Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 387
The Representation of Women in Literature
The whole premise of this poem by Geoffrey Chaucer, as noted in both the original and the later version of the prologue to the poem, has to do with the representation of women in literature. At the start of the poem, the narrator discusses the value of books and learning and states that he feels a reverence for stories of the past. Then, when the God of Love and his magnificent queen, Alceste, appear, the narrator is inspired to write a song in praise of the queen. Later, the noble couple scold the speaker of the poem and chastise the narrator-writer, whom many scholars presume is Chaucer himself, for depicting women in a negative light in earlier samples of his writing despite his stated reverence for the art form.
This interaction between the narrator, the God of Love, and the narrator's queen in the early part of the poem reflects Chaucer's characteristic thoughtfulness around issues of writing and the representations of gender in history and myth in society and in art. Chaucer's sophisticated outlook is evidenced in later works, like The Canterbury Tales, in which he considers literary matters like these that go far beyond the superficial elements of entertainment and humor.
Because this poem is incomplete, "The Legend of Good Women" is a work whose themes and meanings are still often debated amongst literary scholars. Some scholars, for example, believe that the work, which appears to focus on the evil deeds of men against women, is a satire mocking women, while others interpret Chaucer's words as a defense of women. No matter which interpretation is correct, the fact remains that many of the poem's women, strong and weak alike, are presented as mere victims of wicked men.
From wayward young men to powerful kings, the evils of these male characters are discussed excessively despite the fact that the title of the poem suggests a focus on women. In this discussion of women from history and myths, Chaucer seems to point out that even a powerful woman, like Cleopatra, can be minimized as easily as a woman incapable of leaving a protected environment, like Thisbe. The theme of gender politics is at play within the individual stories of each woman, as well as within the poem as a whole.