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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

by Pearl-Poet

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In Part 4 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, are we meant to take the "woman blaming" ending seriously or to question it, including the misogynist tradition?

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I think the poet is being sexist, but I also think we are meant to question this sexism.

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This is a great question, as it wrestles with a fundamental problem in the text. In the fourth part of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , the Green Knight spares Gawain's life, although he chooses to cut Gawain's neck lightly with his sword to punish him for taking a...

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magical belt/ girdle that, supposedly, would protect Gawain from harm. Originally, it was the Green Knight's wife, also known as Lady Bertilak, who convinced Gawain to take the magical belt (after also trying to seduce him to sleep with her on multiple occasions), so much of the blame for Gawain's failing falls onto her. In fact, when Gawain muses on Lady Bertilak's seductions, he basically blames the downfall of great men on women in general, thus supporting the sexist idea that women should be blamed for men's failings. As an example of this idea, take a look at this excerpt:

But if a dullard should dote, deem it no wonder,

And through the wiles of a woman be wooed into sorrow,

For so was Adam by one, when the world began,

And Solomon by many more, and Samson the mighty —

Delilah was his doom, and David thereafter

Was beguiled by Bathsheba, and bore much distress (2414-2419).

In this passage, Gawain claims that great Biblical heroes were all led astray by seductive women. By doing so, Gawain not only proposes the misogynistic suggestion that women are the cause of men's failings, but also uses this "precedent" to shift the blame of his mistake to Lady Bertilak.

If we're thinking about the poet's intentions here, I do think we're meant to take them seriously in the context of the poem. Take, for instance, the whole seduction sequence in Part 3; Gawain gallantly refuses Lady Bertilak's advances, until she craftily offers him the magical belt, at which point he falls for her "scheme." Thus, in the poem, Lady Bertilak is presented as a seductive, manipulative woman whose major objective (as we learn later) is to test Gawain to see if he fails. Therefore, I do think the poet wants us to see women in the poem as manipulative seducers of men. This viewpoint was not uncommon in literature from the period in which Gawain was written, as the supposedly seductive powers of women were often blamed for men's failings. This idea often came from the justification that Eve caused Adam to eat the apple and sin, which is a notion Gawain himself touches on.

That said, I also think that any modern reader should question this idea. It's important to remember that the text was written a long time ago (many scholars estimate it being written around 1375-1400). As such, it is a product of its time, and this time included a lot of misogynistic ideas about women. Thus, the writer of Gawain would have been espousing ideas that were not considered misogynistic at the time, even if they most certainly are misogynistic. Just because the poet means us to take these ideas seriously, however, doesn't mean we have to; indeed, I think any deep reading of the poem should question and critique its misogyny, as the poem's portrayals of women are problematic on many levels. In that case, the poem becomes valuable not only for its formal brilliance (it really is one of the finest texts from the period that we have available to us today), but also because it gives us a chance to critique and question the misogynistic traditions to which it responds. Even more importantly, the text's sexism gives us a chance to consider misogyny in the modern world and think about how far we've progressed, and what we still need to improve.

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