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literature, The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer, marriage, gender, dominance


Comparative Literature | English Language and Literature | Family, Life Course, and Society | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Gender and Sexuality | Literature in English, British Isles | Women's Studies


In The Canterbury Tales, the perfect marriage is one where tension leads to yielding, resulting in bliss. According to the Wife of Bath, she has enough authority on the topic of marriage, through her extensive life experience, to lecture on "the wo that is in marriage." While on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, she draws attention to a gender-power struggle in marriage, and through her prologue and tale, explores a theme of what women most desire. Mouthing conventional misogynistic notions of the time, Alisoun seeks the kind of authority that within her culture is traditionally offered to men. She exemplifies a woman's desire to choose not only what she wants for herself, but also a wife's desire for maistrie and soverayntee within her marriage. Although maistrie and sovereignty are often times used interchangeably, they refer to physical and/or financial dominance as well as governance over one's own body. Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales both supports and challenges this theme of women's maistrie and sovrayntee throughout, specifically within three tales from "The Marriage Group": the Wife of Bath's Tale, the Clerk's Tale, and the Franklin's Tale. Although the wives, Alisoun, Grisilde, and Dorigen, antithetically approach mastery and sovereignty in their marriages, they demonstrate that wives are paradoxically capable of dominating while still yielding to their spouses. However, one may challenge the idea that the tales reveal a blissful marriage deriving from a domineering wife, concluding instead that the husbands undeniably possess, and never surrender, any soverayntee and maistrie. To explain this medieval battle of the sexes, I will argue the perspectives of the wives in these three tales, unveiling their varying approaches to obtaining marital dominance through sex, money, stubbornness, wantonness, promises, and yielding, and I will ultimately declare the wives victorious in this gender-power battle, while at the same time showing how the husbands greatly benefit.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License