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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer
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In the Canterbury Tales, compare the Wife of Bath prologue's view with Franklin's on the distribution of power in a marriage.

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In The Wife of Bath's Prologue, the eponymous Wife puts forward a number of often contradictory views about marriage.
Thou seist, that oxen, asses, hors, and houndes,
They been assayed at diverse stoundes . . .
But folk of wyves maken noon assay
Til they be wedded (Lines 285-291)
In this quotation the Wife proposes that a man is powerless in marriage to the extent that he can't be sure that the woman he has married will be the right wife for him. The Wife of Bath here says that while men may examine an animal before they take ownership of it, they may not examine a potential wife, who may only show her true colors once she is secure in the marriage. The implication is that women have the power to deceive men before the marriage to secure a prosperous life as a wife after it. On the other hand, by comparing potential wives to "oxen, asses, hors, and houndes," the Wife of Bath acknowledges that husbands own their wives in the same way that a man might own an animal, which seems to give the husband the power in the relationship. This quotation reflects the Wife's rather ambivalent views on marriage. She is aware that the husband holds all of the legal power, but enjoys expounding upon all of the ways in which a wife might undermine that power and exert some of her own.
Meanwhile, in The Franklin's Tale, Chaucer offers a much less cynical, more positive view of marriage, as a union which can be harmonious, equal and mutually respectful.

Love wol nat been constreyned by maistrye.
Whan maistrie comth, the God of Love anon
Beteth his wynges, and farewel, he is gon!
Love is a thyng as any spirit free.
Wommen, of kynde, desiren libertee,
And nat to been constreyned as a thral (Lines 764–769)

In this quotation the Franklin suggests that when dominance ("maistrie") is introduced into a marriage, love "Beteth his wynges" and flies away. He acknowledges that women, and wives, desire liberty, and do not like to be constrained. In this sentiment, the Franklin and the Wife of Bath seem to be in agreement. What they disagree about, however, is whether both the wife and the husband in a marriage can care first and foremost for the other, rather than themselves. The Wife of Bath's views on marriage always come back to the presumption that each person in the marriage is looking out mostly for his or her own interests, looking to accrue more power at the expense of the other. This of course probably says as much about the Wife as it does about the institution of marriage. In contrast, the Franklin's views on marriage are predicated on the assumption that each person has at least some concern for what the other wants, and some awareness that the happiness of both depends on an equal power dynamic.

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