Is the Wife of Bath meant to contradict the gender roles of her time, or to uphold them?

The Wife of Bath is meant to contradict the gender roles of her time. Consider how strong-willed and independent she is, her behavior defies what was socially acceptable for women in medieval England. Chaucer satirizes traditional gender norms through her tale.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Wife of Bath contradicts the gender roles of her time. Through her tale, Chaucer outlines and critiques the rigid gender norms of medieval English society. The feudal system defined a woman’s value based on her sexual history as either a virgin, a wife, or a widow. Unlike the men...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

The Wife of Bath contradicts the gender roles of her time. Through her tale, Chaucer outlines and critiques the rigid gender norms of medieval English society. The feudal system defined a woman’s value based on her sexual history as either a virgin, a wife, or a widow. Unlike the men of the time, women were not valued or judged based on their work and accomplishments. Chaucer satirizes this gender inequality through the Wife of Bath’s story.

She has experience in all three feminine classes and dismisses them by classifying virgins and wives as equal. "Not every dish and vessel’s made of gold / Some are of wood, yet earn their master’s praise," she says. Here, Chaucer suggests that women who are wives can serve just as much as of a purpose as women who are virgins, showing that dividing women based on their sexual history is pointless.

Consider how in introducing the Wife of Bath in the general prologue, Chaucer describes how "in all the parish not a dame dared stir / Towards the altar steps in front of her / And if indeed they did, so wrath as she / As to be quite put out of charity." The Wife of Bath is unafraid to go after what she wants whether through anger or intimidation. She would complain to and manipulate her husbands to get what she wanted, such as "decent clothes." Her fifth husband even ended up giving her "the government of house and land." Her defiant behavior and relationships with her husbands opposed the expected gender relations of the time. Overall, they make her a strong-willed character who defies submissive stereotypes and preaches in defense of female equality.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on