Tag Archives: What do women want?

“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.