For characters in early English literature, race, a lower class, or simply the fact of being female alters the ease of achieving goodness due to societal prejudices. Peasants often speak in prose rather than verse, and authors code their villains with lower social standing and racially ambiguous backgrounds. In the days of Marie de France, love is an emotion felt only by the rich and noble. From these standards, the idea of a feminine dichotomy, or the distinct categorization of women as either good or evil, arises.
Any number of faults, such as promiscuity or shrewdness, might doom a character to the latter category, whereas beauty and chasteness mark members of the former. Although seemingly a complimentary portrayal, the use of the flawless woman as a character demeans women just as much as its counterpart. Its usage inhibits complexity in a character, as the woman in question typically relies on her love interest for relevance, and thus furthers harmful subservient gender roles.
In Marie de France’s “Lanval,” the use of the perfect woman heavily weakens Lanval’s lover, whereas Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales subverts this trope with the Wife of Bath and thereby creates a stronger, more complex narrative. In “Lanval,” the nameless lover of the protagonist exhibits practically no flaws, hindering her characterization and her potential for growth. Physically, she represents the ideal woman, loftily described as “the most beautiful woman in the world” (192). In fact, when Lanval incurs the wrath of a bitter queen when he rebukes her advances, her extreme beauty saves Lanval’s life.
Beyond her appearance, she also demonstrates compassion and devotion. She grants mercy even after Lanval violates the terms of their affair, saving him even though he speaks of her. It is precisely these strengths, her embodiment of the perfect woman, that diminishes her potential as a character. In literature, the capacity for failure offers the motivation necessary for development. Lanval’s inability to keep his relationship with his lover a secret represents a major flaw, which drives the poem’s conflict and allows him room for growth.
Because his lover possesses no such issues, she instead becomes a contrivance to boost Lanval’s characterization. Rather than growing and changing through her own narrative, she represents the development of Lanval and remains static and undefined. Though Lanval’s lover demonstrates immeasurable power, her abilities do not empower her. Instead, her skills contribute only to Lanval’s benefit. When they first meet, she uses her power to bestow a gift upon him: he would never again want anything, he would receive as he desired; however generously he might give and spend, he would provide what he needed. (136-139) Lanval’s lover promises to act as a panacea for him, so long as he upholds the terms of their affair and keeps his lover secret. Even when he breaks these conditions, she still comes to his rescue and saves his life by virtue of her incredible beauty. Despite her lover granting her nothing more than companionship, the disparity between what each lover offers to the relationship never becomes an issue for Lanval’s lover, and she continues to give generously.
Not once does she behave in a self-serving manner or use her talents for her own purposes. Rather, she only exists to serve him and dedicates herself wholly to this task, regardless of his failure to honor the basic request she asks of him. The most worrying aspect of this subservience, however, is the fact that this incredibly capable woman lacks even the most basic identifier. Marie never names Lanval’s lover, and therefore never creates an identity of her own. Marie’s use of such a powerful, perfect character as a glorified lave for Lanval reinforces the patriarchal expectation of male dominance. Additionally, her role in the poem furthers the misogynistic idea that female narratives only matter when told from the perspective of a male hero. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, on the other hand, completely subverts the trappings of the feminine dichotomy. She is, primarily, described in a manner indicative of a seductress; her clothes are red, she has a gap in her teeth, and her marriage record boasts five unique men.
In The General Prologue, the narrator describes her as knowing “remedies of love… For she coude of that art the olde daunce,” implying that she has slept with many men (477-478). Due to the pressure against women to remain chaste and virginal during this time, explicit and unashamed sexuality often immediately condemned a woman. Despite this, The General Prologue describes the Wife as offering a lot to the party on their journey to the shrine of St. Thomas Beckett. In one passage, the Narrator reveals that she is well-travelled.
The inclusion of her worldly understanding gives an air of wisdom, and even the lines about her expertise in the bedroom are delivered through the lens of her ability to give advice; rather than depraved, Chaucer paints the Wife as knowledgeable and experienced. Additionally, the Narrator describes her as humorous, stating, “in felaweshipe wel coude she laughe and carpe” (476). By assigning her positive attributes along with the traits considered undesirable, Chaucer implies that these characteristics are not necessarily damning.
In her tale, the Wife of Bath herself challenges the idea that negative qualities rid a woman of value. The old woman, ridiculed for her lack of beauty and her age, delivers a speech wherein she describes how these traits actually enrich her life. Her poverty parallels that of Jesus, her unappealing looks make her chaste, and her virtue grants her a truer nobility than that given by birth. This monologue exemplifies that value cannot be determined solely from a set of superficial characteristics; in fact, the features that cause men to view women as unworthy nhibit them from recognizing strengths those women possess.
The Wife presents a similar ideal herself in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, stating: Who painted the leon, tel me who? By God, if wommen hadden writen stories, As clerkes han within hir oratories, They wolde han writen of men more wikkednesse Than al the merk of Adam may redresse. (698-703) In her speech, she expresses that if women were telling the narratives, they would criticize men in a similar manner. Her point illustrates the hypocrisy and misogyny in literature, demonstrating the unfair and incomplete nature of the portrayal of women.
Through his inclusion of the Wife, Chaucer also avoids the issue she addresses – because of the epistolary nature of the work, he gives the Wife the opportunity to paint herself. The other members of the party allow the Wife to tell her story, and by doing so, give her the opportunity to define herself however she chooses – an opportunity Lanval’s lover certainly never had. Another way in which the Wife challenges the expectations set up by the feminine dichotomy is present in her opinions on “mastery” (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue 815). Though she loves her current husband more than any other, the Wife has remarried many times.
In her prologue she reasons that this fact reflects little on her personal morality, citing the Bible: “Look, here’s the wise king, lordly Solomon:/ do believe his wives were more than one” (35-36). Furthermore, she prides herself on challenging the power balance between man and wife Regarding her own relationship, she claims that her husband allows her autonomy, stating, When he had said to me, ‘My own true wife, Do as you please the balance of your life; Keep your honor as well as my estate’– From that day on we never had debate. (819-822)
The Wife echoes a similar sentiment in the tale she tells. A night, who first denies a maiden her agency with the despicable crime of rape and is punished for it, later achieves happiness when he asks his wife to choose her own destiny. At first, she offers him an ultimatum: either she will remain old and faithful, or she will become beautiful and flirt as she wishes. Rather than picking either option, the knight leaves the decision in his wife’s hands. As a result, he is left with a wife both beautiful and loyal. The story, which grants a reward when the protagonist allows women agency and delivers punishment when he does not, very clearly suggests that the former proves the correct course of action.
As a result, the Wife’s opinions paint her as a woman who desires not shrewish control over her husband, but merely sovereignty over herself. Ultimately, Chaucer’s depiction of the Wife creates a far more compelling character than the lover in Marie’s lai. By writing the Wife with both faults and strengths, and by allowing her a platform to speak her opinions, Chaucer crafted a character who relies only upon herself for importance in the narrative. Whereas Lanval’s lover exists solely for him, the Wife exists independently of her husband.
Attempting to frame female characters as either solely good or solely evil prevents strong characterization, and as a result, forces women to depend on men in order to maintain pertinence in literature. Additionally, it restricts the presence of female narratives, telling potential female authors that their opinions and stories lack importance without the lens of a male hero. Because characters like Lanval’s lover support and adhere to these problematic tropes, recognizing their harmful repercussions helps discourage their use and is incredibly important in achieving gender equality.