Before students left for break I had given them the assignment sheet for the final project on the Wife of Bath. I titled this project "What Keeps Women Safe" and gave students group assignments.
I then left students the analytical questions (Canterbury Tales Wife of Bath) in the assignment handout for students to complete before starting the project.
When I came back from a two day absence students had completed the handout and had started the larger project.
Their eagerness to work on the project as well as the larger discussion in the room about the Wife of Bath's Tale warranted a whole group discussion about the Tale.
This lesson really works to clarify what they read and to guide them in their understanding of The Wife of Bath's Tale before they start working on a guide to college campus safety for women they will write over the next five classes.
We begin looking at The Wife of Bath's Tale by paying close attention to the time and place of the setting and to the character's who are first introduced.
First, Alisoun puts us in a legendary time and place, King Arthur and Camelot, a supposedly golden time in British history that signified wealth, prosperity and most importantly equality. When I ask the students what first comes to mind when they hear King Arthur, they think "Knights of the Round Table".
I ask my students to rate the realism of the tale so far. Most say that it's starting out like a fairy tale, which is reinforced with the first character's appearance, the elf-queen.
In fact, Alisoun goes a step further into the fantasy and explains why there were fairies in King Arthur's day, but there are none now. All the praying and charity of the "limiters and other holy friars" has driven the fairies away.
I ask my students if they take fairy tales as seriously as, say, a philosophical treatise or a even a newspaper editorial. They almost take the bait, but someone pipes up and mentions that quite often fairy tales have important lessons.
Next, I point out the expectations we have if we're going to read a story about King Arthur and fairies. We expect that there will be justice and fairness no matter what, but that anything can happen because this is a time we associate closely with magic. In fact, the Wife does the very same in her introduction.
In the course of the next sixteen lines Alisoun takes us from the relative peace and irony of King Arthur's court, to the main conflict and reaction to said conflict. Here at least she spares us the gory details: focusing on the consequences of the knight's actions rather than the crime itself.
I do ask my students to pay attention to several key lines in this section: namely the description of the knight as a "lusty bachelor". This tells us two important qualities of the knight. One, "lusty" in Chaucer's time simply meant one who was healthy or full of life. The more sinister meaning didn't come into usage until after Chaucer. "Bachelor" too has a different meaning in Chaucer's time, namely, a young landless knight.
I ask my students to picture what this knight would have looked liked and one girl in the class brings up the fact that there is nothing in that description that would suggest that he was attractive.
Puzzled, I ask her why that would matter. "Why else would the queen and her ladies beg for his life." She frankly states.
I agree with her that there is something suggestive here about the knight's age and appearance, perhaps that's why he was given mercy?
I then ask them if they think the knight deserves mercy and many of the boys shout a resounding, "No way!"
But what about the possibility of reform or change, I ask. They are pretty sure that no rapist deserves mercy.
"Under any circumstances?" I ask.
There are the usual swinish comments about what should be done to rapists.
Some of the girls in the class, mention that it's possible that they knight could change, since he's so young.
In many ways this divide in my 21st century class mirrors that of Arthur's court.
The next twenty-five lines describe the knight's task, namely, to discover "what thing it is that women most desire."
I ask the students if they thought the knight was going to be able to achieve this goal when they first read the tale, and the response was expectedly mixed and age appropriate. Many of the students thought the queen was setting the knight up for failure, to humiliate and torture him for a year, thinking about women and their desires, before summarily axing him. Other's thought it was some kind of joke the Wife was making on her audience, seeing as she had been the victim of an assault herself. I remind them that the Wife doesn't present herself as a victim, but rather, a survivor.
"She likes sex, she likes power. And she understands the difference between flattery and true power."
This is a good point to talk a little about quests, especially in the Arthurian legend. A quest, I explain to the students, was a way for a knight to prove himself to his king and to the other knights. The historical parallel would be a journey to the middle east to fight in the crusades, or a pilgrimage to a holy shrine. The point was to prove themselves not only physically, by overcoming the difficulties on the journey, but to also grow and mature mentally and spiritually.
Does the knight do this? The students agree he does not. In fact, he is going home to die when he happens upon the fairies, and an old woman dancing.
I ask the students if they wouldn't be a little suspicious of an old woman dancing out in the woods with fairies. But as one student points out, he's desperate enough to trust her.
Students readily picked up on the main irony in the Wife of Bath's tale, namely that which saves the knight is not answering the queen's question, but changing the way he treats women in general.
I ask my students what they think about the old woman's offer, and the response is somewhat mixed. They don't seem to understand how much Alisoun connects physical beauty with temptation and infidelity, and this seems to be the heart of her story. Men don't question their own sovereignty; but women are compelled to use deception to maintain their own soverignty.
There is also a sense of the knight's maturity here as well. He realizes that neither answer respects the woman who saved his life, and if the answer to the queen's question of what women most desire is true, then he must give her her sovereignty. The knight wasn't simply playing along with the old woman, he is actually repentant, and the 'loathy lady' recognizes this by giving him what she knows he wants.
I ask the students if they think the knight will go out and rape again, and by and large most of the students don't think he will.
"There is a suggestion here that if men knew what women most desired, that is, if they acknowledged that women have power and control over their own bodies, then perhaps there wouldn't be violence against women."
In fact, the Wife's prayer that "Jesus cut short the lives/of those who'll not be governed by their wives" suggests a desire for the kind of equitable marriages so sought after today.