"I have a wyf, the worste that may be" - The representation of marriage in the Canterbury Tales


Term Paper, 2004
14 Pages, Grade: 66 (A-)

Excerpt

Index

1 Introduction

2 The representation of marriage in The Miller’s Tale, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, The Merchant’s Tale and The Franklin’s Tale
2.1 The Miller’s Prologue and Tale – Marriage as male mastery
2.2 The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale – Marriage as female mastery and commerce
2.3 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale – Marriage as male mastery, ommerce and legitimisation of lust
2.4 The Franklin’s Tale – Love and “gentillesse”

3 Conclusion

Bibliography

1 Introduction

“I have a wyf, the worste that may be,” says the merchant in his prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (E.1218). However, in the beginning of the Franklin’s Tale, the narrating voice speaks of “the joye, the ese, and the prosperitee / That is bitwixe an housbonde and his wyf” (F.804-05). This example shows how little unanimity there is among the characters of the Canterbury Tales when it comes to marriage, be they the pilgrims or be they the characters within the pilgrims’ tales. The aim of the present paper is to show the various ways in which Chaucer represents marriage in the Canterbury Tales. I will refer to The Miller’s Prologue and Tale, The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale and to The Franklin’s Tale. The first three chosen tales show marriage in a deformed shape, as a relationship over which predominance of one sex over the other and / or a strong economic interest are hovering and lead to unpleasant incidences. The fourth tale depicts wedlock as an ideal kind of marriage, a state of mutual connectedness in which values like patience, fidelity, generosity and nobility can be explored (lecture). I will support those claims with an analysis of the tales taken each by its own. I will also examine them as interrelated elements of what is considered a “marriage debate” (Hussey 135). According to this theory, the Franklin’s Tale is seen as the solution and final element of a debate which begins with the Wife of Bath and runs through The Clerk’s Tale and The Merchant’s Tale.

2 The representation of marriage in The Miller’s Tale, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, The Merchant’s Tale and The Franklin’s Tale

2.1 The Miller’s Prologue and Tale – Marriage as male mastery

The Knight’s Tale, which precedes The Miller’s Tale, focuses - according to the genre of courtly romance - on the conquest of a woman and not on the actual togetherness. The Miller’s Tale, a fabliau, is the first tale to depict the life of a married couple. The objects of scrutiny are the carpenter John and his “yonge” and “fair” wife Alison (A.3233). It is already in the prologue that the reader gets to know one of the most detrimental of John’s characteristic traits: “An housbonde shal nat been inquisityf / Of Goddes pryvetee, nor of his wyf” (A.3163-64). In addition to his “possessiveness” and jealousy, the carpenter is described as old, which “is enough to label him as the typical senex amans [old man in love]” (Hussey 140). As Alison is not only endowed with (dangerous) beauty but also with a lively nature (A.3257) that promises to make bad use of itself, the initial situation for the fabliau is set. John loves her more than his life (A.3221-22), yet it is this negative surplus of love called jealousy which finally triggers Alison’s decision to betray him with the clerk Nicholas: “Myn housbonde is so ful of jalousie / That but ye wayte wel and been privee, / I woot right wel I nam but deed” (A.3294-96). In addition, her surrender to Nicholas’ flatteries, and be they only spoken out of self-interest (Hussey 145), also suggests that her marriage does not yield what she might have hoped it would yield (A.3289). However, there is no hint that she actually loves Nicholas. It rather seems that to her, Nicholas is but a fellow conspirator who helps her to play a trick on John for revenge and who gives her physical pleasure. Absolon on the other hand, the rejected parish-clerk, is no serious alternative to John either. Rather, he is a parody of a courtly lover. He might well suffer the torments of unfulfilled love (Hussey 145), but what makes him ridiculous is his exaggerated body care (A.3690-3693) and the object to whom his strong feelings are directed: Alison is not a fine lady of higher social rank to be worshipped from afar (Hussey 145).

The depiction of marriage in The Miller’s Tale can be summarised as follows: John has married a girl who is too young for him. He is cuckolded because of the age difference and his jealousy which have resulted in a loveless relationship (Hussey 140). The wife tries to fill the gap of a balanced mutual commitment by taking revenge, but betraying John with Nicholas can be nothing but a temporary pleasure. Absolon cannot be taken seriously due to his behaviour. Marriage in this tale offers three choices: Keep your relationship despite its cold temperature, enter a love affair based on sex and a childish delight in tricks, or admit an “uncourtly lover” (Hussey 141) into your life. None will result in harmony with true and appropriately measured mutual devotion.

2.2 The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale – Marriage as female mastery and commerce

The Wife of Bath’s Tale must be analysed alongside the prologue since the prologue is much longer than the actual tale and serves as a foil for it, as I will show. The predominant aspect of both texts is mastery of women over their husbands (Cigman 14). In the prologue, the reader is told according to which criteria the wife chooses her husbands: “An housbonde I wol have, I nil lette / Which shal be bothe my detour and my thrall” (Cigman 5). She sees marriage as a bargain (her husband is to be her debtor) and as a means to exert power (he must be her slave) (Wetherbee 84). Wetherbee quotes a passage that shows poignantly how much the wife’s beliefs are rooted in commerce: “The flour is goon, ther is namoore to telle; / The bren, as I best kan, now moste I selle” (86). As she was married at the age of twelve (D.4), it is hardly surprising that she thinks that youth and beauty are exchanged for wedlock, which gives material security in return. Now, however, she is old, the bloom of youth is lost, the flower is gone. If “flour” is translated as “flour” like in modern English, a pun emerges: She used to sell the good parts of her corn and is now condemned to make the most out of the litter, the bran (Wetherbee 86). Marriage at the age of twelve was nothing unusual in the Middle Ages. Children were even promised to each other when they were seven to create or strengthen family bonds (Leyser 108, 120). Knowing that the wife was exploited in such a way by her parents, the reader will be more indulgent when the wife depicts herself as a shrew and tries to exert power over others (Lecture). She may well make her husbands raise their voice against this general wickedness of wives: Married women take away their husbands’ money, they want them to die quickly to access the inheritance and their beauty constantly threatens their husbands to be cuckolded (Hussey 149-50). However, even if the wife proves as the embodiment of those vices – the “continual Thou seist … makes them [the husbands] appear intolerable complainers” (Hussey 149). The relationships between the wife and husbands one to four are in a state of gridlock: With a wicked wife struggling for predominance on one side and a nagging husband on the other, there can be no harmony. Thus, the wife is “irrevocably committed to the sole alternative she knows, the literal, sexual purpose of marriage” (Wetherbee 85). Her fiery defence of physical pleasure and remarriage of the opening lines (D.126-132; 35-38) may be seen as a plea for a less rigid clerical teaching of ideal marriage, but the reader gets the impression that a mild judgement of sexuality is not the final solution to those unhappy marriages .

[...]

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Details

Title
"I have a wyf, the worste that may be" - The representation of marriage in the Canterbury Tales
College
University of Warwick  (Department of English)
Course
Medieval to Renaissance English Literature
Grade
66 (A-)
Author
Year
2004
Pages
14
Catalog Number
V22562
ISBN (eBook)
9783638258579
ISBN (Book)
9783656562597
File size
463 KB
Language
English
Notes
Analysed tales: - The Miller's Tale - The Wife of Bath's Tale - The Merchant's Tale - The Franklin's Tale
Tags
Canterbury, Tales, Medieval, Renaissance, English, Literature
Quote paper
Anne Thoma (Author), 2004, "I have a wyf, the worste that may be" - The representation of marriage in the Canterbury Tales, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/22562

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