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John Zaixin Zhang




Notes on the "Wife of Bath's Tale" (Updated, Nov. 2017)  

2011-10-25 01:18:46|  分类: +乔叟 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Zhang, John Zaixin. Notes on “History” vs. “Herstory” in the “Wife of Bath’s Tale”

(Updated, Nov. 2017)

Argument: The Wife of Bath’s tale neutralizes women’s “nature” as defined by patriarchal values and offers an alternative to “history” with a “herstory” that balances mastery and obedience by displacing/blurring/deconstructing the binary opposition of master and servant.

       Also, in connection to gender, age as performance is another link between the prologue and the tale. In the prologue, the Wife, in her fifth marriage, has subverted her previous old man/young woman “acting-your-age” pattern with a reversal, where the 40-year-old Wife marries Jankin, 20 years her junior. She projects her own (age performing) desire onto the hag in her tale (following Leicester’s point, qted in McKinley 375) and succeeds in talking the knight into believing that he sees, from his own point of view, youth and beauty in his old wife (McKinley 374). Carter is right when she argues that the loathly lady motif “might remind us that the body is the foundation of cultural construction of race, gender, and, arguably, identity” (338), but she has left out age in this cultural configuration. Actually, it can be argued that the hag’s pillow speech on nobility/goodness not to be a given at birth, but achieved for one’s good deeds, points to a performance that parallels the old lady’s own age as performance when she says to her young knight that “I’ll satisfy your sensual appetite.” This is surely a reminder of what the Wife can do with Jankin and with all her previous four husbands, where her active performance has always been guaranteed no matter what age categories she is in.


       Experience vs. books (female experience against male books); p. 206 – Chanteclear: “one’s own experience shows it for a fact.”


       Sexual desire as an inborn quality: “What a God-given gift that Solomon/Had for his wives!”

“Lord knows how many a bout/That noble king [Solomon] enjoyed on the first night/with each of them! – for equality between man and woman; double standard on male/female sexuality


       “For who’d bring fire and tow too close together? / I think you’ll understand the metaphor!” – passion between the two sexes naturalized

       Maidenhood – gold, “Purity in body and in heart”; remarriage – wood


       Acting her gender: “…our little differences/Are there to distinguish between the sexes, /And for no other reason—who said no?” - (Female) sexuality sanctified by God – “for a necessary function/As much as for enjoyment in procreation/Wherein we do not displease God in heaven.” – unleashing female desire suppressed by patriarchy

       Virginity not necessarily privileged: Virgins – “loaves of purest sifted wheat”; wives – “merely barley-bread” – “when our Saviour fed/The multitude, it was with barley-bread.” (False analogy)


       “In married life I mean to use my gadget/As generously as my Maker gave it.” – female genitals – female sexuality sanctified by God, not to be suppressed


       “my debtor and my slave” – female desire as an end in itself, not a reflection of male desire.

       “I say again, a husband I must have,/Who shall be both my debtor and my slave,” – financially inferior and physically superior

       “I’ve ‘power of his body’ and not he.” – dominion over his body (has her own desire rather than the reflection of his desire)

       Woman as victimizer: “That I myself have been both scourge and whip—”


       First three husbands – impotent – “But barely able, all the same, to hold/To the terms of our covenant and contract—” – marriage as a contract

       “How cruelly I made them sweat at night!/…“They’d given me their land and property.” – body and land – woman’s body as a site of production

       “Since I’d got them in the hollow of my hand” – dominion over men

       “For no man’s half as barefaced as a woman/When it comes to chicanery and gammon” – Women as the origin of deception and nonsense (anti-feminism)


       A wife “can make her husband think that black is white.” – manipulation

       “Why are you always over at her house?/She’s pretty, is she? So you’re amorous!” … “And if I’ve an acquaintance or a friend,/You rage and carry on just like a fiend/I I pay him some harmless little visit!” – double standard on chastity


       “You say…” – traditional views on women – commodity, sex kitten


       “Why do you hide the strongbox keys from me?/It’s mine as much as yours—our property! – double meaning: keys as Freudian images of male genitals – her power over his body; body and gold both as payment due to the woman


       “You’ll never be, no matter how you scold,/Master of both my body and my gold,/…For you’ll have to forgo/One or the other, take or leave it!” – seems to lean toward the master of her body - but actually, her body as lure to catch fish (“spinning,” p. 229) –“And with whatever else would he make payment/If he didn’t use his little instrument?” (p. 222) – no mastery on the part of the husband in using his “little instrument.”

       “We love no man who watches carefully/Our coming and going; we want liberty.” – You don’t possess my body; master of my own body

       Argument for adultery: “What bigger miser than he who’ll not let/Another light a candle at his lantern—/He won’t have any the less light…”

       “But of your text, and your red-letter rubric,/I’ll be taking no more notice than a gnat!” – No attention to “history”


       “If you begged Argus with his hundred eyes/To be my bodyguard—what better choice?—/There’s little he would see unless I let him…” – the gaze is returned


       “To us at birth such mother-wit is given; As long as they live God has granted women/Three things by nature: lies, and tears, and spinning.” – Women, by nature, are dishonest, emotional, and deceitful – but can be read as a social construction in the tale

       Female body as lure, as production: “What I said is, everything has its price;/You cannot lure a hawk with empty hand.”

       Teasing first three husbands about their old age: “Though I can’t say I ever liked old meat--/And that’s what made me nag them all the time.”

       Her irrationality as a means of control: “One of us has got to knuckle under,/And since man is more rational a creature/Than woman is, it’s you who must forbear.”

       Youth and cunt as lure (spinning) to settle arguments (with the first three husbands): “’‘You want my quim just for yourself alone?/Why, it’s all yours—there now, go take it all!/…For if I wished to sell my pretty puss,/I’d go about as sweet as any rose;/But no, I’ll keep it just for you to taste./Lord knows you’re in the wrong; and that’s the truth!’”


       With her fourth husband - youth, beauty – flour; middle age – bran; she wants to make the best of middle-age sexuality (in her forties): “Now I must sell the bran as best I may;/But all the same I mean to have my fun.” – Act her age/gender

       Act her age/gender: “But in our bed he was so free and gay” (fifth husband)


       The fifth husband – “I think I loved him the best, for he/Was ever chary of his love for me.” – He is playing hard to get (reversed gender roles)

       “If there’s a thing we can’t get easily,/That’s what we’re bound to clamour for all day:/Forbid a thing, and that’s what we desire.”

       “Who values stuff bought at too cheap a price?” – man as commodity

       Marrying Jankin “for love, and not for gold.” - for his youth and body


       “joyous and young” – acting her age/gender (still values youth, as if young)

       Androgyny: Venus and Mars – “And Mars gave me my sturdy hardiness.”

       Bisexuality – “My chamber of Venus” - “I’ve still the mark of Mars upon my face,/And also in another secret place.” – “twin sisters” (femininity and masculinity rooted in biology, too, apart from the fact that gender is also a social construction (p. 236) – an interaction between nature/biology and culture/discourse [more or less like Irigaray’s “two lips” theory, which emphasizes both biology (vertical lips) and discourse (horizontal lips). See Irigaray, Luce. “When Our Lips Speak Together” (Trans. by Carolyn Burke) Signs, 6.1. (1980), 69-79.  Berg, Maggie. “Luce Irigaray’s ‘Contradictions’: Poststructuralism and Feminism.” Signs 17.1 (1991): 50-70].


       Takes on a male role: “To him I gave all land and property,/Everything that I had inherited.” – Reversals won’t work either.


       Not caring for his proverbs (history)

       Two anti-feminist works


       “Who drew the picture of the lion? Who?/My God, had women written histories/Like cloistered scholars in oratories,/They’d have set down more of men’s wickedness/Than all the sons of Adam could redress.” – If the painter was a lion, the picture would be different – Aesop’s fable (p. 424) – gender as a social construction

       “For women are the children of Venus,/And scholars those of Mercury; the two/Are at cross purposes in all they do;/Mercury loves wisdom, knowledge, science,/And Venus, revelry and extravagance.” – man vs. woman, rational vs. irrational


       Jankin’s “history” book: “Of Eva first, who through her wickedness/Brought the whole human race to wretchedness” – The Bible misogynistic


       History: women as the source of threat to men (herstory in the tale: saviors)


       “And then and there I made him burn his book!”

The Tale


       Soft power? Or power on loan from the king? – The queen and other ladies “importuned the king so long for mercy.”

       Castration threat – beheading


       We women are “ensnared” by men


       In Ovid, King Midas’ wife – desire to speak, irrational – her words reduced to noise in the water - female voice as watery rhythms that would fade like ripples

       Invitation to compare Ovid’s tale with this tale – irrational woman vs. rational woman


       Female court replacing male court – Knight as messenger from woman to woman

       The knight feels the woman’s dominion over his body: “Take all my goods and let my body go.” – projecting the storyteller herself onto the old woman


       The knight desires youth, beauty – Old and ugly: “my damnation!” “foul degradation!”

       Old in a man – wise (old scholars); old in a woman – ugly (but the woman is wise and eloquent)

       “You are so hideous, so old and plain,/And what is more besides, so basely born.” – ageism on women (not the same with men, the Wife’s first three old husbands)

       Woman in control: “I shall soon set it right” “all this I could put right.”


       Woman eloquent - Goodness or nobility not guaranteed by wealth or birth; Fire – man’s nature, not always on their best behavior (but can be altered, conditioned, constructed)


       People are naturally “bad” (not on their best behavior, just like fire): People aren’t always on their best behaviour/As fire is—for fire is always fire.”

       If people by nature are not on their best behavior like fire, then nobility coming from God alone is a social construction to inscribe on human nature: “Your nobility comes from God alone./Thus our true nobility comes by grace,/Is not bequeathed along with our position.” - Nobility not a given, but a construction; a reputation won with one’s virtue (actions, deeds) - Social position does not give you nobility - Noble deeds make the nobleman. - No “natural” goodness.


       Commodity no one else would want, one who knows to please the knight – playing into man’s hands (both youth and virtue for the man)/virtue played to her own advantage

       False dilemma to frame his answer as a test


       Her wishes center on his needs – dream wife, perfect match for the knight, young, beautiful, and faithful. - appeal to male gaze to get what she wants - Desire to have mastery over him coupled with a wish to obey him

       “And I pray Jesus to cut short the lives/Of those who won’t be governed by their wives.”

       Balance between mastery and obedience, savior and wife. – neutralizes the binary opposition and women’s “three things by nature” as a social construction. Even grace from God is a social construction to instill nobility in people, who are not always on their best behavior, just like fire: she is honest, rational, and wise in picking her Mr. Right, from the point of view of “herstory.” In light of Crocker’s argument about meeting Pygmalion’s gaze as a sign of obedience (in the “Merchant’s Tale”), when the young and beautiful wife here finally comes to life to respond to the knight’s desire (her obedience), she is both servant and master. And at the same time the knight is both master (Pygmalion’s dream has come true) and servant too (having declared his obedience to her “I place myself in your wise governance” … “‘Then I’ve the mastery of you,’ said she … ‘Yes, certainly,’ said he, “I think it best.’”).

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