Feminist views in the Canterbury Tales Essay

The book The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer holds a collection of stories based in medieval times of several people undergoing a journey. Along the way each character stops to tell a story that teaches a moral. These stories all have their own protagonists that share the storyteller’s beliefs and each tale is told with a unique viewpoint on the changing world. At the end of each tale, the main character faces their judgment or reckoning and a lesson imparts itself upon them.

The Wife of Bath’s tale and the Nun’s Priest tale both exemplify this idea clearly and share conflicting views on the role of women during the time period. In the pro-feminist tale of the Wife of Bath the young knight faces his judgment at the end when he allows his wife to choose her appearance and, in the antifeminist Nun’s Priest tale, the rooster, known as Chanticleer, faces his judgment when the fox kidnaps him.

The first character that faces his reckoning is the young knight in the tale told by the Wife of Bath. The Wife of Bath presents a pro-feminist view in a time when women were seen as objects and the dilemma the knight faces relates to the theme of the story of how trusting in women always results in happiness. The knight rapes a maiden and is punished by the queen and forced to find what women want the most. Just as the knight is about to give up his search, he stumbles upon a ragged old woman that tells him that she has the answer he seeks but will only reveal it to him if he promises to complete a task for her in the future. He says yes and she tells him that women want dominion over their husbands.

He faces his reckoning at the end of the story, after he has married the old woman, when his wife allows him to choose her appearance. He responds, “My lady and my love, and wif so dere, I putte me in youre wise governaunce” (p234 lines 1236-1237). He is then rewarded for giving supremacy to his wife and she chooses to be beautiful and faithful. The knight reaches this epiphany through his journey, as he had to treat women with respect and give them dominion over himself in order to save his life. This reckoning is appropriate for the knight because, at the beginning of the story, he did not respect women but, throughout his search, he learns that treating women equally and being submissive to them leads to happiness.

The second character that faces his reckoning is Chanticleer from the Nun Priest’s tale. Chanticleer is the best rooster in all the land but one day he has a bad dream. He tells his wife of his dream and she lashes out at him saying, “I can nat love a coward, by my faith. For certes, what so any womman saith, we alle desiren, if it might be, to han a housbondes hardy wise and free” (p252 lines 91-94). This idea contrasts greatly with that of the Wife of Bath’s, which said that women only want dominion over their husbands. Chanticleer chooses to ignore his dream, against his own wishes, in order to please his wife. However, he comes to face his judgment when a fox comes and steals him from the coup.

Chanticleer is almost killed for listening to his wife but manages to escape the fox’s grip and get away. This judgment is appropriate for Chanticleer as he represents male supremacy in society. When he listens to his wife above his own intuition he is nearly killed. This tales shows a strong antifeminist viewpoint, in contrast with that of the Wife of Bath, and portrays women as the downfall of man. The narrator even says, “Wommenes conseils broughte us first to wo, and made Adam fro paradis to go, there as he was ful merye and wel at ese. But for I noot to whom it might displese if I conseil of women wolde blame, pass over” (p259 lines 436-442).

The Wife of Bath and the Nun’s Priest tale both show how the characters faced their reckoning after listening to the women in their lives. In the Wife of Bath’s tale the knight is rewarded for treating women with respect while, in the Nun’s Priest tale, Chanticleer is punished. Chaucer wrote these two stories because they show the clash of views on women’s roles in society at that time. While the Wife of Bath supports women’s rights, the Nun’s priest tale condemns them and says women are nothing but pure evil. This clash still exists today and one might wonder if people today could learn a lesson from these two characters.

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