The Canterbury Tales: The Wife Of Bath And The Prioress Character Analyses Essay Example


In creating his Canterbury Tales, Chaucer introduced several characters that represented the extremes of the society in which he lived. Rather than being true representations of the times, these characters approach the realm of caricature in their personality makeup and behaviors. In several cases, he opted to throw two characters together who couldn’t be more different, such as the Wife of Bath and the Prioress, as a means of making a statement regarding the beliefs of his society. These two women between them represent the two extremes of female roles in Chaucer’s world. While the Wife of Bath is worldly in the true sense of the word whichever way it is interpreted, the Prioress is the medieval feminine ideal, soft-hearted almost to a fault and academically well-educated. These differences can be easily determined as early as the general prologue as each character is described. The Prioress is shown to be the ideal by the positive statements made of her and her pleasing physical appearance while the Wife of Bath is described with a much less pleasing appearance and behaviors that match. While some may consider this presentation to be an indication that Chaucer was attempting to uphold the misogynist ideals of his time, a careful analysis of this comparison reveals that Chaucer was instead attempting to contradict them in favor of a more realistic understanding.

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During Chaucer’s age, and throughout much of history, misogyny has been a relatively widely accepted way of viewing women. Misogyny is a word that refers to a “hatred of women” (“Misogyny”, 2009). When speaking on a social level, the word is used to indicate a general distrust and disparagement of women and their abilities. “Women are described as ‘the devil’s gateway’ (Tertullian). They are ‘big children their whole life long’ (Schopenhauer). According to Aristotle and Aquinas, a woman is a ‘misbegotten male’” (Clack, 1999: 1). Women who ‘behaved’ and adapted themselves to fit perfectly within a specific social ideal were ‘good girls’ and therefore tolerated while women who moved out of this definition even a little bit were demonized. Chaucer did not buy into this concept as evidenced by the way in which he wrote his stories, which all contain an element of the sympathetic as he told stories with a decided female perspective. It is clear that Chaucer was attempting to encourage other ways of thinking about women through his portrayal of the Wife of Bath as he first compares her against the somewhat deviant Prioress and then provides her with a story the illustrates the answer to what women really want.

The Prioress is described as possessing all of the attributes a man was supposed to look for in a woman in Chaucer’s time. She was “smiling, modest was and coy” (General Prologue, The Prioress, 2). She could sing well in the proper way, speak French fluently, had excellent manners so that “never from her lips let morsels fall, / Nor dipped her fingers deep in sauce” (General Prologue, The Prioress, 11-12), was pleasant to be around in any company and was charitable almost to a fault. “The attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors and society, could be divided into four cardinal virtues – piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. Put them all together and they spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife – woman. Without them, no matter whether there was fame, achievement or wealth, all was ashes. With them, she was promised happiness and power” (Welter, 1966, p. 152). Physically, she is given attractive attributes such as a fine nose, bright blue eyes, a small red mouth and a fair forehead. Chaucer tells his reader, “truth to tell, she was not undergrown” (General Prologue, The Prioress, 39), indicating a pleasant figure that men are not supposed to notice in that way when looking at a nun. Her clothing is neat and is well-maintained as would be expected of a lady high born. Although she has all the requisite values of an ideal woman, the Prioress is deviant in that she prefers to remain unmarried and has opted to dedicate herself to the church as a means of retaining her independence while still remaining within socially acceptable standards.

The Wife of Bath, on the other hand, immediately breaks the rules of true womanhood by being involved in commerce as a highly skilled seamstress as she is described in the prologue to her story. This vocation allows her to be in charge of her income, something that a true woman of the chivalric code would never have a chance to pursue while still retaining the type of freedom of movement the wife enjoys. With this freedom of commerce, the wife is able to flaunt many other customs by pursuing her own desires and styles of living. She tells lewd tales, has been married at least five times and has countless other lovers besides who are only hinted at with the comment that these marriages were “not counting other company in youth” (Chaucer, 2003: 17). She’s well traveled, having seen such widespread places as Jerusalem, Rome, Boulogne, Santiago and Cologne. Despite her success, the wife’s physical appearance does not present the kind of beauty that would immediately provide her with the type of power enjoyed by Emily. To begin with, she is described as being “deaf in either ear” (Chaucer, 2003: 2). She has a bold face that is fair, yet is also described as red, indicating a once beautiful woman who has spent too much time in the weather or perhaps in the beer barrel. While it’s true her attire is described as being every bit as good as that of noble ladies, it is also described so as to indicate an ostentatious, flamboyant personality that demands attention, again flaunting the concept of the genteel woman while highlighting the idea of a freedom and fluidity that enables her to be who she wants to be. While this blatant and unattractive description of the woman is often taken as an indication that Chaucer was supporting his community’s opinion, when combined with her tale it is seen as a means of appreciating her individuality, her energy and her boldness.

The tale told by the Wife of Bath is almost an exact opposite of that told by the Knight. She speaks in a plain, straightforward way. Although her story begins with the adventures of a young knight, in true chivalric style, this knight acts like a commoner in his first encounter with a woman. “In his path he saw a maiden walking / Before him, stark alone, right in his course. / This young knight took her maidenhead by force” (Chaucer, 2003: 231). She presents her story from the more realistic terms that would be afforded by a woman, who would not be able to easily ignore such behavior regardless of the status of the woman in question. This crime is made even worse by the qualification that the knight in question was one of Arthur’s knights, the ideal of the chivalric tradition. Through the coarse language used within this story, Chaucer indicates the Wife of Bath has a greater freedom within her speech than that possessed by even the noble Knight, providing her with strength and freedom that is in keeping with the concept of a feminine romance (Bakhtin, 1981) as she is able to talk with a feminine perspective.

In addition to the differences in basic language used, the story told by the Wife of Bath is of a decidedly feminine perspective, bringing out the female character as a figure capable of possessing power and control. Uncharacteristically, it is the queen who spares the knight’s life following the rape and sends him on his quest. His punishment is to discover the one thing women most want and he must accomplish this task within the space of one year. He fails at this task until he finds an old woman sitting alone in a field. She agrees to tell him the answer but he must agree to accept her proposal of marriage. Therefore, his success is entirely dependent upon the willingness of a woman to assist him in his quest. Throughout this narrative, it is the woman who has complete control over the man; the older she is, the more control she has. It is the woman who proposes marriage and the man who must comply, however unwillingly. Through this story, the Wife of Bath presents an unarguable feminine romance that highlights the needs of the woman over and above the actions of the men. In depicting the story the way he does, Chaucer brings attention to the very real elements of the woman’s life and the way in which they are often forced to accept atrocious behavior yet continue to act in gracious and forgiving ways.

The eventual answer that emerges to the queen’s question in this story is that “Women desire to have the sovereignity / And sit in rule and government above” (Chaucer, 2003: 235). This is again illustrated as the young knight demonstrates he has learned to allow women the power to choose for themselves. “After the marriage, the ‘Curtain Harangue’ or curtain-lecture involves the hag speaking of gentilesse (of deed, not blood), poverty (equals honesty), and age (the knight will not find himself cuckolded). One would not expect all this from a young wife, but with experience comes wisdom” (Delahoyde, 2004). In each of these statements, the Wife of Bath argues against every understanding the majority of society held as nearly universal truths as well as argues her own continuing wish to be desired as an older and experienced woman. Such blatant sexuality is also in direct opposition to the concept of the virginal, young, innocent and sweetly beautiful image of the properly and male-defined courtly woman. The story gains a happy ending when the young knight demonstrates that he has learned his lesson through his own experience. “The hag gives the knight a difficult decision to make, and when he leaves the decision to her, he is rewarded with the best of both worlds. As charming as the story’s ending may be, the Wife nevertheless ends with a curse on those men who will not be ruled by their wives” (Delahoyde, 2004). In telling this story, Chaucer illustrates that women are not asking for much, just a little bit of autonomy in their own lives. Given the chance to make up her own mind of what she’d like to be, the old hag gives the knight everything he could have wanted, a young and beautiful woman as wife whom he is able to trust completely in her fidelity and economy.

From these simple descriptions, told in only a handful of lines, a very different picture emerges of woman, quickly bringing to mind the lewd, bawdy woman of the streets who found her way into money as is indicated in the Wife of Bath. Although he doesn’t sugar-coat her somewhat brash appearance and demeanor, Chaucer treats the Wife with a sympathetic perspective, understanding her deviance to be a resistance against the constraints her society has attempted to place on her and understanding the chafing this must have caused. Having found her freedom, the Wife is reluctant to relinquish it for the unrewarding acceptance of a society that would never fully accept her anyway.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhair. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981 (1973).

Chaucer, Geoffrey. Canterbury Tales. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.

Clack, Beverley. Misogyny in the Western Philosophical Tradition. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Delahoyde, Michael. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” Washington State University. (2004).

Misogyny.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. (2009). Merriam-Webster Online.

Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly. Vol. 18, N. 2, P. 1. 1966, pp. 151-74.

Finding Individuality In “Barn Burning” By William Faulkner

Discovering one’s identity is much more difficult than just understanding what society expects of you because it also involves understanding how you feel about yourself and what you feel is right. Although it is very rare that we really understand all the various elements of our life and understanding that contribute to the decisions we make, yet we need to make decisions every day that contribute toward how we define ourselves. The idea of individualism suggests that “every person is an end in himself and that no person should be sacrificed for the sake of another” (Stata, 2002), yet we are often forced to make our decisions based on what is best for us as individuals and what is best for us as a member of a multiple-member group, such as in the case of a family. This conflict between the emerging identity and the expectations of society is a common theme through much of literature including William Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning.” In this story, the main character is Sartoris who becomes increasingly aware of his father’s anti-social activities. As he puts more thought into his father’s behavior, Sartoris begins to realize that it is his father’s fault that the family has had to move so many times. The disrespect the family encounters everywhere they go is finally understood to be well-deserved because of the type of man Sartoris’ father is. In the end, Sartoris realizes that he wants a different sort of life for himself and separates himself from that life. Throughout his story, Sartoris must make a choice between two conflicting sets of external expectations for his behavior even as he attempts to determine just how he defines his own identity.

Sartoris’ conflict occurs as he begins to piece together the various actions of his father and recognizes many of them as being somehow unjust. This conflict is present from the earliest words of the story as it becomes clear that Sartoris is in a courtroom where his father is accused of deliberately setting fire to a neighbor’s barn. Even before he has had a chance to introduce himself, Sartoris is dragged up to the stand to testify against his father. Because he is the narrator, Sartoris is able to inform the reader that he identifies himself as little more than an extension of the strict man he calls his father. In this situation, he understands that he has no choice but to do whatever his father expects him to do, even if it means lying under oath. This connection is the earliest identification Sartoris has with anyone in the outer world as is discovered in the first paragraph of the story. Sartoris “could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father’s enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He’s my father!)” (1621). In this statement, Sartoris reveals that he doesn’t really see any true separation between himself and his father. This reveals how Sartoris identifies himself as an inextricable part of the community of his family and the requirement that he do what they expect him to do. His inability to identify with the townspeople around him is the direct consequence of the constant moves that are undertaken by the family preventing any close family friends while his father’s behavior and lifestyle are instantly recognized by the outer community thus preventing them from attempting to connect with Sartoris.

It is not until Abner, Sartoris’ father, decides it’s time to fully indoctrinate Sartoris into the ‘family business’ that Sartoris finally begins to understand the source of the animosity he’s experienced all his life. He begins to understand that much of the resentment and suspicion he’s received is brought upon the family as a direct result of his father’s behavior. It is this realization that enables Sartoris to start differentiating himself from the family group as he realizes his father’s destructive behavior has closed numerous real opportunities for the family to improve their living situation. This realization comes as Sartoris compares his own poor living quarters to the home of Major de Spain. The de Spain house is described in small segments as it is slowly revealed to the boy upon his approach. Sartoris and his father approach through “a grove of oaks and cedars and the other flowering trees and shrubs … They walked beside a fence massed with honeysuckle and Cherokee roses and came to a gate swinging open between two brick pillars” (1624). Not only the homes, but the character of the men who head the families strikes Sartoris as significant. Sartoris sees that there are very few actual differences between the two men on a general level but, because Major de Spain had different friends and a different approach to working with others, he has the large house and the nice family while Sartoris’ father, having made different choices, has received the condemnation of the community at large. Sartoris recognizes that his father’s choices and actions have only reinforced the social beliefs regarding his class and shut away any potential opportunities before they had a chance to grow.

Although he begins the story completely identifying himself with his family and particularly with his father, the actions of the story continue to drive the boy further away from this association to achieve a sense of individuality independent of his father’s influence. Having made up his mind that he will lie on the stand at the beginning of the story to protect his father, Sartoris is never actually brought to this point, but watches in astonishment as his father refuses to even attempt to make the seemingly fair amends that were handed down. He stands and watches in horror and shock as his father, unprovoked, deliberately damages the property of Major de Spain and intentionally works to create further damage rather than comply with a reasonable request for restitution. Watching this series of events, immediately upon the heels of the frightening court trial that drove the family out of their last home, Sartoris begins to conclude that he does not want to be the kind of man his father represents. Having witnessed this process, Sartoris is unable to ignore his inner sense of justice as he realizes that de Spain was justifiably angry over the loss of the expensive rug and that the man tempered his penalty imposed upon Abner in recognition of the family’s depressed state. However, Abner intends to burn down the man’s barn anyway. At this point, Sarty’s individuality bursts through as he decides to warn de Spain and run away from his family. “Sarty’s final, climactic decision to break away from his father’s rule is seen as proof of his own ultimate moral correctness against the demonic qualities of Ab (Zender cited in Pinion, 2003). By the end of the story, Sarty has become a full individual, disassociating himself from the community of his family and actively seeking a society more in keeping with his own inner nature.


Faulkner, William. (1989). “Barn Burning.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 4td Ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company: 1621-1633.

Pinion, Randy. (2003). “Literary Analysis: Faulkner’s ‘Barn Burning’.” Helium. Web.

Stata, Raymie. (January 1992). “What is Individualism?” Introductory speech delivered at MIT Radicals for Capitalism. Web.

General Prologue To A Contemporary Version Of The Canterbury Tales

Much is said and written about the unique, unprecedented, historical situation the world is in today. The so-called new type of warfare, terrorism, the economic and different environmental-related concerns are among the things that make this world situation seem unprecedented in history.

This story is about the voyage to the capital of a group of very different people to attend the Presidential Inauguration. They also will pay honorary visits to the Lincoln memorial and various historical sites in Washington, including the White House. They all come from different strata of our society with different incomes and different backgrounds. They all play different roles within our modern society. They all have different statuses on which this role is build.

But, if we look carefully, we would find that this situation much resembles the famous Canterbury Tales of the fifteenth century. At the time England resembled a ship that was sailing among turbulent waters. It was the time of the Great Schism and the rising controversies about the rule of the Catholic Church, which at the time was the only Christian presence in Western Europe. And poverty was the reigning among the masses of, what Chaucer recognizes as, those who work (the peasants, and so-called commoners). But it is not that the other strata of the English society that Chaucer recognizes in his work, those who pray (the clergy) and those who fight (the knights) are doing better. They seem to be very distant from the mainstream commoners and peasants, as if though they were from another world.

But the problems they were facing at that particular moment of history were basically the same.

This is very similar to our own characters in this story. Our narrative talks about Mike, and his wife Dana, semi-skilled workers working for one of the major manufacturing companies of the region. They have had only basic education and recently bought a home in mortgage payments with a local bank. They were also beginning to think about saving some money for their children’s education.

Andy, one of the main characters, is head manager of a big company that deals principally with financial consultancy for their clients. Their principal service is to advice people on where to invest, what to invest, and what to expect. They have also dealt a lot lately on advising people about mortgages.

Michel is a highly educated freelance professional. She is educated in arts and design. She has worked as a freelancer for many years now. She takes individual contracts and helps people who want to design, or redesign, the internal of their homes. She has also worked for several years as internal designer for constructing companies.

John is the other character of this story. He is a brave young person that has served in Iraq and is now pursuing a career within the army. He is close to becoming lieutenant. He has also passed several months in a military hospital because of some serious wounds that he took during a mission in the Iraq war.

The other two characters are Wendy and Mike. They are a young couple of students who are in their final year of studies. They are graduating from public administration. Both of them have a strong desire to work on governmental agencies, being those on the federal, state or local level, and help bring a new mode of spending governmental budgets.

They both agree that an administration should be more focused on the day-to-day problems of ordinary people, especially those in more need, and not focus on certain categories of society.

But what could be the cause of bringing these different people all together to a trip to the capital? Why did they choose the moment of Presidential Inauguration and not some other moment? The answer to all these questions would be hope.

Hope for a better future and the rejection of the present situation where they find themselves. Because in times like these they all find it difficult to continue their way of life as they expected.

Mike and his wife Dana seem the most affected by these difficult times. They have both lost their jobs due to the consequences of the financial crisis in the real economy. Their factory was forced to slow production rates due to loss of credit from banks. So, they began to cut off jobs and one day the name of Mike and Dana came up. Suddenly they found themselves without monthly income and they could not pay their mortgage anymore. They were struggling to survive now since they had no savings due to the payment of mortgage rates and education for their children. Their dream to save something to give their kids an education they could not have was also over. It seemed that their children could not be more than semi-skilled workers too and that would have nothing more than what their parents had.

Andy is certainly from a different social position. His income exceeds $150,000 per year and he has bought his home long time ago paying in cash. But things do not seem good for him either. He has invested almost all of his income back into the company’s stock. Now with the financial crisis less and fewer companies and people are willing to use the services that Andy’s company offers. Their confidence in financial consulting has dropped dramatically due to the late events. Company’s own stocks have gone down almost ¾ of their original value.

Andy is about to lose everything and his company is shouting” bail-out” to the governmental officials.

Michel also is suffering the consequences of a crisis she thinks has nothing to do with. In difficult times people tend to cut their “luxury expenses” and internal design is one of them. She is struggling to get as many contracts as she can but they have become fewer and fewer.

John has not this kind of problem. He is going to have monthly revenue from the military job he got but he fears for his health. Even though he was cured in one of the best hospitals in the country he stills sometimes feels ill from the wounds he took in the mission in Iraq. With the military-industrial section building bigger and having strong political influence, he fears that another call for a new war could come to him.

Finally, Wendy and Mike have no working experience compared to the previous characters. They are both in their final year of study but they are becoming every day more pessimistic about their future. Fewer job openings are being advertised and they fear they will get out of college and became unemployed.

These are our characters, and this is where our story begins.

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