerkly functions.” As Lillian M. Bisson put it “the right to say what the culture’s central texts mean underpins the right to rule” and clearly, Alisoun’s activity as an exegete here poses an explicit challenge to that exclusive right to interpret sacred texts. The other pilgrims are not slow to notice this, as the Pardoner calls her “a noble prechour” and at the end the Friar, appraising rather than praising, tells her that she has “touched…in scole-matere great difficultee” implying that such a subject does not rightly belong to her.

Critics have disagreed on what Chaucer’s intended this first part of the Prologue to imply. Some, such as D.W Robertson have argued that this beginning serves to show how “hopelessly carnal and literal” Alisoun is. Donald R. Howard, on the other hand, points out that her theology is hard to fault: as she urges us to accept our inevitable limitations she is only urging us to a Christian acceptance of the fallen human nature which makes perfection impossible. What is undeniable is that this beginning, which Howard identifies as a sermon joyeux, loosens the rigid knot of religious interpretation, and allows Alisoun to play with meaning, albeit within the bounds of orthodoxy.

In this sense, the first part of the prologue can be compared to her attacking Jankyn’s book of wykked wyves, another ‘knot’ Alisoun unties by pointing out its limitations: Jankyn knows of wikked wyves “mo legends and lyves” she says, “Than been of gode wyves in the Bible” – his book is by it’s very nature selective, and therefore incomplete, but there is also perhaps a suggestion that such narrow-mindedness is irreligious.

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the pentangle on Gawain’s shield functions on one level as the ultimate symbol of chivalry. Its five interlocked points stand for the ideal knight’s “fiue wyttez”, “fyue fyngres”, “fyue woundez”, “fyue joyez”, and “fyft fyue” and being gold it indicates perfection within the text’s colour scheme. However, it is also a Pagan symbol, directly opposed to the image of the Virgin Mary on the inner part of the shield, which comes to represent the dual Pagan/Christian nature of the poem. The two antithetical images can be seen as intended to complete each other as chivalry is ‘knotted’ with religious ideology, but in a sense this attempt to theologize the pentagram and alter it’s meaning admits to a fault in what is supposedly faultless - and so the ‘endeles knot,’ like Jankyn’s book, is shown to be incomplete.

In attempting to define perfection it is not only itself imperfect but also dangerous: as R.A Shoaf has noted, the pentangle is a knot that cannot be untied, a knot that resists and defies interpretation and as such, it locks Arthur’s court into a state of mind that cannot see plurality in meaning, it ‘rigidifies’ interpretive capacity.

Shaof gives as an example the court’s failure to identify what he sees as the ambiguity of the Green Knight’s challenge. ‘Lach this weapon’ Shoaf argues, is “sufficiently ambiguous to leaves open the possibility of…choosing the ‘holyn bobbe’” a less lethal weapon which would save Gawain from what seems to be a sure death.

Upside Down Worlds and Joly Bodies

The pentangle, however, ‘knots’ the knight to his duty; and tied to the world of chivalry, he cannot properly respond to a challenge from the outside world. Gawain, King Arther and the other chivalrous courtiers are incapable of dealing with the Green Knight because he operates outside the rules of the court. Even as Bertilak, he is not entirely the civilized host Gawain expects, as he appears to be nonchalantly aware of the attraction between his wife and the knight.

The challenge the Green Knight represents, as someone who disparages society’s norms and codes of conduct, is explicitly constituted in the Wife of Bath’s words and actions. As Lillian M Bisson has pointed out, her celebration of ‘refreshment’ as well as her “delight in seizing the clerical prerogative of assigning meaning to authorative texts” properly belong to the ‘upside down world’ that celebrates the body over the spirit.

Such carnivalesque values are, as Bakhtin and others have emphasized, often more open to women’s stories, but in insisting on a relativism which celebrates meaning (the body) over the official, sanctioned manner of it’s telling (the spirit), they are also a way to open up texts, to untie their knots.

As Lee Patterson argues, it is significant that Alisoun states her intention of telling a tale with the words: ‘my joly body shal a tale telle.’ In a similar way, Bertilak’s wife juxtaposes her intention to ‘ware [her] whyle wel…with tale’ with an invitation to Gawain: ‘you ar welcum to my cors’ – her body, her self, and her tale or talk are all one.

Swamps and Female Speaking

In both the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, images of female speaking are often closely associated with images of physicality, and of uncontrolled urges. Female speaking is speaking out, for if a woman ‘sholde a conseil hyde’ Alisoun says, it would ‘swal so sore aboute hir herte’ that she would not be able to rest until she can say ‘now is it oute.’

Such uncontrollable speaking is also often inaccurate or illogical. Alisoun’s speaking would seem to exemplify this, for as Tony Slade put it, her rambling digression into Midas’ story is not only “in keeping with her argumentative and dogmatic nature” but also a misquotation, a result of incomplete and patchy or ill-applied learning, an “illogicality which is typical of her.” And the Wife of Bath’s seeming ignorance is reflected to some extent, in Bertilak’s wife, as she asks Gawain to ‘teche [her] of [his] wytte” and tells him she has come ‘to lerne’ the art of courtly conversation.

Gawain responds by asserting that she has twice as much skill as a hundred such as himself. Like Alisoun, Bertilak’s wife is certainly voluble, and, again like Alisoun, her discourse too is fundamentally linked to her ‘cors’ as she prepares with ‘tale’ the way to her self. She, like Midas’ wife, claims she ‘behoves’ reveal herself through ‘tale’ out of ‘fyne force’ – as Eve-figure, her nightmarish role goes hand in hand with what seem to be an uninhibited outpouring of words. There is strategy in her speech however, a strategy emphasized by the parallel scenes of masculine pursuit. Like Bertilak, who hunts a different prey on each of the three days, she alters her role according to her aims – on the first day, she is graciously charming, on the second, she comes close to insult:

Why! Ar ye lewed, that that alle the los weldes 
Other elles ye demen to dille your dalyaunce to herklen?

On the third and final day, she enters Gawain’s room ‘her brest bare brifore and bihinde eke.’ While she never attempts to step outside the double and conflicted character of obedient wife as temptress, her shifting stance between these paradigms can be seen as empowering, for as she utilizes the conventions of chivalrous behaviour to ‘unknot’ it’s rigid rules, Gawain is forced to face up to the imperfection and incompleteness of those rules.

Likewise, the Wife of Bath’s supposed misquotation, like her rambling sermon joyeux, could be taken not as a sign of her limitation, but as a knowing and appropriate strategy, similar to Bertilak’s wife’s simultaneous flattery and disparagement. While Bertilak’s wife asks Gawain to teach her, she is at the same time questioning not only his knowledge, but his identity: ‘if ye be Wawen.’

The Wife of Bath employs an analogous method in her ‘digression’ into Midas’ story. According to Lee Patterson, her ‘omission’ is significant, as it is in fact not Midas’s wife, but a male servant who reveals his master’s secret. As important is the reason for Midas’ having ass ears: a punishment for imperfect listening. In Patterson’s argument, Alisoun’s misquotations functions as a test of her readers, and a way of implying that “masculine listening can be as compelled as feminine speaking” as men with ass ears will “naturally prefer the immediate self-gratifications of antifeminism to the severer pleasures of self-knowledge.”

Ass Ears and Misogynist Speeches

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain’s misogynist speech can be seen as a way of avoiding his own imperfect listening, a way to cover up his limitation in being tied by the pentangle to one interpretation, Having construed all the lady’s words as the words of a temptress, he thereby fails to recognize her shifting strategies. For while the Lady attempts to seduce Gawain by appealing to his desire for her, she also finally appeals to his desire to live, and both are, at this level, basic animal instincts.

Gawain of course falls at this final hurdle, and although some critics have argued that such a failure only makes him more human, it is on this last day that Bertilak’s wife steps, for a brief moment, outside her stereotypical function. Her garrulous and loquacious discourse, co-extensive with her nature as a woman, is dislocated from her ‘cors’ when she seems to admit her failure, and offers him a token of her appreciation. This scene is itself dislocated from it’s conventional setting, as the Green Girdle is the magical aid the grateful Lady traditionally offers the Hero as payment for a fulfilled amorous encounter. But, on a deeper level, the Green Girdle scene reveals the power of the Lady’s words, which to some extent allow her to transcend the stereotype of the Temptress.

As R.A Shoaf has pointed out, Gawain refuses to accept the Green Girdle at first, “until she sells it to him.” Here, Bertilak’s wife is taking on a new function, overlapping but not entirely complicit with her previous roles. As unattainable lady and obedient wife, she is constructed by the gaze of the other, and is herself in the position of responding to, rather than initiating, contact. Even as temptress, she can only go as far as Gawain allows her to go. In this new role, however, she drives Gawain deeper into being a consumer, into buying what she offers. And, as Shoaf put it, Gawain “does not spend his lewte for a certain reality, rather he buys a sales pitch, an advertisement.” The Green Girdle, she says, is magical, but he has no way of knowing whether this is in fact true, “he can only buy her word.”

And ultimately, the Green Girdle is of course another symbol antithetical to the Pentangle, the symbol which finally replaces the ‘endeless knot’ with it’s locked and fixed interpretations, and offers instead a liberating, if fearful plurality, in the same way as Alisoun, in burning Jankyn’s book, releases him from his ‘ass ears’ and leaves space for an equal, more balanced relationship, where meaning is not irrevocable ‘knotted’ but tied and untied at will.

written: 2007
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