Emancipation: To Have and To Control
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale suggests that women’s greatest desire is to have complete control over their husband. As a woman, I say that it is not control that women are seeking. It is the equality that men are unwilling to give that women desire to obtain.
For centuries, societal laws, created and enforced by man, excluded women from voting and from owning property. These laws created a situation where women would be dependent on the male. If a woman does not have the right of voting on the laws that men have created, she cannot participate in altering those laws that are unsuitable to her condition. If a woman cannot own property, it is not possible for her to live independently from man, who does have this right. This renders her in a continually oppressive state.
When viewed in this manner, it is safe to assert that it is the male, who seeks to retain his control over the female, that dominates gender conflicts, rather than the female’s desire for control. It is the knight who rapes a maiden. Rape is known not just as an act of sex, but as an issue of power and control.
Additionally, for ages men have viewed their property as a validation of their self-worth, as an indication of their position in life. Throughout time, the male has considered a woman as his property. Depicting a “prize possession” with phrases like “my woman” or “my queynte”, the man exalts himself as an owner of a woman, or as one who is able to control a woman.
However, in the Tale, the knight’s attempt at controlling a woman by his raping of the maiden causes him to be subjected to judgement by the queen amidst a court of maidens and other women (lines 1026-28). In the queen’s presence, the knight does not even voluntarily stand respectfully (line 902), showing no reverence until prompted. Sweet redemption does come, perhaps through the forces of karma, where he is subsequently subjected to the request of the old woman that assisted him. This old woman allowed the knight to enter an agreement of his own free will. The knight is appalled at the marriage request. His manly view of being validated by his property is shattered (lines 1098-1101).
In the tale, there are women who desire emancipation (lines 935-39) from men and others who desire an emancipation that will allow expressions of qualities typically attributed to men (925-28). The Wife of Bath paints a portrait of men and women that stood on the threshold of the modern world.