The Canterbury Tales

Is the wife an example of the antifeminist tradition, or is she a counter to it?

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The Wife claims to represent female voices – and her tale consists of a set of women representing each other. The raped maiden is represented by the queen, who in turn is represented by the lothly lady, who in turn becomes a beautiful lady: the image which precedes her appearance is, appropriately, twenty four ladies apparently vanishing into one. The Wife speaks on behalf of women everywhere: and against the male clerks who have written the antifeminist literature that Jankin reads in his book of wikked wyves.

It is odd then, that the Wife, who claims to stand for “experience”, spends much of her prologue dealing with written “authority”, glossing the Bible in precisely the manner she criticizes the clerks for doing. The Wife is against text, but expert in text; against clerks, but particularly clerical; and, of course, venomous about anti-feminist literature, but also made up of anti-feminist literature. When the Wife throws Jankin’s book in the fire, she is in fact burning her own sources (Jerome, Theophrastus et. al) which constitutes a bizarre act of literary self-orphanage. It is as if she burns her own birth certificate.

When you notice too that the Wife (whose name is Alison) has as her only confidant another woman called Alison, there is an unusual sense that she might be talking only to herself. Add to that her almost uninterrupted monologue of tale and prologue – and the almost-uninterrupted monologues of Jankin (reading from the book of wives) and the lothly lady’s lengthy monologue on poverty and gentilesse – and you see that, in fact, the voice of the Wife does indeed take the “maistrie” in the tale itself. It entirely dominates the tale.

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?