The Wife of Bath: Sexuality vs. Symbol
By Frances Beer
Canadian Women’s Studies, Vol. 3:2 (1981)
Introduction: In the figure of the Wife of Bath, Chaucer has given us one of the favourite women of all English literature. Alisoun is lusty, crude, iconoclastic, gleefully selfish and smugly lecherous, with a bold, handsome face, ample hips and an unabashed appetite for power. Her signs are an amorous Venus and the warlike Mars: she is aggressive towards men (she has had five husbands and buried them all) and competitive towards other women.
In the prologue to her Tale she reveals herself to her fellow pilgrims at length and broadly. She basks in the spotlight as she relives the saga of her five marriages (blithely misquoting scripture to justify her serial polygamy) and details her methods for gaining conjugal control. She is a veritable encyclopedia of medieval misogynistic stereotypes and her tactic is to attribute these qualities – lechery, vanity, greed, shrewishness, deception – to herself before anyone else has a chance. The theory, evidently, is that the best defense is a good offense; assertiveness training she does not need.