The Wife of Bath’s Tale is one of the most famous and frequently taught of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The compounded irony is laid out thus: A man is telling a story of a feminist woman telling the story of a knightly man who forces himself upon a woman, who for his crime is sentenced by the queen (who was deferred to by the king) to spend a year searching for the answer to the question of what women want, at the end of which he is given the answer by an old woman who makes him swear to fulfill her next request, thereby saving his life, and yet cursing himself to honor her request to marry and bed her, so that he is tormented until she gives him the choice of either having her be beautiful and unfaithful or old, ugly and faithful, a choice which he skirts by letting her decide, thus learning his lesson by deferring to his wife and earning a woman both beautiful and faithful. The moral, says the Wife of Bath, is for God to bless all women with hot sexy men who will let their wives do what they want. At least in this man Chaucer’s story.
Because it’s a simple story with potential for teaching irony, foreshadowing, and gender relations, (also, because it’s in our textbook), I’ve decided to teach it for the last 2 years. We are on blocks schedule, by semester. I teach it once in the fall, once in the spring, and I have an hour and twenty minutes, plenty of time to read the tale and do activities. I teach to seniors in a small, rural “factory/mine town” in the Appalachian hills near the Virginia-West Virginia border.
This past year has been a unique opportunity:
In the fall I had a class of 22 boys and 4 girls.
In the spring I have 22 girls and 5 boys.
It was a battle of the sexes. The results spoke a lot about gender views in the classroom.
When Boys Outnumber Girls:
This is a class of mostly athletic boys, football and baseball players, many of whom attend a vocational school for most of the day.
As we read the tale, the boys reacted loudly, with their “whoosh” and “oohs” and “yuck.” When I ask the question of how fair the tale is, my responses are all from boys. Even when I ask if the girls have an opinion, all 4 are silent. But the boys talk.
“I mean, I think its fair. He had to marry that old hag.”
“If a girl acted like that to me, I’d hit her.” (Yes, that was said.)
“If I had to marry a woman like that, kill me.”
Ironically, the one boy in the class who fills the role of the school “goth” and openly speaks out against authority and the norms of society happens to be the one to offer a weighty conclusion to the sexist tirades of his peers. “Your class needs morals,” he says.
There is, I need mention, another exception, a true gentleman, a young man who unashamedly fits the “geek” stereotype and professes his own code of chivalry he believes is analogous to knighthood. With mawkish articulation he offers an oral paragraph of care and respect for women everywhere, to which the rest of the boys giggle (like little girls). Giggle all they want, he falls into an adorable relationship with a girl who soon moves in to town, and on the first day of class walks her to my room and tells me to “take good care of her.”
We can only hope that these boys are kidding, that elsewhere in life they treat women with the upmost respect and dignity. It’s only a story in school, after all.
When Girls Outnumber Boys:
This is a class of mostly girls, a third of whom play basketball or softball, half of whom attend a vocational school for most of the day.
As we read the tale, the girls react with “oh no,” and “wait a minute” and “but he just—.” When I ask the question of how fair the tale is, my responses are all from girls, except for one boy in the corner who acts as my proverbial “that’s what she said” button. The girls almost unanimously express their dissatisfaction at the knight “getting off easy” without so much as a prison sentence or execution. A couple firmly express in complex sentences why the whole situation is unfair to women.
“I think that if a man did that I would not marry him, but instead I would kill him myself.”
“You can’t let a man get away with something like that just because he learned his lesson.”
“He raped her! He raped that woman!”
Most of these answers also come from girls who are more avid readers, who are not in vocational training. They are not necessarily more vocal, but more articulate in their expression of disgust and disdain for the story’s end.
The boys are silent at this point, even the pervertometer.
Later, on the essay portion of the Canterbury test, a handful of girls from this spring class introspectively express that the tale is unfair to women, not only because the man’s punishment (or lack thereof), but because Chaucer portrays women as all wanting the same thing—to overpower men, to be the whip, to wear the pants. “Not all women are like that” one writes. One female student indicated that it is wrong not only for a man to rape a woman, but for a woman to rape a man, a reality most of us rarely include in such a discussion.
There is so much to be said about the expectations of gender, the state of teenage dating, the role of power in gender relations, the notions of justice, of marriage, of beauty. There is a whole layer of gender and education to be added. Here we are, in a culture where women seem to read more than men, reading of a time when the only literate people seemed to be males, a time when a well-read wife who spoke her mind was a source of both comic relief and controversy.
What have I observed? In an area like mine, boys tend to disregard the sensitivity of subjects like rape and power relationships between men and women, even in the presence of girls and a teacher. When they outnumber girls, boys speak their mind, or at least don’t care how crass their jokes are. When girls outnumber boys, girls are less quiet and more outspoken about their concerns for justice in a male-oriented world. Girls tend to provide more substantial and thoughtful essay responses to topics in literature related to gender. Both males and females tend to easily recognize the layers of irony present in the tale, yet girls more readily provide open discussion of how the ironies of such relationships exist today.
And perhaps my own perceptions are influenced by my history and my view of my own classroom:
I tend to have more sympathy for the girls, because I remember what it was like to be a boy in high school and hear some of the things other boys said (and sometimes being, I’m ashamed to say, one of “those boys”).
I was raised to respect a girl and to save sex for marriage, but also to support a conventional household with conventional gender roles.
I’ve studied how commercial and entertainment media tells women to be objects for men, and tells men not to read a lot.
I received a liberal graduate education with much focus on political correctness and equality, even taking a course on medieval literature for, by, and about women.
I also have an aversion to athletes from my early adolescent days of being picked on and belittled by them.
I’ve seen countless episodes of Law and Order:SVU with my wife who often works with sexually abused women and children.
I’ve been married for more than five years and experienced a long-term relationship with a woman who grew up in such a culture as ours with its contradictory messages to women.
How I interpreted and remember this vague, qualitative data also reveals some things about me as an instructor.
The Wife from Bath believes that women want power over their husbands, but that a close answer is that they be flattered. But what kind of power? What kind of flattery? In my classroom, I try to provide a space where girls and boys feel equal power to participate, learn, and succeed. I also try to “flatter” students of both genders with comments on what matters—not looks, popularity, or status—but honesty, effort, creativity, punctuality, patience, inquiry, and the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.
May God send us students willing to learn respect for self, for the “other,” and for reading.