Gender Stereotypes


Gender stereotypes depict thebasic generalizations made regarding gender differences, attributesand roles of persons. These stereotypes may be affirmative orpessimistic, and they convey incorrect information concerning gender.In The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, the portrayal of genderstereotyping is evident. The Canterbury Tale compares and contrastsportrayals of women in the four tales as it illustrates how Chaucerlives through medieval gender stereotypes by his portrayals ofgender, contrasting portrayals of men as a conflicting personality,or the relationships of portrayals of gender in the tales.The discussion highlights the portrayal of women in The Knight’sTale, The Clerk’s Tale, and The Reeve’s Tale are represented asobjects, passive, submissive, inferior, subordinates, have noindependence and are powerless. However, on The Wife of Bath’sTale, women are represented as powerful, superior, and have sexualfreedom

Comparisonon the Portrayal of Gender

Foremost, the objectivity ofthe female figure from the male chauvinism.The Canterbury Tales portrays women as objects on a daily basis. Forinstance, in the Knight’s Tale, Emily, (Emelye) who is the mainwoman character is deemed as beautiful and is liked to a goddess. Sheis loved by two prisoners Palamon and Arcite who do not know herambitions, desires, or personality. Emelye’s beauty is what makesthe two prisoners fall for her. They are ready to do anything inorder to get her for a wife. In this case, she is treated like a“trophy wife”1.Palamon andArcite arranges fora battle contest in which the winner obtainsEmelye as a reward.Although the Knights Tale demonstrates courtliness, women areobjectified and seen as possessions. Besides, they have nosovereignty to decide on what they want. Men appear to have powerover women and decide on their behalf. In this tale, men areportrayed as heroic. Chaucer represents Arcite and Palamon, who arethe central characters, as heroic. This is evidenced by the fact thatthe two battle in order to have Emily. It can be said that theirdedication to have her is not based on love, but is linked with men’sdesire to have power over the women who surround them.

The author displays the imageof women as submissive of their power to the male figure.In the Reeve’s Tale, two university apprentices execute vengeanceupon Miller by infringing on his possessions. They do sleep withMiller’s wife as well as his daughter, an act that indicates howthese two women are treated as objects of vengeance. The Wife ofBath’s Tale is categorized in the “marriage group” tales. Thetale revolves around Knight, who receives a death sentence for rapinga young girl. However, the Queen promises to rescue him only if hecould answer her question. “What thing it is that women mostdesire?”2Knight did not know the right answer to the question, and hadproposed to assist him on a condition that he would marry her inreturn. She is an old and despicable lady who Knight decides to staywith despite. He devotes and submits himself to the abhorrent ladyand this indicates a transfer of the power ratio. Knight turns out asbeing a victim of coercion, the same thing he had had made his maidento be after raping her. The height of Knight’s oppression isevidenced from the power overturn. His total passivity andsubordination is evidenced when he allows his wife to decide on herfeatures and appearance. This illustrates that Knight’s wife isfull of authority and is not obedience to him. However, the raping ofthe young girl show that women are treated as objects of rape.3

According to the tales analysis,women in society have a single basis of rank, class. It shows that inreality, the degree of recognition of women in Chaucer’s CanterburyTales lies on their class within the society as well as their levelof experience. Their beauty and age (young or old) are some of thefactors considered by men while choosing a woman. Such factors aswisdom, intelligence and abilities of women are not desirable. In TheWife of Bath’s Tale for instance, selfishness, attractiveness, andwealth are the main themes of the story. The tale is also a goodindication of how women should be treated by their men.

At the age, woman was aservant to her man. Amajor outstanding character in the tales isThe Wife of Bath.She is perceived as being better as compared to men who encircle herlife. In The Clerks Tale, Griselda is a poor, strong and kind womanwho gets married to a Walter, a nobleman. Walter chooses Griselda ashis wife due to the persistent pressure from his family. As a result,Walter is attracted to Griselda’s modesty as well as her pledge toalways honor all his wishes. However, he is uncertain regarding herloyalty and this makes him to test her commitment as well as her lovefor him. He uses two deceptions in this case. First, he makes up astory that he has murdered her kids. Secondly, he tells Griselda thatthe marriage has been called off as he is going to marry anotherwoman. From the reader’s point of view, it is clear that Griselda’shumbleness and obedience is paramount. She does not protest toanything. This humbleness has been pointed out by Chaucer as beingdistinctive. Unlike men, Chaucer puts forth that women are able to beextremely humble. In spite of the fact that her obedience andhumbleness can be termed as virtues, she did not acknowledge thelimit of it. She allowed her man to act cruelly towards her withoutany objections. This indicates the representation of women totolerate any pain that their men inflict on them. They are notsupposed to protest but take everything with obedience andhumbleness.4In this case, Griselda can be said to be underneath he husband, whotreats her badly.

The tales demonstrate the malefigure as a symbol of power.During the medieval times, women could not struggle to get theirrights, as they were deprived of them by men. Besides, they weresupposed to abide by the set societal codes.5In this case, The Wife of Bath is a major and outstandingprotagonist. Unlike the women in the other three tales who abided byeverything that was enforced by the society including violation oftheir rights, the Wife of Bath uses her influence to obtain herrights. The character is represented as an example of a liberated andstrong woman with remarkable capabilities, which were not commonduring the medieval times. This is overwhelming considering that thecharacter was illustrated by Chaucer, who is a medieval person. Thepower of The Wife of Bath was reflected when she married fivehusbands. In the story, she asserts that “I’ll tell the truthThose husbands that I had, Three of them were good and two were badThe three that I call ‘good’ were rich and old” 6.The behavior of the wife varied from one husband to the other. Shenever loved the old and rich and she beleaguered them similar to thesardonic character of a medieval woman. She was able to control herhusbands to her benefit, and she brags for effectively defeating thepatriarchal culture. In the permeable, she puts forth that of beingan “expert in al min age” because she had managed to marry fivehigh status husbands.7In spite of this, TheWife of Bath considersthat she has not lost her honor although her behaviors may be termedas distasteful. She is surrounded by a world characterized bypatriarchal law and doctrines, and she has been able to positionherself well. She also has sexual freedom and authority over her manwhich she is not ready to give up.

The male figure is on aconflicting end as the author uses it to suppress the femalecharacter. Themedieval time was highly characterized by major gender stereotypes.For instance, a perfect woman for a man was supposed to do everythingfor him including housework.8Crane points out that women in the medieval times were separated fromthe principles of a mutually dependent society. The reason was thattheir sexuality replaced socio-economic roles.9The perceptions of Chaucer regarding women as well as his opinionsabout love are a major attribute in The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer isviewed as a person who acknowledges the medieval perception of women.He adheres to medieval gender stereotypes through his portrayals ofgender. For instance, during this time, women were not perceived asbeing similar to men. While some featured them as being worse, othersfeatured them as being better. The Clerk’s Tale and The Wife ofBath’s Tale are some of the examples in which Chaucer offersantithetical perceptions regarding women similar to medieval times.

Seemingly, in the tales.Emily, Griselda, and miller’s wife and the daughter appear to bepowerless and dependent.They are denied their rights as women by being treated as objects,and they are not allowed to decide on what they want. Through theWife of Bath, Chaucer portrays an unequal association between womenand men. This is based on the grounds that women were ruled by theirmen. The underlying doctrines as well as means gave them the power todo that. The subjectivity of the Wife of Bath is mirrored through herrepresentation on the position of women in the society. Unlike otherwomen, she makes her own decisions and interpretations without anyinfluence from the clergy. She perceives the clergy as beingmisogynist and prejudiced. She aims at exhibiting the impact ofoppression among women. This is achieved through the overturning ofthe power ration. She rules over the men who surround her. The taleis an illustration of gender conflict which arises when women haveauthority over men. By allowing self-representation, Chaucerchallenges different portrayals which encircle femininity.10The main objective of the patriarchy and the clergy is to bar womenfrom having power or control over their lives.11Emelye and Ypolita are two women who are denied their power. AfterEmelye was handed over by Arcite to Palamon for marriage, she acceptssince she lacks any right to object the decision. She is subjected tomale chauvinism and influence. Like Emelye, women in the CanterburyTales are the ultimate submissive and obedient women who accept theirposition in the medieval society.12Chaucer portrays a part of the medieval society that is dominated bymale.

Physical anatomy and the Romansecular law were some of the conditions which influenced inferiorityof women during the medieval time. The volatility that characterizedthe medieval community made women to fight for control as evidencedin The Wife of Bath. In most cases, status or power was attained bypreserving virginity. However, women were required to obey theirhusbands devotedly in line with their societal responsibilities.

From the above analysis, it iscertain that Chaucer both challenges and adheres to medieval genderstereotypes through his portrayals of gender. Like the medievaltimes, Chaucer depicts the female characters as objects,powerless, obedient, and submissive. On the other hand, men areportrayed as authoritative, powerful, and suppressive bywomen. In the four Canterbury Tales analyzed in this paper, all womenexcept the Wife of Bath appear to have these characters. Women werestripped of their authority and forced to obey. They were oppressedin order to subordinate to male power. All this was done by theclergy and patriarchy, who employed their influence and control inthe society. However, the creation of the Wife of Bath indicates awoman character who does not follow the societal codes as required bythe clergy and patriarchal.


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2 Vladislava Vaneckova. Women in Geoffery Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: Woman as a Narrator, Woman in the Narrative. 2007. Retrieved from

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5Elaine Tuttle Hansen, Chaucer’s Fictions of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

6 Vaneckova, Vladislava. Women in Geoffery Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: Woman as a Narrator, Woman in the Narrative. 2007. Retrieved from

7 Vaneckova, Vladislava. Women in Geoffery Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: Woman as a Narrator, Woman in the Narrative. 2007. Retrieved from

8 S. H. Rigby, Chaucer in Context: Society, Allegory, Gender (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996).

9 Susan Crane. Gender and Romance in Chaucer`s Canterbury Tales. Princeton University Press, 1994.

10 Mei Ling Chao. Female voice in Geoffery Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. General Education and Transdisciplinary Research Vol.1 No.2 May, 2007.

11 Jill Mann, Feminizing Chaucer. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1991.

12 Carolyn Dinshaw &amp David Wallace (eds). The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women`s Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.