The Wife of Bath and the Mark of Adam
The wyf of Bathe take I for auctrice
þat womman han no ioie ne deyntee
þat men sholde vp-on hem putte any vice.
Hoccleve, Dialogus cum Amico , ca. 1422
From the early fifteenth century to the late twentieth, one fact about the elusive Wife of Bath has never been disputed: where they agree on nothing else, her numerous commentators, like Hoccleve, take the Wife "for auctrice," as "a woman whose opinion is accepted as authoritative." Controversy over the precise meaning and value of the Wife's opinion effectively ensures her authoritative status, and now, perhaps more than ever before, she has become a figure to be reckoned with by anyone interested in the history, both factual and literary, of women before 1500. Faced with the problem of women's absence and silence in the past, feminist historians and literary critics turn with enthusiasm to the Wife as a rare instance of woman as agent, speaker, and, most recently, reader. More than any other well-known literary character, she is frequently compared with historically real personages, from Christine de
Pisan to Simone de Beauvoir. Where treated as a fictive character, she is often read in a sociological and historical context, as a sign of Chaucer's empathy women and/or understanding of feminine power; a realistic, historically plausible foil to the idealized views of femininity found in prescriptive texts of the period; possibly even "a truly practicing feminist"; and indubitably a survivor and a spokeswoman.
Here I interrogate this majority view, first by offering a relatively conventional close reading of the poem, treating the Wife and other characters as if they were psychologically verisimilar human beings from whose reported speech and actions the audience of the text identifies and interprets a living self in a social context. I read this self differently, however, from many recent critics, in a way that emphasizes its powerlessness, self-destructiveness, and silencing, and I argue that the Wife's discourse in the Prologue and Tale belies her apparent garrulity, autonomy, and dominance. At this level of interpretation she paradoxically represents not the full and remarkable presence with which modern readings have tended to invest her, or even some feminine strategy of negativity and subversion that might be glimpsed through the text, but a dramatic and important instance of woman's silence and suppression
in history and in language. In the subsequent phases of my argument, I consider the ramifications of my insistence on the Wife's negation for our understanding of the literary inscription of prominent cultural myths about male authors and about women, in fiction and in fact.
But she was somdel deef, and that was scathe.
It is hardly necessary to rehearse the reasons why the Wife of Bath might well be read as a woman who defies the stereotype of the properly chaste, submissive, and fundamentally silent female, that orthodox ideal celebrated in the antifeminist heroines who, in one authoritative ordering of the Tales, bracket her own performance: the Man of Law's long-suffering Constance and the Clerk's patient Griselda. Against the background that they figure, the Wife stands out even more prominently as the chatterbox, the gossip, the obsessive prattler, a type prominent in medieval literature and given mythical stature in the Merchant's Tale , when Proserpina debates the woman question with her husband Pluto and is made to prodaim: "'I am a womman, nedes moot I speke, /Or elles swelle til myn herte breke'" (IV.2305–6). The Wife may also figure the female storyteller, overtly challenging and at the same time emulating both male authority and the male author, and presenting us with one of our earliest literary images of the female as verbal artist. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's description of the wicked queen in Snow White might serve equally well to characterize the Wife: "a plotter, a plot-maker, a schemer, a witch, an artist, an impersonator, a woman of almost infinite creative energy, witty, wily, and self-absorbed as all artists traditionally are." In her Prologue , moreover, which is twice as long as her Tale , the Wife lays claim to the power of language to control the behavior of others. Through verbal attack, as she alleges and demonstrates, she gained and kept the upper hand in her first three marriages. She views words as strategic weapons, like sex and money, in the war between the sexes, and she describes her verbal tactics as repayment in kind against the men in her life: "I quitte hem word for word. . . . I ne owe hem nat a word that it nys quit" (4.22–25). One might well argue
that she successfully frees herself and requites the whole antifeminist tradition by turning the tables on male authority, parodying its rhetorical strategies and thus revealing its prejudice and absurdity by impersonating the male voice.
But views of the Wife as triumphant and powerful, often accompanied by the assumption that Chaucer intends to criticize or at least poke fun at antifeminist arguments, may be qualified, as other readers have suggested, by a recognition of the Wife's limitations, which the Prologue and Tale make equally dear. Despite her putative ability and eagerness to speak, I suggest, the Wife of Bath is not essentially more free, self-determined, or self-expressive than the good, silent woman, like Griselda or Constance, and her own words oblige us to understand the constraints upon her.
Throughout her Prologue , the Wife's language reflects precisely the power differential overtly dramatized in other of the Tales, especially the Clerk's. The first 170 lines of the Prologue consist mostly of direct and indirect quotation from both biblical and patristic texts, and so they are punctuated with tags that taken together underscore the gender of official speakers and critics: "quod he," "thus seyde he," "he speketh," "th'apostel seith," "Mark telle kan," and so on. Although she begins to speak of her own "experience"—she has "had" five husbands—only nine lines into her speech she cites her first authority, and the terms in which she does so are particularly salient. "But me was toold, certeyn, nat longe agoon is, . . ." she says, that biblical injunction forbids multiple marriage (9). The sudden appearance of the adversative at the beginning of line 9 immediately signals the oppugnant stance she is assigned to take throughout the rest of the Prologue . The use of the passive transformation, "me was told," puts the Wife first in the surface structure of the sentence; she is indeed self-absorbed, the phrasing suggests, and attempts to use her words, like her church offering, to affirm her preeminence. But in the deep structure of the sentence, "someone told me," the Wife is the object of the verb, or, in case-grammar terms, the "patient." Magically transformed, like the old hag in her tale, the Wife
occupies a place in the surface structure of her utterance that disguises her fundamental status, seen only in the base sentence, as a person acted upon rather than acting, a human being whose behavior is subject to the criticism and correction of some higher authority. Furthermore, although later in the Prologue the Wife repeatedly identifies the "auctoritees" against whom she argues, the subject in the deep structure of this sentence remains unexpressed. As the audience would presumably know, the antifeminist argument to which she alludes comes from St. Jerome; but it is not clear whether the Wife has it directly from his writings or, as is more likely, from some male reader of Jerome like her fifth husband. All we learn from the Prologue is that someone, at some unspecified time in the relatively recent past ("nat longe agoon is"), told the Wife that her behavior was immoral, and she does not say who. Perhaps she has forgotten or does not wish to identify a living critic, or perhaps she does not know exactly who, just as she cannot say quite when: no one told her, and everyone told her. The authority against which she rebels is not that of any single person; there is no tyrannical lord in her life as there is in Griselda's. The Wife is defending herself against a much vaguer and more obscured force of social disapproval, powerfully unnamed and unnameable, and her later attempts to meet specific arguments are self-defeating efforts to pin down and triumph over that generalized, mystifying, and hence invincible hostility that she meets from all sides.
This crucial vagueness and uncertainty, this Orwellian mystification of the power behind language, is further reflected in the opening lines as the Wife claims that she does not fully understand the meaning, although she understands the hostility and disapproval, of the arguments against her. She goes on to cite the highest authority of "Jhesus, God and man," and tellingly, the story of Jesus she relates is one that reveals not his loving-kindness, but his apparently gratuitous reproof of the Samaritan woman. The Wife's professed inability to interpret the meaning of his rebuke serves both to challenge its authority and to reveal her own nebulous insecurity:
What that he mente therby. I kan nat seyn;
But that I axe, why that the fifthe man
Was noon housbonde to the Samaritan?
How manye myghte she have in manage?
She asks her bold questions of no one in particular, and of everyone. We see again the generalized feeling that someone out there knows more
than she does. Immediately afterwards, instead of rejecting an authority that she does not understand or that conflicts with her own experience (whatever that may be), she proceeds to choose another "gentil" text to support her argument: "God bad us for to wexe and multiplye" (28). This is all strategic on her part and no doubt meant to be very funny. It also underlines a serious truth about the nature of power in her world. God's characteristic speech act is a command; created in His image, all men, even Christ, speak sharp words to women, for reasons that are purposefully obscure and obscured; and the Wife, along with all women, is "told" by received opinion that her behavior is wrong. She struggles to understand why, she seems to want both to subvert and to be right and "good," and so she asks questions and tries to find or make authorities that speak on her side. Despite the admonitions of many exegetical critics, those of us who are not horrified by her blasphemy will admire her resilience and persistence and courage. We also see, however, that as long as she accepts (or, what amounts to the same thing, attempts to invert) the basic power differential and the obfuscation of power reflected and supported by the language she uses, her struggles are in vain. As will become clearer after my discussion of the Clerk's Tale , this protofeminist, this "archewyf" and "auctrice" is not even as critical of her true masters, as awake to her less obvious but equally fundamental subjection, as patient Griselda.
The rest of the Prologue provides evidence that supports this reading. In telling us about her first three old husbands, the Wife quotes herself demonstrating how she verbally attacked them and always won; but ironically, since her method was to accuse her husbands of standard antifeminist attitudes, for yet another 150 lines we are subjected (as she was) to a deafening stream of misogynist platitudes, here from folk rather than learned tradition. The repeated "thou seist" tag, again necessitated by the quotation within quotation, emphasizes the fact that she is fighting against the power of male voices to control her behavior and that at some level she knows it. Again, ironically, all is false; her first three husbands, she implies, were not bright enough to talk this much, but she is trying to pin down that invisible and omnipresent power that she knows will control her if she gives it a chance. And with her fifth husband, the Wife herself is aptly repaid for all her earlier deceits. She
undergoes a perverse version of wish fulfillment—an experience she uses and revises when she tells her tale—when the story she invented to control her first three husbands comes true. Janekyn really does attack her, that is, with antifeminist doctrine, this time of a learned and hence even more authoritative variety. In the final section of her Prologue , as she describes the contents of his antifeminist miscellany by quoting from it at great length, the Wife yet again gives the stronger voice in the text, as in reality, to the opposition.
One might argue that all this quotation merely shows us what a woman is up against and therefore highlights the Wife's victory over it, but it is also essential to remember that throughout her performance the Wife both consciously and unconsciously endorses the antifeminist stereotypes she cites, illustrating again that, as Fredric Jameson puts it, "transgressions, presupposing the laws or norms or taboos against which they function, thereby end up precisely reconfirming those laws." She boasts, for instance, of her traditionally feminine powers to lie and deceive and manipulate men, and this unwitting self-deprecation is not so very different from the idealized statements of victimization that "good" women, like Constance or Griselda, are willing and even eager to utter. Both the dumb woman and the wily, witty, creative woman live in a world where their protest against received opinion is normally silenced and dialogue precluded; and so the patient and the impatient woman—the norm and the transgression—are presented as two sides of the same coin, able to see themselves and speak for themselves only in terms provided by the dominant language and mythology of their culture. The Wife's loss of hearing is caused, as we are told at the end of her Prologue , by one act that is not a speech act, her violent nonverbal attempt to destroy Jankyn's book, the written word that has made her what she is. This cryptic, unsettling, and foreshortened drama of role reversal, mock murder, and humiliation discloses the mutual degradation that marital relations entail in her world, and the Wife's mutilation serves as a climactic symbol of the simultaneously muting and deafening effect of the dominant discourse and the gender hierarchy it enforces.
The Wife of Bath's Tale has sometimes been seen as an antidote to the use of male authority and endless quotation in her Prologue , but on doser examination things are not really very different. For a while, the tables
do seem genuinely turned: the tale begins with a casual rape, but the rapist is sentenced to death, and the queen (thanks to the "grace" of the king) is granted power over his life. She gives him a twelvemonth and a day to find out what women want most, and now the story sounds as though the pronouns have been reversed. The Knight can save his neck if he finds out what the opposite sex really desires; the price he is asked to pay for the correct answer is one more often exacted from women, as he is required to satisfy the lawful sexual appetities of someone old and physically repulsive to his suddenly refined sensibilities. The heroine of the tale, an elf queen disguised as an old hag, is a powerful artist, able to transform herself and gain mastery over her husband through her wise and "gentil" (and thoroughly orthodox) speech. But the ending of the tale, like the ending of so much Chaucerian fiction in this regard, safely returns us to a more familiar plot and a more suitable alignment of the sexes. The rapist not only saves his life but is also rewarded by the promise of that impossible being, an unfailingly beautiful, faithful, and obedient wife; the hag who gave him the answer, who had all the power, gives it up, and transforms herself into a Constance or Griselda. Thus the denouement implies that the Wife herself lacks confidence in the female's powers of speech. Although the hag/elf queen, like the queen in Snow White, has the creative drive of an artist, it is thwarted and used self-destructively to reveal that her true identity is what every man is said to want most, a woman "bothe fair and good" (1241) who "obeyed hym in every thyng / That myghte doon hym plesance or likyng" (1255–56). The hag chooses that silent beauty which only in a fairy tale is anything but fleeting and dangerous. With the happy ending the heroine relinquishes her power and dissolves into literal silence and alleged submission, the archetypal feminine transformation.
The Wife, of course, does not; she has the last word, and I think we can begin to see why that word must be a curse on men:
And eek I praye Jhesu shorte hir lyves
That wol nat be governed by hir wyves;
And olde and angry nygardes of dispence,
God senile hem soone verray pestilence!
The speaker who utters a curse assumes, as the Wife always does, that language has power in more than a metaphorical sense. She wishes to injure the addressee, or the person or persons cursed, and reduces the
object of her imprecation to linguistic powerlessness: there is no effective response to a curse, no way to ward it off, and it can work without the addressee's knowledge of it. Its efficaciousness depends not, however, on the speaker's power, but on the power of some external, presumably divine or supernatural, force whose aid is invoked for the purposes of destroying the opposition and closing off communication. The curse, at once vague and all-encompassing, is only a response in kind, then, to the hostility that the Wife meets on all sides and an application of the repressive training in the power of language that a patriarchal culture has given her. It is by the same token not a response, but an involuntary, extraverbal cry of anger that implicitly denies the autonomy of both speaker and addressee and undercuts the Wife's putative attempt to speak of and for herself.
Who peyntede the leon, tel me who?
By God! if wommen hadde writen stories,
As clerkes han withinne hire oratories,
They wolde han writen of men moore wikkednesse
Than al the mark of Adam may redresse.
In any discussion of the Wife of Bath as a speaking subject, the Wife's intriguing question—who painted the lion? from whose point of view is this story being told?—requires dose attention. In the lines quoted above, the character is made to allude self-reflexively to the problem that I have been arguing is most central to feminist interpretations of this text, to the actual silence and absence of the Wife and/as Woman. If women had ever authored stories, she points out, they would be very different ones; although actually, as she imagines it here, they would also be much the same—equally determined, that is, by the anxieties of gender difference and the resultant, allegedly inevitable competition between men and women. A female character thus indirectly but unequivocally reminds
us at the very center of her fictional narrative not only that an author's gender, as constructed by a set of binary oppositions between female and male, always colors the written (and spoken) word, but also that this text affords no exception to the rule that women have not written the story. A male author created the Wife, and "her" teasing, playful, characteristically hostile, and arguably unconscious reference to this fact mirrors and confirms what we have seen in both the Prologue and the Tale : a feminine monstrosity who is the product of the masculine imagination against which she ineffectively and only superficially rebels. It is an apparently paradoxical but finally explicable and revealing fact that the one woman in the Canterbury Tales who is so often viewed, for good or bad, as an autonomous being is the one from whose mouth comes the reminder that "she," like every female character in the male-authored text, never existed at all. In an important sense the Wife is not only as powerless and silent, but also as unreal, as unrepresentable, as saintly Constance, patient Griselda, or the transformed hag at the end of her tale, and the fact that she herself voices this understanding is consistent with the variously self-deprecating pronouncements we hear from many Chaucerian heroines.
The passage on the painting of lions signifies, in other words, that the Wife's actual failure of self-expression and empowerment through language, analyzed at the mimetic level in the first part of this chapter, is a symptom of the alleged impossibility of her speaking, by virtue of her gendered exclusion from the role of storyteller. This claim ensures at every level the Wife's and Woman's negation, as even the most wordy and verisimilar of female characters is (de)constructed by her own words as that which is not actually speaking and not actually being represented, that which stands outside the bounds of language and literary convention altogether. The way she is characterized thus manages to conflate real women and the absent Woman as firmly as possible. And it is precisely this negation of the Wife that makes her an important figure for feminist analysis. As H. Marshall Leicester has put it, in a reading of the Wife that I return to in later parts of this chapter, "there is no Wife of Bath." Understood as a construction of the text, this fact can help us to read this complicated, convoluted poem for the insights it affords us into the ways and means by which the literary tradition has maneuvered
within, accounted for, and profited from the socio-gender system as we know it, in all its complexity, fragility, and historical variability. My reading of the Wife, like all subsequent readings in this study, thus intends to challenge in particular the bipartite myth of Chaucer's special sympathy or empathy with women and his aesthetic or moral transcendence.
To interrogate this myth, I first want to consider two arguments that seem to support the remarkable notion that Chaucer sympathizes not merely with female characters like the Wife, but even with the particular insights of late twentieth-century feminist criticism into the social construction of Woman. First, one argument might go, the position of the feminine exemplified by the Wife—a position finally outside the bounds, as we have seen, of the representable—may be viewed, like all marginal positions, as a potentially subversive one. Above all, the mandated silence of women and the concomitant impossibility of representing a real female speaker threatens both the author's control and the audience's ability to understand the character and the poem: the evanescence of the Wife and Woman's position marks the limits, in other words, of both representation and interpretation. To argue that we can never know "who she is" because she is "not anyone" seems to state the obvious and beg the question, but it also calls into question the effectiveness of precisely the kind of reading—or its opposite—that I have offered in the first part of this essay. Viewing the Wife as a psychologically verisimilar, speaking self and concluding that either she is or is not empowered, such readings allow us to assume a momentary, illusory power over the character and the world, to situate ourselves, as Leicester again puts it, in "a position superior to her from which she can be fixed and placed, understood and dismissed." And so it could be argued that by inscribing the silence and enigma of the Wife as/and Woman in the many ways I have suggested, Chaucer refuses to let us rest securely and comfortably in that dominant position, and hence at least tacitly advocates a tolerant, antiauthoritarian stance that the modern feminist reader must value. But
I shall argue here and later that defining Woman as mystery, that is, defining the feminine as resistance to closure, reifies both her status as Other, that which can never be fully known or present, and the unrelenting dynamics of binary gender opposition as surely as do totalizing, patriarchal readings. In the latter part of this chapter I comment in more detail on the theoretical and practical problematics of such a position.
Second, a case might be made for Chaucer's allegedly feminist leanings on the basis of a closely related issue: the similarities between the position of women and the apparent position of the poet. The Canterbury Tales as a whole seems structured to highlight and even exaggerate a situation common to all (literary) texts. Stories both reveal and create tellers; no tale can be interpreted except as the product of a human speaker, and yet the human speaker behind each tale is also firmly identified as the fictional creation of yet another speaker. This situation creates a possibility of infinite regression, a dramatization and literalization of the mise en abîme of language, and hence a fundamental and threatening absence of identifiable authority that leads to a well-known interpretive problem: how do we locate "Chaucer the poet" (not to speak of "Chaucer the man") at any moment? Or who, at any point, is speaking? The voice of the poet creates, at best, a slippery, ironic persona who, like the Wife of Bath, offers us someone who is not really there, who is only, in Leicester's words again, "the traces of a presence that asserts its simultaneous absence."
Like the Wife: what interests me here and throughout this study is the repeated perception that the figure of the poet and the woman are represented as similar in many ways. At the level of historical realism, Chaucer and the Wife may seem particularly homologous in their (in)-subordinate position. Recent scholars have suggested that the medieval poet may well be understood in terms of the ambivalent, insecure, and inferior position that he held in the fourteenth-century court; as marginalized and subordinated figures, poets and women alike may be si-
multaneously complicitous with and suspicious of both the ideology that tries but fails to define them and of the audience to and for whom they speak. Both the Wife and Chaucer tell lies that subvert the power of words to speak any truth at all, stories that threaten any correspondence between utterance and meaning and that undermine orthodox assumptions about the nature of intention and identity. In their silence and absence, both poet and woman stand together, by this reading, in the position of the limit of that which can be represented. Disclosing the other side of all this potential subversiveness, as verisimilar selves they seem to share an ideologically sanctioned fantasy of silent submission and wordless transformation that their excessive fluency covers and belies. The happy ending of the Wife's Tale , although qualified by both her Prologue and her curse, seems oddly analogous to the poet's famous Retraction , problematized by its uncomfortable relation to all of the work that precedes it.
But it is at just this point that the provocative analogy between Chaucer and Wife, great Poet and quintessential Woman, breaks down in a way I find particularly interesting, and the case for Chaucer's tolerance, sympathy, or identification with women again becomes at best moot. The Wife's curse once more is telling: it functions as a commentary on her own fantasy, for which we find no counterpart following the Retraction . Chaucer's strategy in the Canterbury Tales , as we shall see again in the last part of this book, displaces the commitment that speaking entails onto other voices in an attempt to remain as free of the constraints of fallen language, as powerfully apolitical, muted, unaccountable, unnamed, and unspoken as possible. The poet does exercise (to this day, one might argue) the power of silence, and the Retraction in a sense simply reinforces that silence without deconstructing the work it ostensively retracts. The figure of the male author constructed by the Canterbury Tales as a whole can only caution us against thinking we can know anything at all about him—including his sexual politics.
The Wife's curse, on the other hand, reveals that the female character created by Chaucer retains a paradoxical and fatal faith in language that is self-destructive: invoking the power of words to destroy rather than create, she at once discovers and betrays her own commitment to speaking, validates the patriarchal authority she seeks to resist, and renounces the power of silence that the poet seems more able to exploit. From this perspective, the Wife's performance demonstrates that Chaucer's Woman suffers from a delusion that the implied author does not repro-
duce. Her curse, in particular, serves to distinguish her dramatically from the figure of the male poet, and, more important, to disarm the very threat of women's silence and unrepresentability that the poet acknowledges, appropriates, and strategically counters. The lesson of the Wife's Prologue and Tale seems to be that a naive faith in language does not serve women well because language is, according to the Canterbury Tales , an instrument for reproducing the conventions that constrain and deny both the experience of women and the representation of that experience. But this is just the lesson that the Wife, unlike the poet, is not allowed to learn or profit from—because she is the lesson. As learned in "scole-matere" (1272) as any clerk, she cannot escape the convention of the happy ending that legitimates the knight's originally illicit and violent desire by subordinating and silencing the hag/elf queen any more than she can escape the need to transgress and thus reinforce the laws of language and the myths of culture that at once silence her and condemn her to speak.
It is odd that many have found the Wife of Bath lifelike. If she is, it is not in a way that those who see her as a marvel of naturalistic invention would accept. In common sense human terms she is absurd and grotesque, a figment of that anti-feminist gallimaufry, the Prologue to her Tale. That many take her as a triumph of Chaucer's mellow and humane art tells us more about the place of women in our tradition than about the words before us. True, Chaucer was civilized; he shared the enjoyment of his courtly, humanist civilization in baiting women and the middle classes. But we are middle class, even if we think the middle classes ought not to be baited; and women are not to be baited really, for their place has changed. In short our idea of civilization is different from Chaucer's. So it can hardly be that those who talk of the mellowness and humanity that went into the Wife really mean they whole-heartedly enjoy Chaucer's curmudgeonly and old-fashioned humor; or if they do, they are less than frank about it. It seems much more likely that they have found a way of misunderstanding Chaucer. And we have other ways as well, for our different ethos has not given us a detached view of the real nature of the Wife's comedy. It has made her an embarrassment, so that, fearing for Chaucer's good name, we misunderstand her elaborately.[15
] David S. Reid, "Crocodilian Humor"
I am not the first to stand outside the general consensus that the Wife of Bath is an authentic female speaker who testifies to both real female power (or lack thereof) and Chaucer's own extraordinary virtues and virtuosities. The paragraph cited above opens David S. Reid's discussion of Chaucer's Wife of Bath in an essay published almost two decades ago, and while there are many things to be said about Reid's iconoclastic position, the questions I address here are these: Why has the critical community since 1970 been unmoved by his exposé of the misreadings of the Wife that have, he alleges, been generated by the modern canonization and adulation of Chaucer? Why do we still find the latest and often most theoretically sophisticated Chaucerians still apparently fearing for Chaucer's good name, and what is it that they fear, exactly? Putting aside for the moment the equally important and deeply implicated problem of class politics that Reid alludes to, and that I will touch on in later chapters, I propose that the politics of literary adulation so clearly practiced in those elaborate misunderstandings of the Wife and other Chaucerian women are prominently and preeminently sexual politics. A late twentieth-century feminist critique that persists in scrutinizing the male-authored canon can call into question the continuing practice of such politics in literary studies in general, as well as in Chaucer studies.
To this end, I want to explore more fully the history of the reception of the Wife's Prologue and Tale as a pro- or antifeminist document, and the implications of that history for current feminist readings. For the purposes of my argument, I begin by cavalierly and hypothetically dividing the history of Chaucer criticism into three political ages: the prefeminist, the feminist, and the postfeminist. I want to say very little about the first age, somewhat more about the second, and more yet about the third. In the long prefeminist era, dating from somewhere near the end of the fourteenth century to the second half of the twentieth, what we may now want to read as blatantly "sexist" responses to Chaucer's female characters are abundant and various. It would be easy but no longer very newsworthy to document the ways in which the two broad traditions of critical response to the Wife of Bath in particular cover the fears that the talking woman inspires in a predominantly male audience: she
is the butt of Chaucer's broad, jolly, ironic humor, or the target of his righteous, Christian, ironic scorn. Whether the Wife is seen as "amazing" and "vividly feminine" or as a "blight and scourge," neither the female character nor the woman question is of serious interest to the critics; the author, Chaucer, is the literary hero, a great, wise, godlike creator of characters whose human foibles he captures and exposes, be it lovingly or sternly.
The second, comparatively brief era in the history I am constructing here was occasionally prefigured in earlier studies of Chaucer's alleged empathy with women but began to flourish only in the 1970s. call this the feminist era, although I do not want to suggest that whatever feminism means, it refers to a monolithic project or in any sense a completed one. I use the term "feminist" at this point to describe a kind of critical activity in the academy that developed in response to sociopolitical events of the last two decades. I also use it elsewhere in this study to refer to current critical practice and theory, including my own recent work, that sees itself working within late twentieth-century feminism and yet builds on and differs from the feminist criticism of ten years ago (including, again, my own) in significant ways, even to the point of questioning how the feminist position, as construed in certain ways, can actually achieve the goals its occupants desire.
It is in the 1970s, at any rate, that the question of sexual politics becomes an explicit one addressed by scholars who ask us to view Chaucer
as a social critic analyzing individuals as products of conventions and ideology. By this view, the poet specifically and self-consciously offers understanding or even radical criticism of the antifeminist tradition as he knew, used, and, some would say, intentionally subverted it. Among Chaucerians explicitly concerned with modern questions of feminism and antifeminism, however, there appears again a difference or doubleness of opinion on Chaucer's infamous Wife of Bath. As I noted before, some emphasize the degree to which she is a strong, autonomous, relatively free woman, a realistic, historically plausible foil to the idealized views of femininity found in prescriptive texts of the medieval period, and even, as Maureen Fries claims, "a truly practicing feminist." Others, on the contrary, contend that she is presented as a victim, speaking not from a position of even relative strength but in the "manipulative, hostile voice" of a woman suffering from "the wounds of gender."
This debate refracts through a new lens the old division among prefeminists: to the feminist critic of this era, the Wife as blasphemous female monster is a heroine; as "vividly feminine" or comic female grotesque, she is a victim. This period certainly brings a new focus on institutions and the way they construct selves or individuals; and we see unaccustomed investment in, perhaps even identification with, the female character. But the literary adulation of Chaucer persists; most critics read through the character and their interpretation of her circumstances and significance to the presence, authority, and (good) intentions of the author. Whether the Wife is seen as victim of misogyny or avatar of liberation, then, Chaucer is often credited with "insight into the roles women play," and the ostensive empathy with his female characters that traditional criticism had often noted more or less in passing is reaffirmed and made central to his poetic vision in ways that accord with the demands of a twentieth-century liberal consciousness and the academic institutions within which these texts are read. Arlyn Diamond, who stands virtually alone in this period in suggesting that Chaucer's sympathy is "limited by his fundamental conservatism," concludes her persuasive feminist critique by rehabilitating Chaucer, to an extent, on very interesting grounds—on the basis of his "discomfort with categories": "he means to be women's friend, insofar as he can be, and it is this
painfully honest effort, this unwillingness to be satisfied with the formulas of his age, which we as feminists can honor in him."
It is my contention, and my purpose in this study as a whole to demonstrate, that the feminist era in Chaucer studies is not over in any sense: important feminist scholarship is still being written, and feminism has yet to make the difference that it might make in the way that male authors like Chaucer are read. But in the work of recent Chaucerians, as in the wider worlds of literary criticism and the culture in which it is practiced, I discern at least the potential for an emergent third era that I shall call, with reservations, postfeminist. I qualify my use of this term because I do not wish to imply that something like the post-feminism announced by the American media since the early 1980s is irrevocably upon us, or that it is somehow necessary or inevitable that on the fast track in academe we now move on beyond feminist criticism and theory. Nor do I mean to invoke another use of this term, in the intellectual discourse of Le Postfeminisme in France in the 1970s. But the term "postfeminist" serves to describe some of the specific implications, although not necessarily the intended or actual argument, of two recent essays on the Wife of Bath. I use the term postfeminist, then, in reference to these works in certain specific ways: they are post-feminist in the sense that they seem, at one level, to take up the contemporary feminist project by focusing powerful critical attention on the literary representation of women and the rhetorical construction of gender; implicitly or explicitly, they find Chaucer himself something of a feminist—or at least not an antifeminist—in his sexual politics. Each essay may be termed post -feminist, however, in that each may imply, as I see it with an admittedly pessimistic eye, some of the ways in which a "merely" feminist reading of Chaucer is both out of date and beside the point. Chaucer is constructed in both essays as a male poet writing for and about men; in both, moreover, the specifically gendered woman reader may be excluded or limited by the critic's interpretive assumptions. (In neither piece are the categories "men" and "women" either historicized or decon-
structed.) At the same time, the benefits and demands of a certain kind of political feminism seem to have been accepted by both critics: given their determination of the author's irreproachable attitude toward women, Chaucer can still be read and valued for his humanist insight into and sympathy for the female other as well as his dispassionate artistic greatness. Taking up only one aspect of each critic's interpretation of Chaucer's Wife, in looking at the arguably postfeminist implications of these essays I intend not to distort or diminish their efforts and achievements, nor to exaggerate or reify their role in opening a new age, or the uniqueness of their positions, but rather to view them as part of a very long history of criticism. My concern as a feminist in the late twentieth century is that history can and does repeat itself.
The first of these essays is Lee Patterson's "'For the Wyves Love of Bath': Feminine Rhetoric and Poetic Resolution in the Roman de la Rose and the Canterbury Tales ." Patterson does not situate his work openly in relation to current feminist thought, but his essay affirms what might seem a useful premise for any feminist reading of Chaucer: questions of gender are "of central importance in Chaucer's efforts at poetic self-definition." The poet has and shares insights into the ways women (and poets) are victimized by literary tradition, and moreover "acknowledges his own complicity" in the process. The Wife of Bath is, as Patterson so fundamentally understands, "a creature of the male imagination." It is when Chaucer "uses" the Wife's voice, however, "to counter the authoritative tones of the Man of Law," Patterson concludes, that "he is in effect abandoning his claims to the 'maistrye' of an 'art poetical' that is based on the submission of women."
Such a claim raises more questions about identity and intentionality in discourse than Patterson even begins to answer in his essay, but I am less interested here in his predictable assessment of the blamelessness of Chaucer's sexual politics than in his pervasive assumptions about the way gender intersects and connects the position of the writer and the reader. Repeatedly, he presupposes that both "the medieval poetic consciousness" and the modern critical consciousness are male or masculine, that a transhistorical notion of male heterosexuality is essential to the task of reading (women), and that reading women is a constitutive ac-
tivity (and again a transhistorical one) for authors and audiences alike. For example, Patterson speaks of the Wife's rhetorical come-on in her Prologue and notes that "for the male audience feminine speaking is never wholly divested of the titillating ambivalence of eroticism" (my emphasis); again, "the self images of the first two parts [of the Prologue] are ways of testing the patience and persistence of the masculine audience " (my emphasis). Patterson also acknowledges, indirectly at least, that he, like the historical and ostensively ideal or implied reader of Chaucer, is a member of a timeless, heterosexual male readership: he notes, for instance, that there are "appealing moments" in the otherwise "appalling" Prologue , moments when "the very intimacy of her revelations assures us that we are not old and foolish, that we might even be one of those with whom she has shared 'many a myrthe'" (Patterson's emphasis).
Patterson's use of "we" in such formulations may obviously confound some late twentieth-century female readers and feminist critics, who cannot in good faith include themselves in that rhetorical first-person plural because they simply cannot be turned on (or off) by the Wife as Patterson implies that their male colleagues are, if indeed reading this text is inevitably charged with gendered sexual interaction. This model of interpretation, based on one falsely universal paradigm of heterosexual male response—the reader is he who wants to be assured by a come-hither look from a lusty woman that he is not old and foolish—is by no means new or unusual in literary studies. As some recent critical studies have demonstrated, for instance, the notion that writing and reading can be described as sexual, gendered practices is common in medieval theorizing about the moral and epistemological function of literature. In modern criticism, assumptions like Patterson's govern much authoritative prefeminist scholarly discourse (in spirit, if not in date of publication) on Chaucer's female characters; if we turn back just a few years to the commentary of a more venerable Chaucerian like E. Talbot Donaldson,
for example, or to an essay on Chaucer published not so long ago in the pages of the most widely circulated professional journal in the literary field, we find precisely the same sort of presuppositions about the gender and sexualized response of "the" reader.
In the last sentence of a well-known essay on Troilus and Criseyde , Donaldson indirectly addresses alleged contradictions in his own and the male characters' sexual feelings about that other infamous Chaucerian woman, Criseyde, by invoking an all too familiar homosocial couple: the "sensitive" but "sensible" male reader, and his mentor across the centuries, that great male artist who simultaneously represents (and masters) the female character and sustains the myth of woman's mystery. "Every sensitive reader," Donaldson concludes, "will feel that he really knows Criseide—and no sensible reader will ever claim that he really understands her." Again, as in the case of the Wife and so many Chaucerian women, we see the easy conflation of real women (women we really know) with Woman as mystery, absence, Other (that which we will never really understand). Evan Carton's discussion of Troilus and Criseyde , appearing in PMLA in 1979, makes this gendered and sexualized model of the allegedly universal reader's response more explicit, and it does so with somewhat more theoretical sophistication and self-consciousness. Carton views Pandarus's activity, verbal and sexual, as "paradigmatic for all participants in the narrative," including narrator and reader. Pandarus desires "to take Criseyde" and so too "We must reach out to seize our prize" (emphasis added)—where the prize is meaning itself as well as the now openly incestuous seduction of the woman.
Countless examples could be adduced, but let me return to my main point: my fear of what I see as a postfeminist position in Patterson's work is thus in large part the fear that the scholarly community, along with much of the real world, will return easily and quietly to the prefeminist status quo, where there is no place for the woman reader and critic of Chaucer (or for the male who does not respond as many critics imagine he does). In what sense can a self-consciously female human being
in the late twentieth century belong to a community in which membership requires "taking" Criseyde? Unless she is, as Carton indeed imagines Criseyde (and perhaps all women) to be, thoroughly immasculated, identifying with alleged male sexual pleasure and vicariously gratified by it, she cannot, by this model of language and interpretation, join in the primal, communal act of "constituting meaning." If critics like Carton and Patterson are right—and even some feminists would certainly seem to agree that they are —the kind of meaning criticism wants is a male possession; and women can only read poems like Troilus and Criseyde or the Canterbury Tales (or by the most extreme view enter into discourse at all) if we are complicitous in the sexual exploitation and silencing of the female character and in strategies for constituting the culturally feminine (and masculine) that reify hierarchy and exclusion.
It seems almost too easy to point out, with a degree of self-righteousness I would like to avoid but probably cannot entirely disown, the exclusion of the woman reader from the prominent strain of critical interpretation that such readings represent. Using a critic like Donaldson is perhaps a cheap shot, and yet his views have been highly influential on a generation of prominent Chaucer critics and hence on subsequent generations of students, and his sympathy with and interest in both women characters and his own masculinity make him a virtual replica of the modern Chaucer that many scholars admire and work hard to preserve. But the more difficult project of proposing alternative models has only begun. If some of "us" are not titillated by the Wife and do not desire Criseyde, and yet "we" do not want to jettison the hard-won recognition that readers and writers (and maybe reading and writing) are, have been, or can be gendered, in some sense—so that, among other things, women can read and speak about texts and their histories—then we need to continue to develop new practice and theory that accounts for, among other things, the relations between women as one group of (formerly excluded) readers and canonical, male-authored works. We need models and methodologies that allow us to constitute ourselves as readers, and hence to constitute meaning itself, in a way that does not involve either "taking," in various senses, the female characters or the feminine position as culturally constructed, or letting them go, to be
constructed and interpreted, as always, by prefeminist or postfeminist positions.
The second article I want to speak about is Leicester's "Of a Fire in the Dark: Public and Private Feminism in the Wife of Bath's Tale ." This piece seems at first, like Patterson's work, to belong more properly to the feminist era, for indeed the overt, central, and compelling argument of the piece is that troubling contradictions in the Wife's self-presentation, reflected in the unresolved critical debate I have already described, testify to two types of feminism that she practices: first, a "polemical, reactive, necessarily 'illiberal'" public feminism (again, what was known in prefeminist days as her monstrous, unpalatable appropriation of male power), and, second, a "deeper," subtextual, private feminism, which is "more humanist (in the sense of being interested in what individuals can make, positively, of the culture and institutions that precede and surround them) and more humane—or at any rate 'nicer.'" Both private and public feminisms, Leicester concludes, bear witness to Chaucer's own nice, humane, feminist-humanist personality, for, after all, the character's feminisms can finally be nothing more or less than the author's: "This lack of closure in the Wife's life and personality is, finally, an aspect of Chaucer's feminism, since of course there is no Wife of Bath." In the inconclusiveness and ambivalence of his portrait of the Wife, moreover, Leicester finds evidence, as I noted earlier, for his view that the author can be commended for attempting to bring a woman to life "by trying to sustain her mystery, her possibility, and her independence."
Near the end of his essay, however, Leicester offers a very interesting qualification of his own authority to judge these issues: "While I think from the evidence that Chaucer knew a lot about women, I am not in a position to speak with authority on this topic, since, like the poet, I lack
certain essential experience " (my emphasis). My response to this com- ment is mixed, and I am troubled not so much by Leicester's argument or condusions (although, as readers of this study will recognize, they greatly differ from my own in terms of the emphasis I lay on the Wife's textuality) as by the full implications for women readers and for feminist theory of his frank, personal statement. On the one hand, Leicester re- minds us again that authors and readers alike are gendered people, a point that feminist criticism has to date often insisted on in its efforts to point out that the idea of the universal or neutral human perspective serves to mask the interests of a particular dass, race, and gender. He also seems to validate rather than exclude the voice of the putative female reader in a way that reverses traditional notions of who has what when he speaks of his own lack, the absence in the male of some "essential experience" that empowers the female to "speak with authority" on the topic of Chaucer's insight into women.
But at the same time, taken another way, Leicester's observation exposes a more problematic aspect of the situation of women readers who would read male authors with any attention to the problems of gendered subjectivity: the poet was male. So, in theory and more often than not in fact, at least in the history of the poem's reception to date, is the reader/critic by whom the poem is interpreted. The familiar presupposition, made usefully explicit here, is that Chaucer and the male reader thus share their (again transhistorical) maleness, whatever that means; and identification with the author is still possible, if not required, as in earlier models. And if my different gender position does give me the "essential experience" that Chaucer and Leicester lack, and hence special knowledge about women as a topic, then men too (like Chaucer and most of his historical audience) must have their own gendered experiences and topics about which Jam in turn unable to speak with authority. In fad I seem to be specially licensed by my gender only to determine
whether Chaucer got it right, whether he and the male critic do or do not know "a lot about women." Such a position is coherent with certain poststructuralist daims about feminism; Julia Kristeva, for instance, has said, "A woman cannot be; it is something which does not even belong to the order of being. It follows that a feminist practice can only be negative, at odds with what already exists so that we may say 'that's not it' and 'that's still not it.'" To me, however attractive theoretically and however visible in practice (especially, it sometimes seems, my own practice, with its insistent critique of other readings), this assumption does not, finally, foster a fully satisfying way of engaging texts or developing a rich feminist framework for analysis, nor does it suggest a good enough reason for continuing to read Chaucer, or for urging my readings upon communities of feminists not professionally committed to medieval studies.
Leicester's comment, then, obliges me to think harder about what feminist criticism intends and achieves by its insistence that the gender of author and reader/critic matters, for in the way I have suggested here this insistence, unqualified and unhistoricized, may lead a woman reader of canonical male-authored texts (like the Wife herself) to something of a critical dead end: not excluded from response, perhaps, but highly limited, helplessly constructed by the very discourse she seeks to de- mystify. It also obliges me to urge, therefore, that as we pursue the elusive history of the female reading subject, we keep in mind a point made recently by feminist theorists. As Mary Jacobus puts it, the male reading subject is not an unconstructed, "natural," or neutral position (nor, I would add, an ahistorical one). "If reading as a woman is a paradoxical ad, reading as a man," Jacobus argues, "must involve a similarly double or divided demand." Chaucerian fictions confront pre-
cisely this fad that reading (and writing) as a man is a paradoxical act. The dream-visions, Troilus and Criseyde , and several other Canterbury Tales all explore that masculine doubleness and division, as experienced particularly by men who love women and/or tell stories about them. Women in Chaucerian fictions are in fad not exduded from powers, especially powers of language, to which (most) men have access. As a donnée of the Canterbury Tales in particular, pilgrims of either sex are both "speaker" and "spoken"; all human beings in this textual world are, as a precondition of their existence, the "kind of fiction" usually associated in Western culture with women "in that they are defined by others as components of the language and thought of others." If the garrulous woman and the silent woman are, as I argue, two sides of the same coin, it is the common medium of exchange in this fictional economy.
But through the construction of notorious female characters such as the Wife, the division within men is occluded and these human problems and anxieties are displaced onto Woman and women; the feminine gender becomes what we may usefully think of as "marked," in various senses of the word. In the language of linguistics, "markedness" refers to the fact that one of a minimal pair may be more specifically characterized or delimited in its usage than the other; in the minimal pair constituted by masculine and feminine in our culture, the latter, in the text as in the world, bears an identifying mark, a visible sign and even a predestined character, it seems, of sexual difference. This markedness by virtue of gender is inscribed in modern English in the prominent fact of the generic masculine, and linguists educe from their study of this and other features of the language precisely what I find in the Wife's characterization and its subsequent interpretations: "a tendency, on the one hand, to equate humanity with the male sex and, on the other hand, to assume that femaleness defines women, whose individuality becomes submerged in categorizing principles that treat all women as identical."
"Femaleness defines women": so, too, females, marked by their gender in ways that males in Western culture consequently seem not to be, are kept within marks, limits and boundaries that define and contain their "individuality," and the Wife turns out to be a reflection of "categorizing principles" rather than a speaking subject. Wearing and reproducing the mark, the brand, the inscription, of the gender system as we know it, she, like any female, becomes the mark at which hostile forces aim, the object, the target of antifeminist attack in both the Canterbury Tales and many of their modern interpretations. When we focus on the centrality of the thematic of the feminine and interpret its textual manifestations as evidence of the female character's authoritative status or of the male poet's tolerant feminism, wise humanism, dispassion, or incandescence, we miss or dismiss too quickly what a feminist analysis of Chaucerian fictions discloses about the structures of antifeminism, about the displacement and usurpation of female silence, and about the hidden "mark of Adam," the fact that males are also constrained and constituted by gender.
Could it be argued that the only way of avoiding these constant historical loops which depart or return from the conviction of women's natural dispositions . . . would be to make a grander gesture—to stand back and announce that there aren't any 'women'? And then, hard on that defiant and initially absurdsounding assertion, to be scrupulously careful to elaborate it—to plead that it means that all definitions of gender must be looked at with an eagle eye, wherever they emanate from and whoever pronounces them, and that such a scrutiny is a thoroughly feminist undertaking. The will to support this is not blandly social-democratic, for in no way does it aim to vault over the stubborn harshness of lived gender while it queries sexual categorisation. Nor does it aim at a glorious indifference to politics by placing itself under the banner of some renewed claim to androgyny, or to a more modern aspiration to a 'postgendered subjectivity'. But, while it refuses to break with feminism by naming itself as a neutral deconstruction, at the same time it refuses to identify feminism with the camp of the lovers of 'real women'.[43
] Denise Riley, "Does Sex Have a History?"
As I have indicated, "Chaucer's mellow and humane art" is indeed the apparently irrepressible, irresistible constant in the modern literary assessment of his work, the perceived center of timeless truth that endures ostensive historical revolutions in taste and critical practice and that actually serves, I submit, to hide in various ways the driving force of sexual politics. Arguments of the prefeminist school ignore the question of sexual politics (even when they recognize it as a question that engaged the fourteenth-century literary community) and claim with no sense of embarrassment at all that "Chaucer's specialty was mankind," as the revered George Lyman Kittredge repeatedly put it. Arguments looking explicitly at Chaucer's attitude toward women with recent feminist questions in mind know that "mankind" is a suspect entity, and so they have to date tended to modify this claim by reminding us that Chaucer's specialty was really, and to an unusual degree, womankind. What I have termed postfeminist arguments at one level or another return the real focus to mankind, now in a gender-specific sense of the term. To the extent that they begin to explore the interaction of feminine textuality and masculine identity, their work offers exciting new interpretive possibilities. At the same time, while usefully attesting the maleness of Chaucer's imagination and intended audience, they may directly or indirectly reconfirm the irrelevance or marginality of real females and now feminists to his work. Moreover, their claims for his tolerant humanism and humaneness (or sometimes, recently, for his political subversiveness) often rest on findings that Chaucer knows a lot about women (but not everything), deplores their victimization, and even espouses the cause of their freedom and equality.
Many Chaucerians thus end up adulating this artist for reasons that ought to seem internally contradictory: at one and the same time he is compassionate and dispassionate, a friend of women and a neutral stage manager. One thing that is confirmed in the case of Chaucer studies is that "bias" and "greatness" are still generally and deeply believed to be
mutually exclusive, for great poets and great criticism alike. And freedom from the bias of gender in particular (as Virginia Woolf tellingly and sometimes self-destructively argued) is especially crucial to that notion of negative capability that underpins romantic and postromantic definitions of literary excellence. Chaucer is mellow and great, in other words, because he transcends the personal, the biased, the situated and above all the gendered position; and as a male poet, he proves this transcendence by his ability to imagine and represent the point of view of the Other, that is, the woman or other outcast. But the notion of transcendence depends on the notion of something to be transcended, something limited and bound up in ordinary experience, something immanent and, as Simone de Beauvoir first pointed out, in Western culture, often, something feminine. Universalizing myths of great humanist art may fundamentally depend, then, like the local, historical example of Chaucer's poetry that I examine in the rest of this study, on sympathetic and tolerant representations of Woman that in fact perpetuate her cultural status as victim and Other.
In examining the even more widespread and already often abandoned myth of Shakespeare as humanist author par excellence, Leah Marcus defines this myth in terms that correspond quite precisely to still current assumptions about Chaucer: "The author is in the heavens, from which nothing but benign influence can be imagined to flow. His plays offer 'light' to those capable of recognizing the good, 'cheere' to those needing inspiration, and chiding to those needing correction." But, according to Marcus, no one can really take this view seriously any more; "the demise of the transcendent bard" took place some time ago. "It can be argued," Marcus notes, "that by the 1960s and early 1970s, interpretation governed by humanist assumptions about the transcendence of Shakespeare was already playing itself out." This seems to be far from true in Chaucer studies, however, and in wondering why, it has occurred to me that in part it is because the case for the humanist Chaucer has always in some ways been more difficult to make. To the extent that it requires some ingenuity, as Reid points out, to overlook the ways in which Chaucer is not quite as firmly invisible and godlike as Shakespeare, the critical
interest in making him so—responsive, I hasten to add, to the ways in which his poetry invites such treatment—lives on. Throughout the 1980s Chaucer is still praised for "a magisterial and dispassionate deployment of inherited literary forms"; "the myth will live," we are admonished, "because it symbolizes profound convictions and elevates the human mind." But the magisterial and dispassionate Chaucer the poet coexists with Chaucer the pilgrim, the dreamer, the narrator of Troilus and Criseyde , all dramatized figures of anxious, passionately involved authorship. In fact, then, a highly postmodern version of the author—the fragmented, provisional, shifting, subversive I of so much medieval poetry—is in tension with humanist wholeness and transcendence in Chaucer, and this tension is often reflected in and managed by his representation, again, of women and Woman.
The representation of Woman as the absent Other, together with the exclusion of women from acts of representation and acts of criticism, also enforces and depends on a myth observed as often as not in the breach, as it were, by Chaucer: the myth of gender difference itself. Construed in one way, the feminist project sustains, even depends on, this myth, but feminist readings that foreground first the Wife's difference and absence and then the way this difference and absence are constructed, rather than essential, natural, invariable, can help to complicate the myth in useful ways. To this end I suggest we make something different of Leicester's accurate and yet all too easily dismissed observation that "of course there is no Wife of Bath" and of Patterson's perception that "she is so evidently a creature of the male imagination." The textuality or impossibility of Woman and the absence or silence of women are not the points I end with (or the penultimate points, just before I invoke the canonical author); they are the points I suggest we begin from, both theoretically and in the kind of practice this book follows. They do not lead me back (not immediately, at least, and never unproblematically) to the male author's presence, or to his alleged efforts either "to think himself inside a woman's head," on the one hand, or "to respect her privacy," on the other. The Wife's absence and textuality, taken into the context of Chaucer's obsessive concern with the double or divided demands of reading and writing as a man, is a fact first to be foregrounded
and parsed, "looked at with an eagle's eye," not read through and put aside, or acknowledged in theory and then overlooked in practice.
From such a vantage, it can become apparent that what we may speak of as the absence and silence of Woman and women in Chaucerian fiction is overdetermined. Chaucer's career as a poet of the masculine imagination begins, if the standard chronology is correct, with a poem about a dead woman, the Duchess of Lancaster; through the creation of female caricatures from the perfect "White" to the fallible Criseyde and beyond, Chaucerian fictions repeatedly reenact "her" death, bringing a woman to represented life in order that she may be killed off, lost, silenced, and erased. At the level of theme and character, the narratives concomitantly and strenuously argue for women's difference from men, and they define feminine desire—as did the fourteenth-century literary culture in general—as a point to be debated. The Knight in the Wife of Bath's Tale enters into this debate, and thus, like so many elements of Chaucerian fiction, stands as avatar of the modern Freudian quest in his compulsory search for "what thyng is it that wommen moost desiren" (905). He putatively finds the answer, but nevertheless the question persists. Female characters in Chaucerian fiction are always problems for other male characters and, at another level, for the (male) audience, and these problems are, as we shall see, consistently coterminous with the "larger" interpretive problems of language and authority. But reexamining these problems, I pose different questions, such as: Whose interests are served by the death, abandonment, or defeat of a woman, or by the prevailing position to which the female and the feminine are assigned? And why is "the woman question" so often the site of the Chaucerian investigation of "the language question" and of the insistent challenge to literary tradition and authority?
My efforts to answer such questions in the pages that follow will repeatedly lead me back, by various routes, to questions about male characters, masculine identity, and the issue of male authorial and critical presence—not construed now as a solution or a center of fixed, knowable truth (either Chaucer is woman's friend, or Chaucer is another in a long line of antifeminists) but as in itself a complicated problem for feminist, not postfeminist, study. "There is no Wife of Bath"; that is to say, she is a fiction, and she marks the limits of representation; she is a part of the poet, and she is an embarrassment to his good name and to the humanist claim that the canonical male author speaks for all humanity. The misunderstandings that attempt to conceal these facts, and that fail to inter-
rogate the gendered construction of both authorial and critical subjectivity on the alleged absence of women aligned with the carefully orchestrated textuality of Woman, can only confirm a link between past and present that medievalists might understandably prefer to ignore: "our idea of civilization" is in some respects not so different from Chaucer's.