“According to the Wife of Bath, women want…”

Another short-answer question from the same exam as yesterday’s post: According to the Wife of Bath, what do women want?

I know I posted her picture yesterday, but I can't resist showing her to you again. Again, from the Ellesmere ms. You can't see her gap-toothed smile from here.

Everyone loves her, I do believe. In her Prologue she has the guts (and the reading too, pretty much) to take on the male-centered thinkers of the Church and the wife-beaters of the general population. She knows how to work the male-dominant culture and the marriage bed to her own advantage, and she doesn’t mind saying so. The tale she tells is somewhat more ladylike than she leads us to expect, but the moral of the story is right on. Guinevere and the ladies of Camelot charge an errant (in more ways than one) knight to answer this question: What do women want? The correct answer:

Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee

As wel over hir housbond as hir love,

And for to been in maistrie hym above.

Students could have written “sovereignty over their husbands,” “mastery in the marriage,” “mastery,” “sovereignty,” or “maistrye.” They also could have written “authority over themselves,” “equal power in a relationship,” “dignity,” or “the last word,” all of which are slightly off-target but still in the spirit of the thing.

Here’s one answer they really should not have written, but one student nevertheless did:

“According to the Wife of Bath, women want to go out and be shown as trophies and have sex.”

Well, the Wife is a strong advocate for women’s right to have, and enjoy, sexual relations, in and out of wedlock. As for marriage, she is a serial monogamist (five and counting), but she points out many instances of polygamous marriages in the Bible and asks why women shouldn’t be able to follow suit. Furthermore, Chaucer describes her as “gat-tothed,” or “gap-toothed,” thought to be a sign of lustiness. If my student had answered that “women want to have sex,” I really couldn’t have denied credit, although it wasn’t the answer I was looking for.

But “be shown as trophies”? The “trophy wife” in our society surely isn’t expected to think and act independently; and while she may be in it for the money, the man who acquires her certainly doesn’t expect her to let that show when they “go out”: she is supposed to be living for adoration alone. Furthermore, if “be shown as trophies and have sex” are related activities both done while “go[ing] out,” then I don’t think the proud winner of the trophy wife will be pleased, since the sentence’s implication is that the sex is part of going out and being shown, not limited to the boudoir back home.

This answer shows something, that’s for sure, and it ain’t trophies: It shows that the student never actually read the Prologue or Tale of the Wife of Bath, but only half-listened to class discussion and some time later, stewing over a question on a test, half-remembered that half and flung it down onto the page, hoping that somewhere in there was an answer I would take.

I suppose I could have given 1/4 credit for that half of a half, but in the end, I didn’t take the answer at all, except to write it down in my little book. And now you have it.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

7 responses to ““According to the Wife of Bath, women want…”

  • Phil Schaefer

    When I think of the Wife of Bath, I think also of Griselda in the Clerk’s Tale, who patiently bears her husband’s extended abuse. In both cases, I imagine the Tales being read aloud before a mixed audience. What were Chaucer’s views on the roles of husbands and wives? I think that he enjoyed stirring up conversation among the husbands and wives in his audience.

  • Pat Skene

    An interesting woman to be sure, and one who can hold her own – even with the prospect of marrying such a man. Too bad she’s known as the “wife” of Bath…I’m just saying.

    • RAB

      Well, “Goodwife” or “wife” didn’t necessarily mean “married woman” in the Middle Ages: it meant the adult mistress (soon to be abbreviated Mrs.), or head, of a household. It was used in the emerging middle class; the mistress of an aristocratic household was a “Lady.” “Goodwife” shortened to “Goody” as a title; “Mrs.” became current both for wealthy middle-class women and women of the minor aristocracy; “Lady” continued for the upper-upper class. In Fairfield, where I live and teach, a woman was hanged as a witch back in the 1640s: she is called “Goody Knapp,” and those of my students who have heard of her think her first name was “Goody.” She was married, poor woman, to a rather inept man (Roger) whose fecklessness may have helped build the case against her; but she could have been called “Goody” if she had merely aged and never married, or if she had been a widow.

  • “The Wife of Bath has had multiple husbands, one after the other…” « You Knew What I Meant

    […] my student must have known the Wife of Bath was an Englishwoman (the course was British Literature I), he should also have known he […]

  • Drew Rozella

    I strongly disagree with the point that you are trying to make about the part where you say that he did not “read the story”. Through out the whole story, the Wife comes across as very selfish. So I can see where that would be a debatable answer… But sense you are the selfrichous teacher it is unopen to discussion and your opinion is right. Step back for a fraction of a second and look at it from another point of view.

    • RAB

      Mr. Rozella, your strong disagreement is noted about the point I am “trying to make.” The student did NOT, however, read the Tale or the Prologue. Is “being a trophy wife shown off when they go out” the same as being selfish? Do you think the Wife of Bath’s husbands actually TOOK her out? You do not “sense” correctly about me; I am not “selfrichous” or even self-righteous; I am a scholar and a professor, and generally my opinions are the result of experience, careful reading, and study. In this case it is not the only opinion possible, as I actually note in my post; but it is a valid opinion, and supported by the text (as my student’s answer was not). “Stepping back” won’t change the fact that my question, on an exam, was expecting a one-word answer, and that word (or actually two synonymous words) was actually provided by Chaucer himself in the Tale: women want “sovereignty” or “mastery.” In fact, we discussed this very specifically in class. This test question was actually supposed to be one of the easy ones.
      I considered simply not approving your comment, since it was beside the point of the post and the blog in general, and also since it was rude and relatively without thought. But I felt you deserved, and perhaps needed, a response.

  • “The knight gives his wife the choice, which I found…” | You Knew What I Meant

    […] My student is writing about Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” (part of The Canterbury Tales). I’ve written before about the Prologue to the Tale and what my students think of the Wife herself; the Tale itself presents one of the Arthurian legends and gives us an understanding of the Wife’s definition of “what women want.” […]

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