The Canterbury Tales


The Canterbury Tales’ Women Essay, Research Paper

The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer is a collection of stories told by a group of

pilgrims on their way to Thomas a’ Becket’s tomb in Canterbury. Throughout the stories, women

are often portrayed in two opposing ways. The women in these tales are either depicted as

pristine and virginal, or as cunning and deceitful.

First, women are described as being pristine and virginal. This type of woman is always

beautiful and has men vying for her affections. However, she is so pure that it seems she is

unattainable. She is not treated like a real person and people never ask her what she wants. This

virginal woman is captured in the character of Emily in “The Knight’s Tale”. Emily, who is

described by the author as “radiant and serene” (32) enchants two cousins and cause them to

argue over her. Palamon is so love-struck that he states “Woman or Goddess, which? I cannot

say.” (32). He doesn’t even know her yet calls her “… my lady, whom I love and serve” (34).

When Arcite is released, he becomes sick because he can no longer see her. He is described as

“Thin as a shaft, as dry, with nothing left./His eyes were hollow, grisly to behold,/Fallow his

face, like ashes pale and cold” (39). When the cousins finally reunite, Palamon claims Emily for

his own once again by saying “You shall not love my lady Emily./I, no one else, will love her!”

(45). They are engaged in battle when the king rides by with his wife and Emily. When

confronted, Palamon tells the king that Arcite “dares love Emily” (49), and that he is also “in

love with Emily the Bright” (49). Even though Emily is sitting right there he still doesn’t talk

directly to her, instead he tells the king. Emily is herself immune to love: she has seen neither

of the knights, nor is she aware that they have seen her, much less that they are in love with her

(Hallissy 59). Poor virginal Emily “knows no more of this affair,/By God, than does a cuckoo or

a hare!” (51). However, the king tells the cousins to get “Ready by battle to decide his claim/ to

Emily.” (52) without even asking her what she wanted to do. If he had asked her, he would have

found out that she wanted to remain a virgin and marry no one. She even prayed that she “would

be mistress, no, nor wife.” (65). However, she was forced to marry Palamon when he won the


Secondly, women are described as cunning and deceitful. This type of woman causes her

husband nothing but heartache. She is depicted as a liar and a cheater with low morals. She is a

woman neither to be trusted nor respected. In many of the stories she makes a fool of her

husband by having adulterous affairs. This type of woman is depicted in the “Miller’s Tale”, the

“Merchant’s Tale”, and in the character of the Wife of Bath.

In the “Miller’s Tale, Alison who is described as “. . a fair young wife, her body as

slender/As any weasel’s, and as soft and tender;” (90) marries an old man named John. John then

takes in a lodger by the name of Nicholas. Since there is a big age difference between Alison

and her husband, there is an assumption that Alison is sexually unsatisfied and thus easily

seducible by a younger and more virile man–a man just like Nicholas (Hallissy 77). John

foolishly leaves the two at home alone while he goes to Osney. Nicholas seizes this opportunity

to make his move: he “held her haunches hard” (91) and begs her to satisfy him. Immediately:

She gave a spring, just like a skittish colt

Boxed in a frame for shoeing, and with a jolt

Managed in time to wrench her head away.

And said, “Give over, Nicholas, I say!” (91).

However, it rapidly becomes clear that Alison consents to Nicholas’s advances. In fact, so swift

is the courtship that it is clear that Alison is a woman of exceedingly flexible moral standards–

she is, in modern terms, easy (Hallissy 77). It is not long before another man named Absolon

also falls in love with beautiful Alison. He thinks of Alison as a lady to be courted. But like her

husband John, he has deceived himself about Alison: she is a fast and easy girl who does not

require much courting (Hallissy 80). Throughout the rest of the tale she continues to be a

“faithless wife and clever liar” (Hallissy 79). She makes a fool of both her husband and Absalon

who are both oblivious to what she is really like.

The “Merchant’s Tale” also presents a cunning, deceitful woman. The whole story is

handled with great dramatic effect by the Merchant, himself unhappily mated, to give point to

his bitter condemnation of matrimony and to the women to whose evil devices it exposes men

(Nardo 23). In the opening, an old man named January “felt an urge/So violent to be a wedded

man.” (357). He thinks having a wife is the most wonderful thing in the world. “For who is so

obedient as a wife” (358). In fact, he believes he can buy as a wife a domestic beast that will

serve his every wish and, somehow, fulfill his most erotic fantasies (Donaldson 48). Therefore,

he chooses May, the most beautiful virgin he has ever seen, to be his wife. After their wedding

night, May “didn’t think his games were worth a groat” (373). When January fails to satisfy her

sexually, a young man named Damian tells her he is in love with her. In return, she:

Wrote a letter in her own fair hand

In which she granted him her very grace.

There needed nothing but the time and the place

To grant the satisfaction he desired

He was to have whatever he required. (377)

She proceeds to carry on a passionate love affair with him thus exposing her wicked ways.

Finally, January goes blind and insists on holding May’s hand all the time. This still doesn’t stop

her from continuing her liaisons with Damian. The climax of their affair comes in what is

known as the “Pear-Tree Episode” which serves the Merchant as an example of the wicked wiles

of women (Nardo 23). May tells Damian to wait for her and January in a garden. When she and

January get there, January asks her to always be faithful to him. She passionately says that she

would rather die a horrible death than to “. . . do my family that shame/Or bring so much

dishonour on my name/As to be false . .” (382). This is a bold-faced lie because she knows that

Damian is waiting for her in a pear tree to do exactly what she just said she would never do. She

then tells her trusting husband that she wants a pear and needs him to give her a boost. Once in

the tree, Damian “Pulled up her smock at once and in he thrust” (386). At that moment Pluto

gave January his sight back and Proserpine helps May by putting “a ready answer on her

toungue/And every woman’s after, for her sake” (384). When May realizes that she has been

caught,she quickly tells him that she helped his eyes back to sight. She was told that “nothing

could cure them better than for me “To struggle with a fellow in a tree” (387). Not only does she

lie her way out of the situation, but she also tells him that he should be thanking her! Throughout

the tale she consistently lied and cheated on her kindly, trusting husband.

The Wife of Bath is also a very good example of the cunning, deceitful woman. “She’d

had five husbands” (Chaucer, “Prologue to The Canterbury Tales” 74). This was considered to

be extremely immoral in her day (Hallissy 105). The Prologue also said “Her hose were of the

finest scarlet red/and gartered tight” (74). Her array is flamboyant for a woman past forty much

less a widow (Hallissy 103). In fact, she defies authority just by her appearance alone (Hallissy

105). The Wife of Bath is also not fully to be trusted (Parker 53). There are many

contradictions between her theory and her practice. Throughout her prologue, the Wife recalls

anecdotes from her own life to make the point that the happiest marriages are those in which the

wife is the boss (Nardo 22). However, there is a contradiction when she describes her fifth

husband. When she married him, she says she “handed him the money, lands and all/That had

ever been given me before” (275). She also says that her fifth husband “had beaten me in every

bone” (272). She was in no way the boss in that marriage, and yet she said “I think I loved him

best” (272). Her idea that women should have mastery over their husbands, and many of her

other ideas take on a feminist point of view. However, the irony of her feminism as seen in her

tale is that it not only subscribes to the antifeminist cliche that all women, in their heart of

hearts, desire to be raped, but it reinforces it (Williams 70). In her tale, a knight rapes a woman

but goes unpunished. In fact, it seems as if he is even rewarded. He is allowed to marry a

beautiful woman. In addition, the Wife’s professed beliefs in female sovereignty in marriage are

not finally followed by the heroine of her tale, who obeys her husband: “And she obeyed hym in

every thyng/That myght doon hym plesance or likyng” (Parker 53). The Wife of Bath is shown

to be the worst of all the women portrayed in The Canterbury Tales.

In conclusion, throughout The Canterbury Tales there is a dual depiction of women.

Throughout the tales of the Knight, the Miller, the Merchant, and in the entire character of the

Wife of Bath,the women are shown to be extremely pristine and virginal, or extremely cunning

and deceiving. The women are either depicted as completely pure or completely wicked without

an in-between.

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