Critical Essays The Sovereignty of Marriage versus the Wife's Obedience


The Wife of Bath's Tale and The Clerk's Tale express diametrically opposite views concerning marriage and the function or duties of the wife and husband. Basically and simply put, the Wife of Bath feels that the woman should hold complete sovereignty over her husband; only then can a marriage be happy. Her tale is an exemplum of this belief. At this point no one dare disagree with the Wife's unassailable logic. We do not know until the next morning, when the modest Clerk is summoned to give his tale, that he has been dreadfully upset by the Wife's prologue and tale. We discover that the Clerk is astonished and horrified by the Wife's advocacy of the dominance of the wife over the husband. The Clerk then offers his own tale about a wife who is patient and obedient, whose steadfast devotion to her husband makes her completely subservient to him even so far as to allow him to send her beloved children to someone else. The wife in The Clerk's Tale does not complain about her husband's horrid insensitivity. In contrast, the Wife of Bath, rather than humbling acquiescing to her husband's wishes, resorts to any method, including physical dominance, to win supremacy.

Part of the effectiveness of The Clerk's Tale is that the Clerk asserts that the tale is not his, that he got it from a scholarly friend during his travels in Italy. Thus, while the Wife relies on her extensive experience, the Clerk gives credence to his tale by asserting that he heard it from a scholar and, therefore, it must be true. By a very indirect means, he lets the pilgrims know that the Wife is wrong, that a woman should be subservient to her husband; furthermore, he thereby supports the teachings of the church, which the Wife had denied.

The two stories have one thing in common: Both are an extreme exaggeration of the respective points of view. The Wife's insistence that men are to be ruled by their wives might be a point in the Wife's favor if one were to accept the manner in which Griselda was so cruelly treated by her husband. But then, as the Wife's tale is a splendid overstatement of her views, so is the Clerk's tale an overstatement of his refutation of the Wife's tale.

Even though the Clerk offers a statement in which he asserts that Griselda is perhaps too patient, he objects to the Wife of Bath's premise that the woman should be the controlling force in any marriage. But of the two, the Clerk is so shy, so demure, so timid, that the Wife's outrageousness far overshadows his argument, and we remember the Wife with far greater admiration than we do the Clerk.