Dismissive Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer was a male author—that much is obvious. He was a male poet creating through a male mind, and, most likely, for a dominantly male audience. Through his Wife of Bath’s Tale, he attempts to construct a female in the sense that it only extends masculinity, which proves that he is neither a pro-feminist nor non-anti-feminist. Elaine Tuttle Hansen argues that Chaucer represents the Wife through male mentality and tendency, and rightfully so, revealing to us a Chaucer wholly incapable of depicting a fully pure and lucid representation of a woman. Perhaps Chaucer’s intent wasn’t to create a fully fleshed woman, but to display, through femaleness, the faults of maleness and perfect them in creating a fully fleshed out man.

I will look past the Wife of Bath in her prologue, and rather look into her tale, showing how the Elf Queen is a male-created male extension. Chaucer here doesn’t give us a woman; a complete man is what he offers us.

Where Hansen assumes that the Wife’s “denouement implies that the Wife herself lacks confidence in the female’s powers of speech” (33), consider instead that, we dismiss the assumption that Chaucer tried “to think himself inside a woman’s head” (55), assuming that Chaucer never gave women power in the first place. He doesn’t only create a “lusty bacheler” with an egregious “frat boy” nature (so to speak), but he also propounds that this knight is in control all along—only because he is male. Guinevere, out of Arthurian intervention, gives this knight a chance to live, commanding him a charge reminiscent to Gawain in Gawain and the Green Knight. But this knight’s quest isn’t to find what is desired most by women, as it may seem, but what men want women to desire most: command and control:

Wommen desiren to have sovereyntee

As wel over hir housbond as hir love,

And for to been in maistrie hym above. (III.1038-1040)

Women desire to have sovereignty

As well over their husband as their love,

And for to be in mastery [of] him above.

This idea of dominance questions the very idea of a truly feminine character in control of her husband. While I do not argue that dominance isn’t the correct answer, I don’t say it’s the best. Naturally, I think out of a male mentality, but if Chaucer tried to convey himself as being unbiased in creating the Wife and her Elf Queen, he falls short by assuming that dominance will elevate the position of the Elf Queen. Thinking women are in control over their husbands, Chaucer is not, as Hansen argues, “mellow and great…because he” does not transcend “the personal, the biased, the situated and above all the gendered position” (54). The Queen fails; after all, who would desire to marry a knight whose only claim to gentillesse is through birth, by no means any gain of his own? The Queen, as the portrayal of the Wife’s tale, is immensely able to obtain any man she desires, but instead chooses faithfulness over freedom. This is clearly a male story written with male intent to show how best right the wrongs inherent in men, whether through enchantment or marriages. In male stories, females are clearly the victims of male onslaught, as the Wife herself recounts this similitude vis-à-vis the painted lion to the painted—or rather written—female.

That Chaucer extends the knight’s character to portray him through the Elf Queen shows, in Hansen’s words, that he falls short of “the ability to imagine and represent the point of view of the Other” (54). The knight, dull and vapid unless speaking to the Elf Queen (somewhat, at least), was in a position of vulnerability to the Queen, who could have easily manipulated him as she pleased. But the Queen shows herself to complete this man, giving her brute husband his banal desires, offering to manipulate her guise:

For, by my trouthe, I wol be to yow bothe—

This is to seyn, ye, bothe fair and good.

I prey to God that I moote sterven wood,

But I to yow be also good and trewe… (III.1240-1243)

She instructs him in the ways of gentillesse, that he may be fruitful through her, becoming a fitter knyghte. The Elf Queen submits her power of choice to the knight her power of choice, clearly showing she is unable to conquer his disposition, though she attempts to find error in his idea of gentillesse:

Looke who that is moost vertuous alway,

Pryvee and apert, and moost entendeth ay

To do the gentil dedes that he kan;

Taak hym for the grettest gentil man.

Crist wole we clayme of hym oure gentillesse,

Nat of oure eldres for hire old richesse.

For thogh they yeve us al hir heritage,

For which we clayme to been of heigh parage,

Yet may they nat biquethe for no thyng

To noon of us hir vertuous lyvyng,

That made hem gentil men ycalled be,

And bad us folwen hem in swich degree.

The knight receives what he most desires—fairness and faithfulness—only because he gave the Queen what she wanted. The powerful Queen has been undermined by a base knight, though the Wife—nay, Chaucer, finds resolution in this story. The Wife is neither nonexistent nor the simple creation of male mind; she is the extension of Chaucer’s maleness, completing the full man.