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Thursday, August 07, 2008

gender relations in canterbury tales

The Canterbury Tales makes for a good example of a piece of literature which was informed by the gender ideologies of its time. Since patriarchal ideology dominated during the period, it was but expectable that male dominion and the attendant female subordination were the norm and which eventually influenced the literary work and may be reflected from it. Hence, various forms of authority by men and many works of oppression on women were manifested in the tales so far taken in class. These tales and their narrators are proofs of how gender relations were imagined during Geoffrey Chaucer’s milieu.
The patriarchal male as macho is evident in the knight and his tale, in the reeve’s tale, in the man of law and his tale, in the last husband of the wife of Bath and her tale, and in the clerk’s tale. The knight, for instance, possesses ideal qualities that have been socially constructed as male: strong in order to stand the rigors of war, gentlemanly in order to show refinement and chivalry, and brave in order to pursue a career in the military as well as engage in duels. These knightly qualities, which are possessed by the characters in his own tale, eventually found themselves precipitating up to the modern times, causing conflicts among relating genders: men are considered strong only because they have relatively more powerful physiology, men view women as the perpetual damsels in distress for men to rescue, and physical fights present the best means of showing courage. Meanwhile, in the reeve’s tale, the avenging students showed their virility by sleeping with the miller’s daughter and spouse. Using women as objects, these men squished the machismo of the miller in order to show him that the upper hand is always gained by the more macho of the lot. As for the man of law, he subscribes to the idea of the man of honor by keeping his words about telling his tale. A real man, it is socially constructed, does not break his promise under the pains of being called fickle-minded, a trait pejoratively alluded to women. What is more, the man of law does as he preaches, advising the crowd that the laws given to others must also be followed, as real men are inclined to do. In his tale, the Father of Constance decides to marry her off, an instance wherein the male will foists itself on a woman’s and it should not be defied, much less questioned. Meanwhile, the last, much younger husband of the wife of Bath acts out his machismo by beating her up and reading misogynist texts. It may be gleaned from these actions that the wife of Bath’s husband resorts to both physical and psychological violence in order to prove that he rules over her. In her story, these two types of violence figure when the knight rapes a nymph. This use of force against a woman is, of course, a power tripping on a man’s part. Finally, in the clerk’s tale, the marquee chooses a wife from the lower class in order to contain her within his influence, from the time he marries her to the times when he asks her to surrender their children for murder. Other than the prevalence of male will, there is nothing more to explain why it was necessary for the marquee’s wife to submit to her husband’s absurd wishes. These aforementioned examples from The Canterbury Tales are evident of the onslaught of machismo in their many nuances. While these appeared in a literary work, they are nonetheless an unerring record of social truths during Chaucer’s context. It is only disturbing that not much has changed if the predominant machismo of the contemporary times will be compared to its medieval predecessor.
On the other hand, the patriarchal product of the Madonna/whore binary is expressed in these same tales. In the knight’s tale, Emily was once shown asking the Goddess of Beauty to sustain her virginity, which provides an insight into the mind of a woman regarding the degree to which she values her chastity, her attempt at oneness with the ideal woman that’s the Blessed Virgin Mary. Also, she is the object of a vicious rivalry between Palamon and Arcite, a case which shows how men treat women as a territory to be conquered and fought over. Her passivity implies that whoever wins from the battling suitors, the romantic stake that she is does not even have a say on her own fate. In the reeve’s tale, for instance, the miller’s daughter and wife were shown to be passively objectified by the avenging students. The daughter, in particular, was presented in the tale as not having protested while she was being defiled. In which case, she seemed to be waiting for her own deflowering. When she actually cried, it was to manifest her joy at having had a good time with her defiler. Meanwhile, the mother also fell victim as the other student made a sex object out of her. Thinking he was her husband, she was ready to submit herself to the student’s sensual whims. She was being violated and she was unknowing all along. In the man of law’s tale, Constance is for the most part a silent suffering woman who gets married off without so much as a pronouncement on her destiny as a wife. Likewise, in the murderous circumstances in which she figured inextricably, she was expected to show Christian virtues because the male-informed Judeo-Christian religion extols the Virgin Mother for her silent suffering, which Constance must emulate. By extension, whatever suffering a wife undergoes, even if it is caused by the husband, she must fall silent because this womanly virtue will somehow be rewarded. Meanwhile, the wife of Bath is the archetypal slut who uses her body in order to get money from her previous husbands. Her vulgarity is unbecoming of a woman of her rich class, although it should not be lost that she practically commodified her body in order to be wedded to her current socioeconomic status. Also, not in any husband of hers was she ultimately submissive, a fact that shows her defiance of the gender conventions of her time. Her strong personality was not contained even by her batterer of a young husband. While she is already the opposite of the ideal woman, she is not even apologetic about it, making her all the more the wild woman archetype. In her tale, a nymph gets raped, rather ironically, by a supposedly virtuous knight. This is a sample of the reduced treatment of a woman as a person of dignity. What is more, this crime against women takes an ugly turn when in the end, the perpetrator gets a trophy of a wife apart from being granted amnesty from a death sentence. Also, the rapist who is horrified over his hag of a wife is a reflected image of men who objectify women by nurturing a male dream in which women are beautiful and doting. The perfect woman is one that fulfills the male fantasy of the kitchen caretaker as well as bed attendant. Anything less like an undesirable hag is to be dismissed as non-wife material. Finally, in the clerk’s tale, the marquee’s wife is the paragon of submissiveness because she remains obedient to her husband despite his criminal proclamations. Right in the beginning, she does not so much as protest not having to decide her marital fate. She is not supposed to defy the marquee even though the lives of her own children are at risk. In essence, she is an active participant to the slaughter of her very offspring, which case puts her ideal meekness to a fault.
These portrayals of men and women of the English society from which The Canterbury Tales was produced are accurate descriptions of gender relations during that time because the gender ideologies of the period were propagated by such apparatuses as the Church, the State and the home. Being so, the consciousness seemed too natural to be interrogated, especially with the authority invested on the abovementioned apparatuses. There may be departures from these ideologies but that entailed ostracism from the institution whose perpetuated ideology was challenged, so it was likely that the biased setup might have gone unquestioned, especially in consideration of the subject’s marginalized position. For those who dared deviate from the norm, their subversion of the ideology was a telling statement that they attempted to liberate themselves from gender stereotypes and, in effect, were able to celebrate their identity that’s so much different from everybody else because it is their own.


  1. i prefer boccaccio to chaucer.... masmasaya and masaccessible....