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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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THEMES

SEXUAL SUPERIORITY

Some read the Wife of Bath's whole saga as one of sexual revenge, but consider the society she has to put up with. Restrictions on women were enormous in Chaucer's day, and Dame Alice wants to gain revenge inside marriage. Her feminism was perhaps not common, but protests like hers weren't unheard of either. She means to attack the guilt-ridden and sex- obsessed attitudes of her day by beating men at their own game.

CELIBACY/VIRGINITY

Although she quotes St. Paul on the sanctity of virginity, Dame Alice isn't ashamed of the fact that she wants no part of it. Her rambunctious sexuality is in itself a kind of religious devotion, since it glorifies God by making good use of the tools He gave her.

AUTHORITY

Dame Alice uses her obvious intelligence in defense of the carnal, but she also pulls in as many authorities on the subject as she can think of, both for her introduction and the old hag's speech. Many of her "quotations" from learned men are loose translations indeed, or outright misunderstandings, for example when she freely translates St. Paul's teachings on chastity. Yet, as she begins by saying, her greatest authority is her own experience.


CHOICE

The knight must choose between appearances and satisfaction, between a good-looking wife or a faithful one. Dame Alice too makes it clear that she has chosen her five husbands, rather than them choosing her, though she's not particular. It all boils down to her idea of being in control of one's own life, which she identifies as superiority in marriage.

KINDS OF LOVE

Of course, the most important kind is sexual, but as the example of the queen shows, there is also the noble love called pity; the love, warring or peaceful, between husband and wife; and the love that Christ (whom Dame Alice likens to a woman because he was a virgin) has for humanity. The different kinds of love are intertwined for her because they are all part of the constantly changing facets of love that make up a marriage.

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