This is the tale that the Wife of Bath talks about the Knight who rapes the maiden by the river and in order to keep his life he must present the answer of what women most desire in front of the court in exactly a year and a day...
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The Wife, then, is a far more complicated figure than simply a proto-feminist. She asks the key question herself: “Who peynted the leon, tel me who?”, referring to the old myth that, a lion, seeing the picture of a man triumphing over a lion, asked the rhetorical question which pointed out that the portrayal was biased as it had been painted by a man, not a lion. If the Wife’s tale is a depiction of a woman triumphing over a man (and even that is not easy to decide) can it be similarly dismissed?
Perhaps. But of course, for all the Wife decries the clerical tradition and the clerks who leave out the good deeds of woman, she herself as a text is another example of a lecherous, lying, manipulative woman. She falls into the anti-feminist tradition she represents. This is even before you mention that the Wife is being written, at the very least ventriloquised, by Geoffrey Chaucer, a clerk and a man. Is this Chaucer’s opinion of proto-feminism and a disavowal of the anti-feminist tradition? Or is Chaucer endorsing the anti-feminist tradition by giving it a mouthpiece which, in arguing against it, demonstrates all of its stereotypical arguments as fact?
Who painted the lion? Whose voice is the Wife’s? Is she worthy of – as she does – speaking for women everywhere?
These are all huge, open, fascinating questions that demonstrate why the tale itself is so complex, and interesting to interpret. The key fact not to forget is that you can’t have a Wife without a Husband. Whether married to Chaucer, whether Chaucer in drag, or whether a feminist persona all of her own, it’s important to view the apparently proto-feminist Wife of Bath from a point of view which understands her strong links to the men in her fictional – and literary – lives.