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

INTRODUCTION

Dame Alice tells us straight off that experience is the only authority she needs to tell of the problems of marriage. She proceeds, however, to use plenty of other authorities to support her idea that women should have control in marriage.

NOTE:

In the Middle Ages women had an exceptionally raw deal in marriage. Legally, they could do nothing without their husbands, in fact did not even exist other than as their husbands' property. Even sex could technically be performed only for procreation, not enjoyment (that was lust). Look at the effect this attitude has, not only on the way a medieval audience would view this tale, but the Miller's Tale as well. Women were responsible for any lust a man felt, because they were all considered temptresses.

Immediately Dame Alice gets defensive about the number of husbands she's had, saying not even Christ himself defined how many husbands were too many.

She first lets us know that virginity is nothing worth defending, since although St. Paul advises virginity, he doesn't command it; he leaves it up to each woman. There's no prize for virginity, she says in her own defense; besides, she cleverly asks, if everyone were a virgin, where would we get virgins?

Everyone has a gift from God, and uses it as best he or she can. This is a defense for her own healthy sexual appetite that flies in the face of the prevailing attitude. This attitude is upside-down from an orthodox medieval viewpoint: rather than trying to understand men's (and women's) actions according to a divine plan, she deduces God's plan for the world according to earthly desires and needs. But, she says, God wouldn't have made sexual organs if not for pleasure. (You can still hear this same argument today.) At least she is willing to have sex, unlike other wives who are "daungerous" (cool and standoffish).

Given the attitude of the time, is it outrageous of her to want to have a husband who will be her debtor and slave and to have power over his body (lines 155-158)? After all, that's the legal power a husband can hold over her. She uses authors to support her case, but adds she's saying all this only to amuse the company.

Believing that the best defense is a good offense, she teaches how to accuse husbands of being in the wrong to make them mind. All she wants to do, she pretends, is please them. At the same time, they're old, so why should they want her sex all to themselves when there's plenty to go around?

NOTE:

This is an ironic upset of the idea of mutual charity in marriage, and of the assumption that men and women of the same age should marry. This may be valid, as the three old husbands died trying to satisfy her.

She thumbs her nose at the medieval wisdom that says a woman's love is like a fire-the more it burns the more it wants to burn. But without her false accusations against her former husbands, she'd be ruined-"Been spilt," a sexual allusion as it is with Nicholas in the Miller's Tale-if she didn't take the initiative. She sees marriage in a cold, practical light: first come, first served; and whoever can profit should do so, for everything in life is for sale. She doesn't have sexual feeling for the old husbands, but pretends to so she can get things from them. Is this a cruel and callous attitude or is Dame Alice getting her just deserts?


Dame Alice's fourth husband, even though he was a lout (pulling off the very cheating tricks she accused the other husbands of), makes her think fondly of her lost youth. But the passing of time doesn't cause her to regret the good times she's had. Time has robbed her of her beauty, but "the devil with it" (line 476). Her resigned observation that "the flour is gone," meaning both "flour" and "flower," is ambiguous, showing her deep-rooted sense of the flesh and her sense of lost youth.

She loved her last two husbands because they were cool toward her. There's no real change or growth in her more recent experience, but these husbands, especially the last, are more like her and so more successful as matches. They give her a dose of her own medicine, and even though she eventually gets control, she gets a good fight in the process.

Jankin is the only husband we get a clear picture of, as well as the circumstances surrounding their meeting and wooing. It gives us a clue as to how she may have arranged her other marriages. (Like Nicholas, he is "hende," and she, like Alison, feels an instant sexual attraction.) We can feel Dame Alice's frustration after hearing of the tales of evil women that Jankin reads her, of the man who wants a cutting of the "blessed tree" on which a man's three wives hanged themselves and the proverbs that prove all wives are wicked.

The ending is a happy one for her, for although she uses trickery, pretending she's about to die, she does get her "mastery," which means skill as well as superiority. In this success, has she reached beyond the instinctual knowledge she's depended on all these years? Her tale may indicate an answer.

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