I Alisoun, I Wife:
Foucault’s Three Egos and the Wife of Bath’s Prologue
Rachel Ann Baumgardner
Over the past twenty years or so, many feminist analyses have worked towards establishing Alisoun as a powerful woman who speaks of the conditions of her sex within her culture. . . . [However] within this corpus of feminist scholarship there are diverging views of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and her performance.
Elizabeth Biebel (4)
The first thing to say about feminist criticism of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale is that its value can hardly be disputed. . . . The second thing to say about feminist criticism of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale is that it has not led—and I think will not and should not lead—to consensus about the meaning of this text.
Elaine Tuttle Hansen
(“‘Of his love,’” 273)
In recent years, two very distinct schools of thought have emerged from the feminist criticism surrounding the Wife of Bath. Earlier critics, such as Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, see the Wife of Bath as a strong, independent character who stands for feminine supremacy in a misogynistic time (16). More recently, however, feminist critics have deconstructed the Wife and found her to be fundamentally lacking in the feminist argument.1 What is more, these contemporary critics have devised a compelling case in favor of the Wife of Bath’s antifeminist tendencies by bringing Geoffrey Chaucer into the argument. Most notably, Elaine Tuttle Hansen exclaims, “it is an apparently paradoxical . . . fact that the one woman in the Canterbury Tales who is so often viewed . . . as a survivor is the one who reminds the attentive listener that ‘she’ . . . never existed at all” (“The Wife of Bath” 407). Hansen reminds the audience that the “Wife” is, in fact, a fictive creation of Geoffrey Chaucer, a man with little or no empathetic knowledge of women.
The very language of critics, regardless of their opinions regarding the Wife of Bath’s feminist standpoint, gives Chaucer the authority over Alisoun by elevating him to the role of benefactor. Susan Carter speaks well of the Wife, claiming that Alisoun “talks back defiantly to ‘auctoritee,’” but she quickly follows this elated encomium with a discussion that questions the Wife’s ability to speak for herself. According to Carter, Chaucer has a “strident voice . . . he gives to the Wife,” and “us[es] the Wife of Bath to present . . . views” (329, emphasis added). Carter’s language suggests that Chaucer operates as the malicious machine behind the Wife of Bath, giving her a voice while simultaneously using her voice to generate more power for himself.
Similarly, Mary Carruthers describes how Chaucer condescends to his creation, discussing Alisoun’s “acute intelligence” as “Chaucer’s respectful gift” to her (218). Though possibly unintentional or even subconscious, this language that establishes a hierarchy in the text appears throughout feminist criticism. It seems as though the vocabulary that scholars have used for years to discuss Alisoun actually serves to praise Chaucer. This reduces Alisoun’s role as an independent speaker. These critical attitudes lend weight to the notion that the Wife of Bath is nothing without Chaucer the creator.
Samuel Beckett, in Texts for Nothing, once asked, “What matter who’s speaking?” (qtd. in Foucault 1623). It appears that in feminist Chaucerian studies it matters a great deal who’s speaking. When the Wife becomes, as Carolyn Dinshaw states, “a source of delight for this male author . . . [and] a male fantasy” (“Glose/Bele Chose” 117), then the argument for her femininity becomes meaningless and the hundreds of feminist critics who have struggled to understand and bring life to this character have, in fact, worked in vain. As Elaine Treharne observes, “to read the Wife as if she were anything other than a fiction masterfully created by Chaucer is to fall into the trap of ‘truth’ that he sets through his vivid, realistic depictions” (97). If it is Chaucer’s voice that the audience hears throughout Alisoun’s Prologue and Tale, then Alisoun could not be viewed in any kind of light, feminist or no, because, as Marshall Leicester would have it, “there is no Wife of Bath” (qtd. in Hansen “The Wife of Bath” 35).
These assertions regarding the Wife of Bath’s inability to speak for herself leave feminist scholars with a dilemma. To disregard completely the Wife of Bath’s importance as an energetic, engaging, and ultimately female voice would undermine the significance of the issues that she raises, especially within her Prologue. How, therefore, does one highlight the importance of the Wife of Bath as both a character and a speaker while still recognizing Alisoun’s position as an invention of Geoffrey Chaucer?
I would propose a possible solution. Looking at the relationship of power and voice within the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, I will draw upon Michel Foucault’s essay “What is an Author?” and apply his reconfiguration of the notion of “author” as tool for reducing the importance of Chaucer’s voice within the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. Foucault suggests that the popularly held notion of “author” actually comprises three “egos” heard within the text. In this essay I argue that the Wife of Bath controls two of Foucault’s three egos, which makes her the dominant figure in the Prologue to her tale. Doing so separates Alisoun’s voice from Chaucer’s and raises it to a level of importance equal with (or superior to) that of Chaucer’s, thereby justifying the critical study of her as an independent force within this text. At the same time, this separation will free Chaucer from the charges of tyranny that so many critics have read into his position as creator.2
There is no doubt that over the past two decades or so there has been a stimulating engagement between Foucault’s work on power and the body and feminist theory.
Lois McNay (192)
In “What is an Author?” Foucault claims that within the boundaries of a discourse as many as three “egos” affect the reader’s experience of a literary text. Foucault identifies each of the three egos separately. The first two are relatively simple to define. The first ego is the physical author, the person who actually holds the pen and writes down the discourse. This is the ego that, according to Foucault, “indicates the circumstances of composition” (1631), who invents the story, as it were. The second ego is the “fictional narrator” (1631). The fictional narrator may be omniscient, an omnipresent third person voice who addresses only the audience. More importantly for this text, however, is Foucault’s concession that the second ego may also be a fully realized character who speaks boldly in the first person, as Alisoun does in her Prologue.
If the first ego is the physical author and the second ego is the narrator in the discourse, one can determine that Geoffrey Chaucer holds the position of first ego, while the Wife of Bath, through her first-person presence, is the second ego. Thus, according to Foucault’s theories, the Wife and Chaucer are each one-third of the voices a reader hears in the Prologue.3 Therefore, the placement of the third ego is the deciding factor in creating a schism between the Wife of Bath and Chaucer. If the third ego primarily reflects Chaucer, then he comprises two of the three egos within the text, and the arguments that the Wife of Bath mentions throughout her Prologue and Tale must be undermined by a male voice. In order to give feminist critics a voice from which they might devise feminist theory without regard to Chaucer, the third and final ego must predominantly emerge from Alisoun.
According to Foucault, the third ego has four primary functions: it addresses the “goals of [the] investigation, the obstacles encountered, its results, and the problems yet to be solved” (1631). By following these four major functions, the third ego is able to transfer to the reader what Foucault calls “the point” (1634) of a text, which is essentially the impression that one collects from reading a discourse. Discovering the point of a text is not a question of whether or not one liked the text; rather, the point is the main purpose or focus of the text, as determined by the reader. The function of the point of the text is always subject to debate and interpretation, and the point, according to Foucault, can only be discovered through the third ego. Within the body of a discourse, the third ego can be represented two ways. Foucault defines these two representations through theoretical audience reactions to a text. The third ego can be either a direct, spoken account, or an indirect, almost subconscious force working beneath the artificial language of a text. Or, in Foucault’s words, the first representation would cause this theoretical reaction, “‘The point was made—you can’t help seeing it if you know how to read,’” while the second representation could possibly generate this response, “‘No, that point is not made in any of the printed words in the text, but it is expressed through the words, in their relationships’” (1634, emphasis added).
As one may see from this, Foucault separates his third ego into two representations. The first voices the functions of the third ego directly within a text. It speaks from a recognizable character or characters within the pages of the text, and this character or characters freely offers the “point” of the text to the audience. For example, the first representation of the third ego is comparable to the role of the Chorus in Greek tragedy, which often gives additional commentary to the main action of the play, sometimes in the form of preamble or prologue. This, in turn, fulfils two of the third ego’s four qualifications by describing for the audience “the obstacles encountered, [and the] results” of these obstacles, or of the attempts made to solve the obstacles (1631). The Chorus’ epilogue, on the other hand, often includes a brief telling of future events and gives a moral to the story, which fulfils the other two qualifications. Describing the “goals of [the] investigation . . . and the problems yet to be solved” (1631) allows the first representation of the third ego to state its functions, using the medium of the written text. Therefore, the goal of the third ego (“the point” of a text) is accomplished directly through the words in the text itself. However, as Foucault states, the point of the first representation of the third ego is only apparent “if you know how to read” (1634). One must never take for granted that the first representation of the third ego achieves the point of the text in an obvious manner. Therefore, one must consider that there may be certain unstated elements to the third ego’s first representation that are not directly evident within the body of the text.
The second representation of the third ego is a voice that cries from beyond the words expressed in the text “through the words, in their relationships’” (1634, emphasis added). The second representation of the third ego does not have a clear voice and, like the first representation, is open to individual interpretation, but it remains an essential element to certain texts that do not have the luxury of open communication between the audience and the third ego.
However, in this discourse, the elusiveness of the second representation of the third ego is unimportant, for Alisoun’s Prologue exists in a special category that places the third ego squarely within the first representation. Foucault states that this category is reserved for all texts that are expressed in “indirect speech in the first person” (1631). Foucault places all texts written in the first person in a separate category for two reasons. To begin with, one must establish clear boundaries for a first-person text, for these texts have a tendency to be misinterpreted because of the audience’s (and critic’s) propensity for assuming that the first ego (actual author) and the second ego (the fictional narrator) are one and the same within a first-person dialogue. Foucault stresses that the first and second egos of a text are separate, no matter how similar they appear to be:
It is well known that in a novel narrated in the first person, neither the first person pronoun, the present indicative tense, nor, for that matter, its signs of localization refer directly to the writer . . . rather, they stand for a “second self” whose similarity to the author is never fixed and undergoes considerable alteration within the course of a single book. (1631)
Secondly, Foucault distinguishes the first-person narrative from the rest of authored discourses in order to connect the “I” of the second ego (the narrative voice) to the “I” of the third ego (the “point” of the text). According to Foucault, the second ego is “the ‘I’ who concludes a demonstration within the body of the text” by speaking directly to the audience, while the third ego is the “I” who “function[s] in a field of existing,” striving to be seen and understood (1631). The first ego, the actual author, however, has no “I” representation. Throughout “What is an Author?” Foucault refers to the first-ego author as “the ego” or the “author-function” (1631).
Though there is a difference between the “I” of the second ego and the “I” of the third ego, the use of the first-person singular pronoun is indicative of the notion that often, in the “certain exception” (1631) of first-person texts, the second and third egos are intrinsically linked, while the first ego is purposefully left out. Since, in texts written in the first person, Foucault initially separates the first and second egos, then connects the second and third egos with the first-person singular pronoun, one can assume two things: 1) the first ego is consistently estranged from both the second and third egos, and 2) the third ego, since it also utilizes the first person “I,” can be found within the context of the second ego in first-person texts.
Therefore, when the Wife of Bath speaks as an “I” narrator and uses that same “I” to speak of the “goals of [her] investigation, the obstacles encountered, [the] results, and the problems yet to be solved” (1630), Alisoun comes to the reader as both the second and the third egos. According to Foucault’s theories, the Wife of Bath, through her first-person presence and her manner of fulfilling all the requirements for the third ego, is able to increase her importance within the text.
The point, then, is not that a teller produces a tale but that a text produces a teller . . . In my view, then, it is misleading even to suggest that the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale are unsuitable to their teller, because she barely exists outside of her prologue and tale. They are not spoken in her voice or outside her voice; they are her voice.
H. Marshall Leicester, Jr. (235)
Honey, Eye tried to tell him
That U were the marrying kind.
Evidence of the first representation of the third ego can be found throughout Alisoun’s Prologue. As I discussed above, the third ego has four main functions within a text: 1) it addresses the goals of the discourse; 2) it describes the obstacles encountered while seeking these goals; 3) the third ego indicates the situations resulting from the obstacles encountered; and 4) it gives a reference to future obstacles. Alisoun fulfils these requirements for the third ego in the way that she introduces her topics of discussion, gives detailed account of her previous marriages, describes her truce with Jankyn, and declares her plans for the future and the lessons that she has learned from her marital experiences.
Alisoun’s Prologue is famous (or perhaps, infamous) for the many digressions that infiltrate her text. Leicester states, “her text shuttles back and forth” (239), and Hansen remarks, “the Wife stands out . . . as the chatterbox, the gossip, the obsessive prattler” (“The Wife of Bath” 401). In spite of the unfocused nature of the Prologue, however, trends do emerge. Lee Patterson has simplified its various segments and identified four sections that have certain commonalities:
The Wife’s prologue falls into four parts: a mock sermon on sex and remarriage (1-162); the account of the first three husbands (194-451); the transitional discussion of husband number four and Alisoun’s rueful reminiscences of her youth (452-502); and the extended account of Jankyn and the fight over his book of wicked wives (503-828). (140)
Patterson argues, “What ties these parts together is the notion of the ‘wo that is in mariage’ (3) that the Wife announces at the outset as her topic” (140). I will address Patterson’s four parts of the Prologue separately and show how each individually adopts and completes the requirements for the third ego.
As Patterson suggests above, Alisoun directly expresses the main goal of her entire Prologue in the first three lines: “Experience, though noon auctoritee / Were in this world, is right ynogh for me / To speke of wo that is in mariage” (WBT 1-3). According to Robert Longsworth, Alisoun’s goal (as it is expressed in the beginning of the Prologue) is self-evident: “Experience contending with authority; the self struggling with the culture that has shaped it; the personal voice lifted against the social voice” (372). Longsworth states that Alisoun’s goal is to set up a “contest” between her experience and the dominant male authority, and her rambling Prologue is the result of the two ideologies in verbal combat (373).
Alongside the spoken goals expressed in her Prologue, there is also an unspoken implication that Alisoun intends to take the place of the traditionally held authorities on marriage. She attempts to discredit the authorities, partially by replacing their voices with her own to become one herself. In order for Alisoun to show her audience the authority of experience (and be successful in that showing), she must become an authority, which can only be accomplished by telling her audience her tale. In order to create her authority, she must tell the tale of her personal experiences, establish her right to be an acknowledged authority on marriage, and teach her listeners how to learn from the pain and “wo” that is in marriage. Alisoun’s main goal for her Prologuei is therefore twofold, concerned with both her spoken intentions and an unspoken desire to prove her authority through experience, which is revealed through her words and actions.
The first requirement of the third ego, therefore, is fulfilled rather quickly, because her large, overarching goal has been successfully announced at the onset. But in a text with (as Patterson would have it) four distinct sections, this single goal, though significant for each section, would be far too simplistic to serve for the entirety of Alisoun’s Prologue. One cannot and should not deny the complexity of her Prologue, and the requirements for the third ego, if they are to fit properly, must reflect that characteristic of her text. Alisoun therefore utilizes several smaller sub-goals prior to each section in order to keep her audience apprised of the directions her argument takes.
Alisoun states individual sub-goals goals for each of the four sections of her Prologue. At the beginning of every section, she tells the other pilgrims her intentions for speaking. For instance, after the Pardoner interrupts her, Alisoun says, “Now, sire, now wol I telle forth my tale” before she launches into an account of her first three marriages (193). Similar statements can be found before a new section of the Prologue: lines 452 (“Now wol I speken of my fourthe housbonde”); 503 (“Now of my fifthe housbonde wol I telle”); and 828 (“Now wol I seye my tale if ye wol heere”). These simple, direct statements serve a valuable purpose in determining whether or not Alisoun realizes all of the requirements for the third ego. As was mentioned above, the single, large goal of the entire Prologue is the struggle between experience and authority, but these separate statements of intent indicate the smaller goals that she requires while exploring the larger one. Through these sub-goals, Alisoun establishes her experiences, which lead her towards the establishment of herself as an authority.
In the first section (the “mock sermon”), Alisoun introduces her argument (1-3) and begins a discussion on the appropriate number of husbands, “How manye myghte [a woman] have in mariage?” (23). Since her overarching goal is to show how experience trumps written authority, her smaller goal for this section has to revolve around how her experiences have proved the previous authorities on marriage (the Biblical exegetes) devastatingly wrong. In order to do so, Alisoun refers to the well-known authorities on marriage and virginity, then begins a complicated series of questions that lead to an undoing of the exegetes’ theories:
Why sholde men elles in hir bookes sette
That man shal yelde to his wyf hire dette?
Now wherwith sholde he make his paiement,
If he ne used his sely instrument? (129-32)
Though seemingly disjointed and rambling, these questions, asked “of no one in particular, and of everyone” (Hansen, “The Wife of Bath” 403) actually serve to introduce Alisoun’s sub-goals for the first section. These rhetorical questions, and the many others found in this section, give the pilgrims clues to her future arguments. They follow Alisoun’s stream of consciousness and invigorate her with their complexity and questionable answerability. From the example above, for instance, the reader (as well as the pilgrims who are listening to her) can know that the Wife of Bath, propelled by the search for answers, is prepared to discuss “sely instruments” in more detail, striving for an answer to her tricky questions.
In the second section, Alisoun’s sub-goal shifts to the discussion of the manipulation and control of her first three husbands. To establish herself as an authority on experience, Alisoun needs to assume the role of the authorities that she devalued in her previous section. In order to do this, she must take on the role of speaker and become the teacher. As Lois McNay states, “knowledge [is] the material effect of dominant power regimes” (148).4 In other words, for her entire life the Wife of Bath has been the subject and the object of the misogynistic writers. She has been forced to listen passively to their dominant voices, but doing so has given her knowledge that she can now wield to create a “power regime” of her own. And Alisoun can only do this by imparting her knowledge to others. Thus, her goal for this section is to reveal the secret lives and tricks of women, specifically addressing “ye wise wyves” (225), ensuring that the correct group of people benefit from her knowledge. According to Foucault’s theories on power and dominion, doing so will add fuel to the belief that one day the wise wives of the world will be the dominant power regime. Alisoun’s goal for her second section is to teach her audience how to maintain control over their husbands. By doing so, she is also supporting her overarching goal of revealing how experience subverts authority, for she tells of the ways in which her own experiences have made her an authority. In this case, she is an authority on lies and manipulation.
However, arguing that the Wife of Bath’s goal for this section is to strip power from the male authorities confuses one of her earlier goals. When the Pardoner interrupts Alisoun with his worrisome interjections, she eases his mind, and those of the gathered assembly, with the reassurance that her “entente nys but for to pleye” (192). This is a damning statement, for if the Wife is genuinely seeking nothing more than a lark throughout her Prologue, then how can her overarching goal, with its implications of a new order and power displacement, be taken seriously? Certainly, her witty entendres and bold speeches regarding sex and physical pleasure in all its forms attest to this goal for “play,” but perhaps this goal actually refers to Alisoun’s hopes for her audience’s reactions. Perhaps Alisoun’s unstated goal for the Pardoner’s interruption is to avoid the anger that her startling audacity would certainly evoke. This would not be the first time that Alisoun states a goal regarding her audience’s reaction to her Prologue. Most notably, the Pardoner himself becomes the subject for Alisoun’s predictions regarding his reactions. After hearing the Pardoner’s concern for his own future happiness in marriage, Alisoun states her goals for what she hopes will be his reaction to her tales:
“Abide!” quod she, “my tale is nat bigonne.
Nay, thou shalt drynken of another tonne,
Er that I go . . .
And whan that I have toold thee forth my tale
. . . . . . .
Than maystow chese wheither thou wolt sippe
Of thilke tonne that I shal abroche.” (170-72, 176-77)
Alisoun clearly indicates that she intends to ease the Pardoner’s mind by the time she has finished speaking. Also, the Pardoner’s interruption makes Alisoun aware of the rest of her audience and their probable discomfort at her words. She decides, therefore, to further spread a calming salve on all the pilgrims, telling them, “taketh not agrief of that I seye” (191). Her goal is to have fun and tell an interesting and clever tale. Doing so, Alisoun is beguiling her audience into believing that she does not have anything of importance to say. Once again, she is using the lessons she learned from the misogynistic texts in her favor. If her listeners were wary of her language (and the Pardoner’s interruption proves that they are), she would never be allowed to impart her knowledge, which would in turn deny her the power and authority she is desperately seeking. Therefore, Alisoun gives her audience a stated goal that appears to belittle her main goal, but she retains an unstated goal that actually supports her previous declarations.
In the brief transitional section that is Alisoun’s discussion of her fourth marriage, her goal is simple: she wishes to speak of her fourth husband. This might appear to be an anti-climactic goal for the raucous speaker, but it allows Alisoun finally to address the woe that comes with marriage, which, in turn, continues to establish her as an authority on marriage. Alisoun’s treatment of this goal is very telling of the difficulty that this particular section and subject represent for her. Twice, she states her intention to speak of her fourth husband (452, 480). After the first time, she recites two lines, “My fourthe housbonde was a revelour— / This is to seyn, he hadde a paramour” (453-54), before she changes the topic and begins to recall her youth. Alisoun’s abrupt change of topic is done without declaring her goals, indicating that this switch of subjects is not done strategically but for more unconscious, perhaps more personal, reasons. Remembering her unhappy fourth marriage seems to make her feel like a failure as a wife, which in turn makes her feel old. Her fourth husband cheats on her, and it causes her real pain to know “that he of any oother had delit” (482). Therefore she must talk about her joy-filled youth in order to distract herself from the unhappiness. It is only when she has exhausted her smiling memories that she returns to the topic of her fourth husband, saying once again, “Now wol I tellen of my fourthe housbonde” (480). She intentionally returns to the subject because she understands that her trials are what justify her authority. Lee Patterson explains the significance of this painful, though brief, passage:
Now the “wo” that is her topic begins to become her own unhappiness. For one thing, her fourth husband causes her “greet despit” (481), and she describes what must have been a bitterly unhappy marriage. For another, she begins to allow us to see that she is a far less hardened and one-dimensional figure than we might have thought, especially in the very important passage in which she remembers her youth but gracefully accepts its passing: “Lat go. Farewell! . . . But yet to be right myrie wol I fonde.” (476, 479) (Patterson 141)
Alisoun’s goal for this passage, then, is not merely to recite the adventures of her scoundrel of a husband, but to muster the strength needed just to get through the memories of a bitter chapter in her life. This section and its accompanying sub-goal mark an important transition for the Wife of Bath, wherein the authorities are supplanted by the power of her own experiences. The exegetes that plagued her first section and the patriarchs she mocked in the second section have been forgotten. Alisoun is no longer on the defensive; instead, she is eager to resume her position as storyteller, and tells her own story.
The final section in Alisoun’s Prologue centers on her marriage with Jankyn. This lengthy section is similar to the mock sermon at the beginning in that Alisoun once again quotes ad nauseum from misogynistic texts. Unlike the first section, however, this final chapter to the Wife’s Prologue does not introduce her sub-goals via rhetorical questions begging to be answered. It is important that Alisoun doesn’t ask questions but plows ahead, determined to finish her tale, which is now entirely focused on her life and experiences.
After the brief section regarding her fourth husband, Alisoun states “Now of my fifthe housbonde wol I telle” (503) and surprises everyone when she actually does. Unlike the previous section, where her topic was avoided for as long as possible, Alisoun plunges into a detailed description of Jankyn that progresses very clearly and naturally. She talks about his profession, “He som tyme was a clerk of Oxenford” (527), his propensity for gossip (543-49), and his particular brand of love: “I trowe I loved hym best for that he / Was of his love daungerous to me” (513-14). Her long dialogue involves several distractions and digressions, but they differ from those found earlier in her Prologue in that Alisoun catches them and forces herself to return to the tale of her fifth husband. For instance, when she begins to talk about the advice from her “dame” that has served her well (575-84), she overcomes her propensity for digression and quickly resumes her discussion:
But as I folwed ay my dames loore,
As wel of this as of othere thynges moore.
But now, sire, lat me se, what I shal sayn.
A ha! By God, I have my tale ageyn. (583-86)
Alisoun makes a similar shift back into the flow of her conversation when she interrupts her angry rant against the old clerks (692-710). She returns to topic, saying, “But now to purpos, why I tolde thee / That I was beten for a book, pardee!” (711-12).
In the previous section, Alisoun had avoided the topic of her fourth husband, speaking of him hurriedly and changing her focus as soon as the opportunity arose. In this final section, on the other hand, Alisoun wants to tell her tale. She does not wish to dwell on the stubbornness of clerks and wicked wives. Instead, she is eager to share her experiences with the other pilgrims, and the reason can be found in the way that she expresses her goal: “Now wol I tellen forth what happed me” (563, emphasis added). The “me” indicates that the sentence and the goal for this final section become something that she possesses, something that is uniquely her own. Her goal, though not the most difficult to fulfill, is certainly the most personal, the most important to her as a person and a speaker. Remember, Alisoun’s main goal for her Prologue was to defeat authority in a match against experience, and in this final section we see that experience has indeed been victorious. Instead of being concerned with things separate from herself, Alisoun is telling her story. Her goal is to have a conversation about herself, to leave her audience with a statement of experience that is authoritative.
The second and third characteristics of the third ego follow up on the goals that the Wife stated previously. The second requirement of the third ego calls for an indication of the obstacles encountered while attempting to pursue her goals, while the third requirement of the third ego is to address the situations that resulted from these problems. These individual characteristics are closely linked in the Prologue, so they will be addressed simultaneously here. Each section of the Prologue will once again receive individual treatment but will include a discussion of both characteristics.
Once again referring to Patterson’s four sections, then, the first part of the Prologue, the mock sermon, introduces the goal of pitting experience against authority. In this section, the largest obstacle is the male-dominated pedagogy of the church. Robert Longsworth notes, “The primary bearer of authority in this first skirmish is, of course, the Bible” (373). Since Alisoun’s goals are all introduced as questions that require investigation, it can be assumed that she is challenging the accepted opinions of the religious exegetes, using her curiosity and intelligence to turn the authorities against each other. Another reading of her use of questions, however, is that perhaps Alisoun does not entirely understand all of the obstacles the exegetes place in front of her. Longsworth explains her possible confusion at this point:
Chaucer’s contemporary readers and audiences would have assumed that the Wife of Bath herself was illiterate. . . . The Bible itself, then, was accessible to her only as a compilation of discrete textual fragments: and each fragmentary biblical text about which she gained either firsthand or summary knowledge came to her wrapped in layers of authority over which the classical exegetical method stood guard. (378)
So Alisoun’s knowledge of the biblical and saintly texts that she displays may have been flawed. She is relying solely on the experience of hearing the texts; therefore, her obstacle is to develop what Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar call “the authority of her own experience” by showing that her understanding is authoritative enough to conquer the misogynistic texts (16).
Alisoun’s answer to this problem must somehow alleviate her unfamiliarity with the texts in such a way that she does not reveal her own weaknesses regarding her ignorance of the texts and prove that her experiences as a listener are adequate for understanding. She is also faced with the possibility of disavowing the authority of the church fathers as a result of winning her argument for experience. This is a slippery position for a middle-class Christian woman raised on the pedagogy of the church. These two problems require Alisoun to be very clever and careful in the ways that she argues her point.
To solve this dilemma, Alisoun makes sure she pays her respects to the church fathers prior to disavowing their works. She never once actually challenges the authority and power of the church. Rather, she questions its practices, “why that the fifthe man / Was noon housbonde to the Samaritan?” (21-22), and freely points out its many discrepancies: “Abraham was an hooly man, / And Jacob eek, as ferforth as I kan; / And ech of hem hadde wyves mo than two” (55-57). But never once does Alisoun declare that the Bible or the apostles are undeserving of praise and of being the authorities.
The Wife of Bath, though, is not speaking in an attempt to maintain the norm. In order to fulfill her goals, she must expose the ridiculousness of many of these noble gentlemen. She notices that there are inconsistencies between the authorities that she cites, and St. Paul is especially vulnerable to her attentive ear. He argues both for and against the state of marriage, stating first that marriage is to be preferred over living in sin with a sexual partner, then qualifying that statement with a confession that chastity is to be preferred over everything else.
For thanne th’apostle seith that I am free
To wedde, a Goddes half, where it liketh me.
He seith that to be wedded is no synne;
Bet is to be wedded than to brynne.
. . . . . .
I woot well that th’apostel was a mayde;
But nathelees, thogh that he wroot and sayde
He wolde that every wight were swich as he,
Al nys but conseil to virginitee. (49-52, 79-82)
Alisoun uses these conflicting concepts to her advantage. As Longsworth notes, Alisoun “has grasped what may at first seem to be a central frailty in all that massive and apparently powerful Authority: it is subject to (and in a profound sense at the mercy of) interpretation” (380). When Alisoun notices the ways in which Biblical “authorities” have interpreted the religious texts to suit their own needs, she understands that she also may spin the sacred words.5 This realization, Longsworth points out, “permits [Alisoun] to construct a case for marriage (even successive marriages) and sexuality out of the very exegetical materials [the apostles] had used to denounce it” (381-382). Therefore, Alisoun generates a favorable situation out of the two serious problems raised by her goals.
In the second section, her goal is to manipulate and control her first three husbands. This generates the question, “How?” How does one control a weak old man, rigid in the ways of patriarchy, in order to ensure one’s own happiness? Alisoun cannot do this via sexual intercourse, for as she recalls, “Unnethe myghte they the statut holde / In which that they were bounden unto me. / Ye woot wel what I meene of this, pardee!” (198-200). Since they are too feeble to perform sex (much less be controlled through sex), Alisoun needs to find a different way of bringing “hem hoolly in [her] hond” (211).
This problem leads to a very simple solution: lie. Alisoun proclaims later in her Prologue that she has learned how to lie from her mother, “My dame taughte me that soutiltee” (576), and in this section, she mentions a woman’s natural ability to lie several times. She laughingly remembers how she and her maid teamed up to befuddle her sickly husbands:
A wys wyf, if that she kan hir good,
Shal beren hym on honde the cow is wood,
And take witnesse of hir owene mayde
Of hir assent. (231-34)
Alisoun’s voice throughout this passage is light and cheerful, remembering how she “governed hem so wel” (219) with lies and displaced trust. Her delight is due in part to the ridiculousness of her claims and the ease with which her first three husbands fell victim to her tales. As she remarks, “They were ful glade to excuse hem blyve / Of thyng of which they nevere agilte hir lyve” (391-92). Even though her husbands were innocent of the accusations that Alisoun brings before them, they believe her and terrible things about themselves as well. Leicester comments upon the Wife of Bath’s manipulation of both her husbands and her text through her lies: “The Wife, therefore, can easily be thought of as a kind of editor of the text of herself, [with] motives for making that text look one way or another” (241). As stated earlier, one of Alisoun’s primary goals throughout her Prologue is to tell her story. As her own editor (as well as her own voice and author), Alisoun has the power and is able to conquer her first three husbands with ease. She edits their textual lives until they are “virtually indistinguishable” from each other and comprise one group victory for her (Finke 178). By accomplishing this, Alisoun completely controls her first three husbands, her text, and her audience.
I have already discussed the obstacle that Alisoun faced in the third section of her Prologue: to speak of a marriage and husband that caused her severe pain and mental anguish. The only solution she can find is to escape into her youth, when she was free and happy. Her digression into childhood memories prepares her for the hard task of recalling her fourth husband, for it brings her to the reality of her own life and situation. Bringing up her younger days purposefully encourages a comparison between her life in youth and her life in middle age:
But—Lord Crist!—whan that it remembreth me
Upon my yowthe, and on my jolitee,
It tikleth me aboute myn herte roote.
. . . . . .
But age, allas, that al wole envenyme,
Hath me biraft my beautee and pith. (469-71, 474-75)
After remembering with wicked glee the way in which she tortured her first three husbands, she is loathe to recall the hardships that accompanied her fourth marriage, and she quickly digresses into her glory days. It is only recollecting her own age and infirmity (perhaps realizing that she is not so unlike her first, old husbands) that hardens her for the tale of her fourth husband, reminding her that not every instance in her life is pleasant and cheerful.
The fourth and final section of her Prologue centers on her relationship with Jankyn and culminates in the brutal fight between the two of them. Her goals for this section, telling her tale and proving her claim to authority by eventually gaining control over Jankyn, are made difficult by the painful nature of the tale and the stubbornness of both Alisoun and her husband. In fact, it is stubbornness that allows Alisoun to accomplish her first goal for this section. As seen above, Alisoun interrupts herself and quickly maneuvers her text and tale away from distracting digressions and forces herself to remain on task through sheer stubbornness.6
Her goal of gaining authority over Jankyn, however, proves to be a bigger problem than the first. Jankyn is also stubborn and has the advantage of age, gender, and the law. As Patterson points out, “as his wife [Alisoun] has no legal standing” (150); she is required by law, practice, and society to be obedient to her husband. Alisoun, however, takes no heed of custom and continues to talk back to him, “And of my tonge a verray jangleresse,” (638) and encourages scandal by visiting her neighbors without him: “And walke I wolde, as I had doon biforn, / From hous to hous, although he had it sworn” (639-40). Alisoun promptly ignores Jankyn and continues her rowdy behavior, even though it “made hym with me wood all outrely” (664). When Jankyn recites proverbs to Alisoun in an attempt to place religious fear in her heart, her reaction is, once again, to ignore him: “But al for noght, I sette noght an hawe / Of his proverbes n’of his olde sawe” (659-60). It is not until he begins to read nightly from his book of wicked wives that Alisoun realizes the futility of ignoring him. As Hansen observes, “with her fifth husband, the Wife herself is aptly repaid for all her earlier deceits” (“The Wife of Bath,” 404). None of her old tricks seem to be working, so something more drastic must be done.
The result of this obstacle is the fight between Alisoun and Jankyn and the truce they eventually strike. After Alisoun rips three pages out of Jankyn’s book and punches him on the cheek, he retaliates by hitting Alisoun on the head so hard that she lies on the floor as if dead. Both parties are stunned by the violence of this altercation, and Jankyn, frightened that he has killed his wife over a book, “wolde han fled his way” (708) had Alisoun not sat up and offered peace through a kiss (798). She does not give specifics about their truce and merely states that
But atte laste, with muchel care and wo,
We fille acorded by us selven two.
He yaf me al the bridel in myn hond,
To han the governance of hous and lond (811-14)
This truce fulfills Alisoun’s third requirement for the third ego representation by revealing the situations that result from the obstacles encountered. Because of her prior experiences with controlling husbands, she eventually controls Jankyn as well and gains the power and authority over his household.7 Her proclaimed happiness with Jankyn at the end of her Prologue is her way of revealing the situation that resulted from this intense obstacle.
However, many critics do not see this so positively. For instance, Hansen rails against the lack of detail and discussion at the closing of the Prologue: “[t]his cryptic, unsettling, and foreshortened drama of role reversal, mock murder, and humiliation discloses the mutual degradation that marital relations entail in [Alisoun’s] world” (“The Wife of Bath” 405). She indicates that both parties have been stripped of their powers in the end; Jankyn is shamed into submission, and Alisoun has been permanently damaged (deafened) for her actions. But another reading of the Prologue’s conclusion might indicate that the Wife of Bath has fully accomplished her authority and finally learned how to wield it. After Jankyn gives Alisoun control of the house and property, she finishes the Prologue with a tender description of their life: “I was to hym as kynde / As any wyf from Denmark unto Ynde, / And also trewe, and so was he to me” (823-25). Up to this point, her experiences with her previous husbands primarily led her to the knowledge of how to control others. Her experiences with Jankyn bring her a new kind of knowledge, a new aspect of power: she has finally learned how to control herself. She also learns how to compromise in order to achieve her goals, though this may also be seen as another, more subtle, manipulative technique.
The final requirement of the third ego is to predict future obstacles and give an inclination of the success or failure of the third ego upon encountering said obstacles. Alisoun bases her entire argument upon the value of her experiences as a married woman, and she tells throughout how her experience with every previous husband leads to a better understanding of how to manipulate the next. Her continued successes in marriage (including her final, glorious victory over Jankyn) lead one to assume that her sixth husband will be controlled in the same manner. Indeed, Alisoun (in true third ego fashion) states her intentions in the beginning of her Prologue, “Welcome the sixte, whan that evere he shal. / For sothe, I wol nat kepe me chaast in al” (45-46). Interestingly, Alisoun does not mention her new-found appreciation for the respect of her husband. Alisoun is very open about her sexual nature and her “appetit” (623), so it is easy to assume that she will use her “bele chose” (447) in her sixth marriage to her full advantage, but she does not suggest that she will strive to love and honor her sixth husband the way she did Jankyn. She mentions that she will remember the lessons she has learned from her five husbands, “Of fyve husbondes scoleiyng am I,” (44f) but remains silent in terms of what her attitude towards her sixth husband will be. Perhaps her excited “welcome the sixte” is an indicator of her eagerness to take and use her new knowledge, showing that she is ready to experiment with her authority. Perhaps she is bored with the hard work required for this deeper understanding and knowledge, and longs to return to the days when she was free to roam and control her husbands at will (though this suggestion would be contradictory with the way she lets go of her youth in the third section of her Prologue). Whatever Alisoun plans for her sixth husband, she will have a new goal with new obstacles to encounter and triumph over, but she has the authority of her experience to help her through whatever comes next.
The difference between good writers and bad writers is that good writers lie.
“Wacky Prof Quotes”
According to the evidence, therefore, the Wife of Bath fulfills all of the requirements for the first representation of the third ego. Speaking in the first person, she directly states “the point” to her audience, thereby taking over two of the three egos found within the text and establishing a voice for herself that remains separate from her creator. However, one must understand that this victory for the Wife of Bath is only partial. Chaucer can never be entirely eliminated from the second or third egos. As Foucault himself states, “a text always bears a number of signs that refer to the author” (1630). Therefore, one must never think of a text as a firmly established set of concrete voices. Instead, I would argue that every text emerges as a blend of voices. My arguments concerning the Wife of Bath find their legitimacy through the endless pursuit of discovering the mathematical majority of voices heard within the text. The text is not Alisoun of Bath, nor is it Geoffrey Chaucer. Instead, I like to think of the text as a recipe: one part Geoffrey Chaucer, one part fourteenth-century culture, one part male fantasy, and two parts Alisoun of Bath with an optional sprinkle of bawdiness.
Alisoun is a character who determines her own identity, establishes her own personality. She does so through Chaucer, it is true, but he is merely a medium for her determined and unique personality. For Alisoun, identity is closely connected to her words. Her words are not just her truth and her tale, they are also her justification for being the character that she is. Remember, “[w]e do not have the Wife’s actual life in front of us, but only a text that is an account of her memory of it” (Leicester 240-41). She is able to edit her tale and story until it fits her goals, until she reaches the conclusions she wants to reach, until her audience feels for her what she wants them to feel. Her recollection is her authority.
Alisoun is not a character who, like Athena, has sprung fully formed from her creator’s genius. Instead, Alisoun learns how to use what Chaucer initially gives her until she is able to develop her own story, identity, tale, and conclusion. Her creator gives her a voice, but she is the one who uses it to her advantage. She is her own woman: one that is able to rise and stand to face feminist critics on her own. She will forever be a small piece of Geoffrey Chaucer, but she is eternally her own voice that cries out, “I am Alisoun. I am the Wife.”
1In her book Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics, Carolyn Dinshaw claims that the Wife of Bath is “but enacting an antifeminist stereotype of the greedy, insatiable, domineering wife” (118). Return.
2I must emphasize that I do not encourage a return to the days of Cleanth Brooks and Roland Barthes. I am not seeking the proverbial “death” of Chaucer. Instead, I plan to give Alisoun of Bath the breathing room that her indefatigable nature seems to demand while fully recognizing Chaucer’s genius and skill. Return.
3Michel Foucault never specifically indicates a numerical value for any of the three egos. Here and throughout the essay, I assume that all three egos carry equal weight and equal numerical value. Return.
4McNay is here referring to Michel Foucault’s work Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. A. Sheridan. Harmondsworth: Peregrine, 1977. Return.
5Notice how intertextuality comes into play here. Alisoun “spins” the Biblical words to match her needs, just as she spins cloth in her profession and practices “spynnyng” with her first three husbands. Return.
6Not all critics view these interruptions as attempts to remain focused. Marshall Leicester argues that Alisoun’s interruption, “But now, sire, lat me se, what I shal sayn? / A ha! By God, I have my tale ageyn” (585-86) is a method for avoiding the painful dream that she was reporting at the time. He states, “If the memory is thus powerful, it might explain why her account of the dream is immediately followed by one of the most striking of the places in the poem where she has to interrupt herself” (241). I would argue that a far more striking and important line in the poem is “Now wol I tellen forth what happed me” (563) wherein the Wife of Bath seems to finally possess her dialogue instead of merely reciting it. Return.
7Interestingly enough, Alisoun’s property was initially hers, but (in an act of love, faith and some foolishness) she decides to hand all of her considerable property and wealth over to Jankyn (636-37). His household, then, is essentially her household, and her experience of authority is an experience of re-authorizing her control over what was once legally hers. Return.
Beidler, Peter G., ed. The Wife of Bath: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. New York: Bedford, 1996.
Biebel, Elizabeth. Introduction. The Lion, the Lady, and the Curtain: Alisoun’s Transformations under Feminist Criticism. Ann Arbor: UMI Microform, 1998.
Carruthers, Mary. “The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions.” Feminist Readings in Middle English Literature: The Wife of Bath and all her Sect. Ed. Ruth Evans and Lesley Johnson. New York: Routledge, 1994. 22-53.
Carter, Susan. “Coupling the Beastly Bride and the Hunter Hunted: What Lies Behind Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale.” Chaucer Review 37 (2003): 329-45.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Dinshaw, Carolyn. Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1989. 3-27.
-----. “‘Glose/Bele Chose’: The Wife of Bath and Her Glossators.” Critical Essays on Geoffrey Chaucer. Ed. Thomas C. Stillinger. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998. 112-32.
Finke, Laurie. “‘All is for to selle’: Breeding Capital in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.” Beidler 171-88.
Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch, et al. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. 1615-36.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984.
Hansen, Elaine Tuttle. “The Wife of Bath and the Mark of Adam.” Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992. 26-57.
-----. “‘Of his love daungerous to me’: Liberation, Subversion, and Domestic Violence in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.” Beidler 273-89.
Leicester, H. Marshall, Jr. “‘My bed was ful of verray blood’: Subject, Dream, and Rape in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.” Beidler 234-54.
Longsworth, Robert. “The Wife of Bath and the Samaritan Woman.” The Chaucer Review 34 (2000): 372-87.
McNay, Lois. Conclusion. Foucault and Feminism: Power, Gender, and the Self. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1992.
Patterson, Lee. “‘Experience woot well it is noght so’: Marriage and the Pursuit of Happiness in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.” Beidler 133-54.
Prince. “The Marrying Kind.” Musicology. Columbia, 2004.
Treharne, Elaine. “The Stereotype Confirmed? Chaucer’s Wife of Bath.” Writing Gender and Genre in Medieval Literature: Approaches to Old and Middle English Texts. Ed. Elaine Treharne. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2002. 93-115.
“Wacky Prof Quotes.” The Rose Thorn. 17 Sep. 2004: 8.
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