Gender stereotypes depict thebasic generalizations made regarding gender differences, attributesad roles of persons.1These stereotypes may be affirmative or pessimistic, and they conveyincorrect information concerning gender. Although most personsacknowledge the jeopardy of gender stereotyping, they go on makingsuch kinds of generalizations. Every person has his/her own thoughts,desires, and feelings in spite of their gender. This implies that thestereotypes are extremely simplistic thus do not portrayindividual’s attributes of each gender. Gender stereotype iswidespread, and there exists various ways in which men and women areportrayed.
In The Canterbury Tales byGeoffrey Chaucer, the portrayal of gender stereotyping is evident.Women in The Knight’s Tale, The Clerk’s Tale, and The Reeve’sTale are represented as objects, passive, submissive, inferior,subordinates, have no independence and are powerless.2However, on The Wife of Bath’s Tale, women are represented aspowerful, superior, and have sexual freedom. On the other hand, menhave been portrayed as powerful, dominant, heroic and to be obeyed bytheir women apart from The Wife of Bath’s Tale. The current paperdiscusses the portrayal of gender in The Canterbury Tales. Itcompares and contrasts portrayals of women in four tales whichinclude The Knight’s Tale, The Clerk’s Tale, The Reeve’s Tale,and The Wife of Bath’s Tale. The paper illustrates how Chaucerchallenges or adheres to medieval gender stereotypes through hisportrayals of gender, contrasting portrayals of men, or therelationships of portrayals of gender in the frame (prologues) andthe tales. The paper also represents the portrayals of men as well asthe conflicting gender stereotypes.
Comparisonon the Portrayal of Gender
In the four Canterbury Tales,there is evidence of gender stereotyping. Some of theserepresentations are similar in all the four tales. To start with, theCanterbury 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”. Palamon and Arcite arranges for a battle contestin which the winner obtains Emelye as a reward. Although the KnightsTale demonstrates courtliness, women are objectified and seen aspossessions. Besides, they have no sovereignty to decide on what theywant. Men appear to have power over women and decide on their behalf.In this tale, men are portrayed as heroic. Chaucer represents Arciteand Palamon, who are the central characters, as heroic. This isevidenced by the fact that the two battle in order to have Emily. Itcan be said that their dedication to have her is not based on love,but is linked with men’s desire to have power over the women whosurround them.
In the Reeve’s Tale, twouniversity apprentices execute vengeance upon Miller by infringing onhis possessions. They do sleep with Miller’s wife as well as hisdaughter, an act that indicates how these two women are treated asobjects of vengeance. The Wife of Bath’s Tale is categorized in the“marriage group” tales. The tale revolves around Knight, whoreceives a death sentence for raping a young girl. However, the Queenpromises to rescue him only if he could answer her question. “Whatthing it is that women most desire?”3Knight did not know the right answer to the question, and hagproposed 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.4
From this analysis, it shows thatin reality, the degree of recognition of women in Chaucer’sCanterbury Tales lies on their class within the society as well astheir level of experience. Their beauty and age (young or old) aresome of the factors considered by men while choosing a woman. Suchfactors as wisdom, intelligence and abilities of women are notdesirable. In The Wife of Bath’s Tale for instance, selfishness,attractiveness, and wealth are the main themes of the story. The taleis also a good indication of how women should be treated by theirmen.
The medieval time was highlycharacterized by major gender stereotypes. For instance, a perfectwoman for a man was supposed to do everything for him includinghousework.5Crane 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.6The 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.
A major outstanding character inthe 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 of 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.7In this case, Griselda can be said to be underneath he husband, whotreats her badly.
During the medieval times, womencould not struggle to get their rights, as they were deprived of themby men. Besides, they were supposed to abide by the set societalcodes.8In 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” 9.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.10In 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.
In the other three tales, Emily,Griselda, and miller’s wife and the daughter appear to bepowerless. They are denied their rights as women by being treated asobjects, and they are not allowed to decide on what they want. Through the Wife of Bath, Chaucer portrays an unequal associationbetween women and men. This is based on the grounds that women wereruled by their men. The underlying doctrines as well as means gavethem the power to do that. The subjectivity of the Wife of Bath ismirrored through her representation on the position of women in thesociety. Unlike other women, she makes her own decisions andinterpretations without any influence from the clergy. She perceivesthe clergy as being misogynist and prejudiced. She aims at exhibitingthe impact of oppression among women. This is achieved through theoverturning of the power ration. She rules over the men who surroundher. The tale is an illustration of gender conflict which arises whenwomen have authority over men. By allowing self-representation,Chaucer challenges different portrayals which encircle femininity.11
The main objective of thepatriarchy and the clergy is to bar women from having power orcontrol over their lives.12Emelye 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.13Chaucer 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 are portrayed asheroic, powerful, and obeyed by women. In the four Canterbury Talesanalyzed in this paper, all women except the Wife of Bath appear tohave these characters. Women were stripped of their authority andforced to obey. They were oppressed in order to subordinate to malepower. All this was done by the clergy and patriarchy, who employedtheir influence and control in the society. However, the creation ofthe Wife of Bath indicates a woman character who does not follow thesocietal codes as required by the clergy and patriarchal.
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1 Alice H. Eagly & Antonio Mladinic. Gender Stereotypes and Attitudes Toward Women and Men. Pers Soc Psychol Bull, 15 (4) 1989: 543-558.
2 Mei Ling Chao. Female voice in Geoffery Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. General Education and Transdisciplinary Research Vol.1 No.2 May, 2007.
3 Vladislava Vaneckova. Women in Geoffery Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: Woman as a Narrator, Woman in the Narrative. 2007. Retrieved from http://is.muni.cz/th/74590/ff_m/chaucer.pdf
4 Burrow, J. A. (2004). "The Canterbury Tales I: romance". The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
5 S. H. Rigby, Chaucer in Context: Society, Allegory, Gender (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996).
6 Susan Crane. Gender and Romance in Chaucer`s Canterbury Tales. Princeton University Press, 1994.
8Elaine Tuttle Hansen, Chaucer’s Fictions of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
9 Vaneckova, Vladislava. Women in Geoffery Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: Woman as a Narrator, Woman in the Narrative. 2007. Retrieved from http://is.muni.cz/th/74590/ff_m/chaucer.pdf
10 Vaneckova, Vladislava. Women in Geoffery Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: Woman as a Narrator, Woman in the Narrative. 2007. Retrieved from http://is.muni.cz/th/74590/ff_m/chaucer.pdf
11 Mei Ling Chao. Female voice in Geoffery Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. General Education and Transdisciplinary Research Vol.1 No.2 May, 2007.
12 Jill Mann, Feminizing Chaucer. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1991.
13 Carolyn Dinshaw & David Wallace (eds). The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women`s Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.