NEA still very similar. The Wife of Bath


‘Feminine desire opposes man’s reason’ – L,

In light of this view discuss the idea of female power and desire that
is presented in the Bell Jar and The wife of Bath

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and the wife of Bath by Geoffrey Chaucer
both present the theme of female power through the presentation of the
characters, in the wife of bath Chaucer through the character of the wife shows
feminine domination and control using the reversal of traditional roles and
values, an example of this could be the way the queen and the Ladies of the
court establish the punishment for the Knight instead of King Arthur. Plath
also shows feminine desire using the character of Esther Greenwood, Esther is
shown to have high ambition as she states she has the intention to create her
own power in her life, this can be shown by simply her determination to survive
or her strong desire to achieve her dreams independently, for example she
states ‘I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions
myself, like the coloured arrows from a fourth of July rocket.’ This is a
vital quote in The Bell Jar as it shows her clear rejection of societies
traditional conformities and demand to marry, it shows her destroying typical
gender stereotypes with the desire to succeed without being defendant on a man
therefore reinforcing the idea of feminine power.

Both The Wife of Bath and The Bell Jar both faced issues with the
societal standards during the tie they were both written, although nearly 500
years apart the social construct in both novels are still very similar. The
Wife of Bath was written around the time 1405-1410 where the church was the
main authority and institutional power, it held heavy political Power and
monitored the creative professions like authors and playwrights therefore any
kind of critique of the church could lead to dangerous consequences, The
society functioned on a strict hierarchy where women were seen as inferior and
followed strict traditions that made them reliant on men, these traditional
roles were mainly based on the idea that women were almost property unlike the
superior role of men. The Wife of Bath however challenges this traditional
social patriarchal with her attitudes and rejects the social conformities, for
example she says ‘and some
seven how that we loved best to be free, and do right as us lest, and not no
man reprieve us of our vice but sees that we be wise, and nothing nyle.'(941-944)
this suggests that the narrator is inferring women want to be liberated and do
not like to be reprieved of their lives. They are deeply restricted by society’s
moral code however this is not what women desire. This attitude can be seen as
ahead of her time as it shows her promoting the rejection of society and how
she believes women should gain back their freedom showing clear feminine power,
however some critics have stated that although the novel contains many female
aspects the wife also contradicts herself, for example when she says ‘down to a mares faste by she
ran, til she cam there, her herte was a fire and as a bitore bombleth in the
myre, she leyde her mouth into the water down’ (975-979) This is quite
degrading as the narrator talks about Midas’s wife’s speech and creates a comparison
between her and a ‘bitore’ which is the word for the bird a ‘Bittern’ this has
clear anti-feminist connotations as she continues to say the word ‘bombleth’
which infers that the is gossiping and spreading secrets like a bird call
rather than a human, furthermore this implies that women’s speech was seen as
unintelligent and hollow which was seen as inferior to men, which links to the
Bible message only speak when you are spoken to. Therefore this strong feminine
power and desire for freedom previously shown is immediately contradicted by
the implication that women’s speech is shallow and revolves around gossip.

The Bell jar by Sylvia Plath was written in 1950s Post war America, this
period of time was when American society was shaped by conservative values and
patriarchic structure, this was a time when women were still fighting for
equality so were oppressed and still expected to follow traditional roles and
values much like The wife of Bath, however they were coming into an age of a
more liberal America and had more freedom then previously before the war, Women
were expected to follow this idea of being pure and chaste with the ambition
and desire to be a mother or wife rather than pursuing a career, this reflects
the strong sexist attitudes at the time and how women were degraded and seen as
not equal in comparison to men. To the normal women who had basic desires,
societies expectations could be crushing and detrimental to their mental
health, this powerful resentment to the societal conformities was the beginning
of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, within these women and
societal structures Plath portrays the character of Esther Greenwood, Esther is
faced with a variety of different challenges throughout the novel including her
struggle with self-identity and desires, the novel almost shows a
representation of American society with the character of Mrs. Willard, her
traditional values show the typical attitude and expectation of a women in the
1950s, Esther remembers Mrs. Willard’s words as she debates whether this is the
life she wants for herself, an example of this could be ‘What a man wants is a mate and
what a woman wants is infinite security’ This suggests that for men
relationships are seen as just a means for procreation and the word Plath uses
of ‘mate’ makes the action sound animalistic and like relationships between men
and women do not have to be stemmed from love but just as a desire to produce
children. which implies a society where women are objectified whereas for women
their need for a men provides them with stability inferring without that
‘security’ they would feel uneasy and unstable showing the conventional
attitude at the time, in addition also producing the opinion that women expect
more from a relationship than men reinforcing this double standard in society.
she then continues by using an arrow as a metaphor for a relationship, she says
‘what a man is, is an arrow into the future and what a women is, is the place
the arrow shoots off from.’ This represents the portrayal of men and women and
the whole idea that women create a loving home for a man to come back to after
pursuing a career, they are seen as home makers whereas men are seen as
ambitious. Esther gives up her ambition and desires as she does not know what
she wants so therefore, she had an idea of the career she wanted to pursue but
in a male dominated world she debates the idea, an example of this could be
when discussing a career with her mother Esther states ‘The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men
in any way, I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters.’ This shows
how she does not want to give in to the desires and needs of men, for example
she rejects the social expectation of motherhood, this is supported by her
fascination with giving birth and opinions on the matter, instead of having a
maternal need she describes a birthing room as a ‘torture chamber’ This shows
the pressure she has from society and the expectation they have for women to
fulfil their duty as a child bearer instead of the pursuit for a career and how
she rejects those traditional ideas, in the novel it is clear Esther feels she has
the desire to reject societal double standards and take back her life for
herself, she feels like her life is being overpowered either with her deteriorating
mental health or the societal expectations it is apparent she feels like she
cannot decide which path to proceed down. However because of the overshadowing
mental health this makes her have a lack of motivation and decisiveness so
because of this Esther ends up giving up her aspirations.

A distinct theme throughout both the novel and the poem is the idea of
sexual double standards, this is a feminist conception that has created debates
throughout history, and the fact that both the novel and poem were set in a
repressive society makes this a more prominent idea, in the bell jar Esther
constantly deliberates the idea of her sexuality, she is a virgin for the majority
of the novel and it is clear this weighs on her mind, for example it state
‘When I was nineteen, pureness was the great issue. Instead of the world being
divided up into Catholics and protestants or Republicans and Democrats or white
men and black men or even men and women, I saw the world divided into people
who had slept with somebody and people who had not and this seemed the only
really significant difference between one person and another. I thought a
spectacular change would come over me the day I crossed the boundary line.’ She was clearly brought up with
the belief that a women must still be a ‘chaste’ virgin when she got married,
and automatically assumed this would be the same expectation for men, however
even in the novel her expectations are destroyed when she discovers her oldest
friend and potential love interest has broken this standard and when expecting
Esther to remain pure he has an affair with a waitress making it apparent to
Esther that it would be challenging to meet this ideal of a ‘red blooded intelligent man who
was still pure by the time he was 21’  This clear revelation infuriated Esther who
did not understand how women had to have a traditional repressed life where she
had this expectation to be pure and virginal when a man was easily able to live
a life with no restrictions or traditional values they were expected to live by
unlike women. Esther desires to get even on Billy and go against this
expectation they had of women at the time.

The novel the Wife of Bath similarly to The Bell jar contains prominent ideas
rejecting the social standards, which it could be argued would have had a
greater impact during the 1400s as it was extremely rare for a women to speak
about the sexual oppression and societal conformities they faced. the character
the wife of bath throughout the novel uses her sexual attributes to gain power,
whether for her own gain or to prove equal status, her character is portrayed
as a more liberated woman, and is the prototype of the traditional female
figure that appears in
literature. She is a
scandalous character who would has controversial beliefs and goes against the role
of a woman at the time in society it was trying to promote, the wife appears as
a sexualized character that goes against traditional teachings with a
determined mindset and strong willed persona. She can be seen as a character
who overall holds sovereignty and dominance over men, an example of this could
be the symbolism of the wives virginity it states, ‘I wol bestowe the flour of man age, in the actes
and in trust of marriage’ in a way this shows attitudes ahead of her time as
she says that her virginity is hers to give when she desires, not only this but
the function of marriage she takes as her own and says she enjoys ‘the trust of
marriage’ which suggests the act of sex. This is a character embracing
her sexuality and using it to her advantage as her attitudes makes it clear she
has no intention or desire to obtain perfect chastity rejecting social
expectations and expressing her right to sexual liberation within her marriage.
This was a rare societal view at the time as it was taught that Men were to be
dominant over women in order to retain control.

The Theme of authority and power is prominent in both novels in The Wife
of Bath she believes that her experience gives her the largest amount of
authority and knowledge because of her marriages and experience, in order to
support her attitudes she uses examples from the Bible as validation to excuse
her controversial actions. as she discusses her lives with her five
husbands she states how she had clear sovereignty over all of them by saying ‘I governed them so wel after my lawe,’ this implies that she controlled
them according to her law or desire because Chaucer uses the word ‘governed’ which
gives her more authority, as she is seen as in a position where she can
implement power on men , further on in the novel she then says ‘For God it woot, I chidde hem spitously.
‘Implying she is taking these actions in order to satisfy God instead of
herself . She is a woman who has an appetite for attention, not only sexually,
but as a person for example it upsets her when her fifth husband, has more
passion for literature than for her. It could be argued that the
character of Alison is not a woman who has a passion for changing the world for
the benefit of other women who are dominated by men. She does not fight for
women but instead knows what pleasures men because of her multiple marriages
which giver her more knowledge. She gives men what they desire, which is sexual
pleasure that she can give them. The character is clearly using sex to
manipulate men, just as men do to women, which shows her clear rejection of
double standards and her opinion of sexual freedom. However the action of Giving
in to man’s desires goes against feministic beliefs. Alison’s character has a
choice of not giving in to the man, but instead wants to sexually satisfy them for
his desire not hers because she has experienced sex before and she knows how
much men enjoy it. At first the reader receives the impression that the
character is strong willed and is trying to win women freedom and liberation. However
she herself says that women are the cause of men’s suffering, completely
contradicting this statement, her whole character focuses on her craving for
sex and her urge to give men pleasure. Showing that although she has this power
over men she does executes her power through sexual attributes instead of
encouraging equality amongst the sexes, showing a non-feminist view.

In conclusion it could be argued that both novels contain a clear theme
of female power and desire that does oppose man’s reason, both trapped in a
societal repression the poem and the novel express apparent rejection to these
conformities and similarly take back power for themselves, whether it be by
simply not cooperating with the societal expectations of submissiveness and
motherhood and furthermore pursuing a career rather than the desire to impress
a man, or the idea that a women’s sexuality is hers to give and the act of sex
should not be controlled by men, presenting an attitude ahead of her time and
still contradicting to the traditional societal roles.