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  • What Women Want? Mimesis and Gender in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale
  • Anne McTaggart (bio)

But nathelees, syn I knowe youre delit, / I shal fulfille youre worldly appetit.1

Chaucer’s Wife of Bath centers on a wonderfully fruitful paradox: she claims for women and for herself the right to “maistrie” and “sovereynetee” in marriage, but she does so by articulating the discourse imparted to her by the “auctoritee” of anti-feminism.2 Indeed, this paradoxical challenge to and reiteration of anti-feminist ideas has left Chaucer’s readers debating for decades which way the irony cuts: is the Wife to be understood as a proto-feminist, or is she merely “a delightful buffoon inadvertently lampooning herself for the ironic pleasure of a knowing, male audience”?3 How we choose to answer this question, moreover, decides in turn how we will answer the questions that arise from Chaucer’s representation of the struggle for “maistrie,” or dominance, in the prologue and tale generally: what causes violence in human relationships and societies, and how can violence be quelled or avoided? What does it mean to forgive insult or injury, and how is reconciliation achieved?

Chaucer’s Wife, Alisoun, tells the story of a rapist-knight who undergoes [End Page 41] a process of reeducation and reformation when he is charged with a quest to discover what it is that women want, and then is rewarded when the ugly old woman who supplies him with the answer in exchange for marriage is transformed into a beautiful and faithful young wife; thus, the knight’s quest to discover women’s desire concludes, ironically, with the fulfillment of his own “worldly appetit.” I open the present essay with the lines uttered by the ugly old woman before she magically transforms herself into the object of the knight’s desire in order to highlight the way in which the tale’s conclusion signals a crucial aporia: insofar as the old woman’s claim that women desire sovereignty above all is undermined by her surrender of sovereignty to her young husband, we never do find out, once and for all, what women want.

The Wife’s Tale is preceded in the Canterbury collection by a prologue, also narrated by the Wife of Bath, which serves as her confession, as she recalls her youthful exploits in love and marriage and reveals to her pilgrim-audience the manipulative stratagems by which she was able to control a succession of husbands and their wealth. Many of Chaucer’s readers have observed that the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale echo and parallel each other at several key points, particularly in reiterating the male surrender of maistrie: the rapist-knight surrenders maistrie to the magical “loathly lady” just as, in the prologue, Alisoun’s husbands surrender to her.4 One common reading of this narrative symmetry is to see the Wife’s tale as an exemplum of her confessional prologue: as Marshall Leicester puts it, in the prologue the Wife “sets out to make an example of herself” in order to prove by her own experience the “necessity of feminine ‘maistrie’”; she thus “offers the tale as a counter-exemplum to set in opposition to those in Janekyn’s book of wicked wives and the male misogynist tradition.”5 Nearly all interpretations that consider these parallels assume the loathly lady figure to be the Wife’s analogue and the rapist-knight to be representative of all men, and thus to be an analogue both for her husbands and for the textual “auctoritee” that she “quits” in her prologue: in this allegorical reading of the tale, therefore, “this old ‘wyf’ is like the Wife herself, her youth vanished, having to devise some way of continuing the ‘olde daunce’ of marriage—and life itself—in the no-man’s land between what women want and what men want.”6

The problem that remains, especially for gender-aware or feminist readings of the Wife, is the tale’s status as mere wish-fulfillment: if, in her tale, Alisoun is imagining herself in the dual role of powerful enchantress and beautiful young woman, she seems to betray an aging...


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