|AUTHOR:||BRIAN S. LEE|
|TITLE:||Exploitation and Excommunication in The Wife of Bath's Tale|
|SOURCE:||Philological Quarterly v74 p17-35 Wint '95|
What is shocking about the rape which precipitates the events of The Wife of Bath's Tale is the fact that it is apparently not expected to shock. It shocks not simply because it is reported as casually as it happened, its violence muted by an elision of the victim's trauma as complete as the knight's indifference to it:
He saugh a mayde walkynge hym biforn,
Of which mayde anon, maugree hir heed,
Be verray force, he rafte hire maydenhed;
(III [D] 886-88)(FN1)
but because it is ultimately rewarded, not just by good luck but as a matter of deliberate judicial policy, with a lifetime of "parfit joye" (1258), which the ravisher obtains in the company of a wife who is both obedient and as beautiful "As any lady, emperice, or queene" (1246). If the tale is designed to show that women desire sovereignty, it succeeds rather in demonstrating that women serve for men's delight both by chance and by policy, with only nominal sanctions to protect them from men who demand too sudden gratification.
When due allowance has been made for the nature of the Wife's self-fulfilling fantasy,(FN2) one has to ask what sort of a society it is that tolerates such an attitude. This is to question both the author who chooses such a tale (Sheila Delany finds it "equally convincing as the fantasy of a courtier-poet [Chaucer] whose experience with rape [Cecilia Chaumpaigne] and betrayal [his wife and John of Gaunt] may have been uncomfortably close to hand"),(FN3) and the audience he expects to be moved, or alternatively undisturbed, by it.
We readily convict them of not minding enough, for rape is modern society's most notorious sign of social deviancy. This is only partly because contemporary culture expresses an exaggerated interest in the body as a site of health, fashion and sexual fascination. Rape not only shocks that interest, but represents a tyrannical assault on one of modern civilization's most cherished illusions, the so-called right to privacy. In contemporary Western societies where sexual equality is a desideratum at least theoretically enjoyed, it is a right that is claimed for both men and women, whose defence against the ever more complex web of social interdependence is the fantasy that their bodies and their wills remain at their own disposal. Nowadays every man is an island, and every other island (ironically) is collectively dedicated to maintaining all our insularities. Originally a familial and then a theological virtue, chastity has been superseded, as an ideal, by self-determination. A woman raped is no longer regarded primarily as an asset purloined from the community, or family, or God, but as a sign, transcending gender differences, that the insularity prized by both sexes is under siege. What is violated is not communal or divine values so much as personal integrity (that is, wholeness, divested of the moral connotations the word still trails from a not quite defunct past). Hence modern trials for rape contest consent, not prior claim, and convictions are harder to secure objectively, because most evidence is subjective. The modern victim is a subject, not an object.
How then do we adjust to a comic romance that plays so casually with, of all incongruous motifs, rape? It may be true, but hardly encouraging, that the Wife's tale reflects a contemporary (medieval) trivialization of rape: legally a felony punishable until the time of Edward II by castration and blinding, and later, according to the provision of the Second Statute of Westminster (1285), by "judgement of life and of member" [i.e., hanging], in social practice it was regarded only as a misdemeanor, so that rape cases were often not tried, and in those that were most rapists were acquitted by English judges.(FN4) Arthur's ready handing over of the guilty knight to a non-governing court for a trivial sentence seems indicative of the exploitation of an excluded group, the uncompensated female victims of medieval patriarchal society.
For it is exclusion as well as exploitation that is involved. The alignment of the present paper derives from an insight of the social theorist Jean Baudrillard:
Instead of extending the concepts of the proletariat and exploitation to racial or sexual oppression and such like, we should ask ourselves if it is not the other way round. What if the fundamental status of the worker, like the mad, the dead, nature, beasts, children, Blacks and women, was initially to be not exploited but excommunicated? What if he was initially not deprived and exploited but discriminated against and branded?(FN5)
Both of these things happen, in fact, to the raped girl: the knight exploits her body, and the storyteller (Alison, or Chaucer) banishes her from the tale. Chaucer's contemporary audience is given little opportunity to be affected by the plight of the unnamed victim, who is not heard of again. She is not the subject of the tale, and hardly even a subject in it. Her part in the outcry that leads to the knight's arrest is subsumed in an agentless grammatical construction. No Hetty Sorrel or Tess of the d'Urbervilles, she is scarcely, indeed, one of the "victimized women" for whom Chaucer expresses a greater respect than women in comparable literary situations on the Continent were commonly accorded.(FN6) She is, rather, a commodity to be exploited, conserved, or ignored by those whose rank in the structures of society affords them the right of proprietorship.
The apparent casualness of the depiction of rape in the Wife's tale has a literary precedent in the thirteenth-century Old French pastourelle (a sub-genre of pastoral poetry, featuring shepherdesses). Kathryn Gravdal notes that in thirty-eight of the hundred and sixty extant texts a passing knight rapes a shepherdess (a "pastourelle") and threatens or attempts to do so in many of the remainder. He is not, however, portrayed as a villain. Descriptions are usually comic or light-hearted, and initially unwilling victims soon grow compliant, then grateful, and finally eager for the knight's return. Though in four-fifths of the texts rape is circumvented, it is implied that despite her objections the shepherdess would in the long run not much have minded.(FN7)
Andreas Capellanus, the leading medieval authority on courtly love, seems even more blatantly in favor of male aggression (though one must use caution in estimating how seriously he intends to be understood). In a notorious passage in chapter 11 of his De amore, he encourages aristocrats not to hesitate, when peasant women take their fancy, to use force if necessary to compel them to their wishes.(FN8)
Against this background, it is perhaps not surprising that the knight in the Wife's tale (who is named Gawain in the analogues),(FN9) assumes the aristocrat's privilege of using at his pleasure the resources available in his domain. Apparently he regards the maiden walking along the river as one of the exploitable products of the landscape of his peregrinations. She goes with the territory. In this respect he resembles the gods in Ovid's Metamorphoses. One can even find an almost analogous incident: in Book 11, Apollo and Mercury, returning from different journeys, by chance catch sight of Daedalion's pretty daughter, and both fall in love with her at the same time. Mercury gets to her first with his sleep-inducing wand; Apollo waits till nightfall to enjoy "the pleasure which another had had before him."(FN10) The result is twins, a trickster and a singer. Far from resenting the attention of the two gods, the girl is emboldened to criticize the goddess Diana's looks, and is vindictively killed by her.
Even in Ovid such unfettered male arrogance is soon opposed by the jealousy of goddesses like Juno or Diana. In medieval romance it usually encounters an alternative social structuring such as that of the court of King Arthur. To this court Gawain of course owes allegiance; the aristocrat's domain is incorporated into a larger structure under royal jurisdiction, and he violates its prerogatives when he treats its resources as if they belonged exclusively to himself.
What we do not seem to find in the Wife's tale is the expected moral sanction. The knight's crime is committed against the state, not in contravention of some absolute, or divine, moral standard: "Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not steal." Still less is it a crime against the woman regarded as a sacrosanct person with rights of consent or refusal. Perhaps the Wife of Bath would not readily tell a tale in which moral sanctions were very highly valued. In circumstances where neither the state nor the family is empowered to resist the violator, such sanctions are all the victim has to rely on. They are significantly absent in Chaucer's The Physician's Tale, where Virginia can resist Apius only by dying, but in a French morality play of 1536 on a similar theme the intended victim is able to save herself by invoking them.
Unlike the Wife's tale, the play teaches that even when feudal lords abuse their patriarchal power, a young girl's virtue may convert them. However, the French morality play presents this message not as a criticism of overbearing lords, but as an educative example for young girls ("pucellettes"). The message thus supports the feudal social system which the events of the play suggest it ought to undermine.
The introductory summary indicates that the play derives more or less directly from the same source as The Physician's Tale: that is, Jean de Meun's adaptation in Le Roman de la Rose of Livy's story of Virginia.(FN11)
Moralité: d'une pauvre Villageoise, laquelle ayma mieux avoir la teste coupé:e par son Pere, que d'estre violé:e par son Seigneur: faicte à la louange & honneur des chastes, & honnestes filles, à quatre personnages.(FN12)
[A Morality about a poor village girl who preferred to have her head cut off by her father than to be dishonored by her feudal Lord: presented for the praise and honor of pure and virtuous girls, by four players.]
A surprise is in store, however, if we expect the decapitation actually to take place, as in other versions of Livy's story. The girl is willing enough to die, but the lustful lord undergoes a change of heart.
Of the four characters, only two are given names. The lord of the village sends his "valet" to demand Esglantine from her father, his poor serf Grouxmoulu. The lord offers rich clothing, but Esglantine rejects the proposal with horror; when the valet offers force she calls her father, who infers that the lord intends only to dishonor her, and threatens the valet with blows. On hearing of the ill-success of his embassy, the lord enters the cottage with his valet, and proceeds to beat the luckless father, who begs for mercy while the valet mocks him with reminders of his earlier threats. The hapless Esglantine begs for "une heure de respit," which the angry lord grants, and she retires to another room with her father, and prays him to save her honor by cutting off her head.(FN13) He is about to yield, reluctantly, to her persuasion, when the lord, affected by "pitié:," opens the door, and prevents the fatal blow. Esglantine piteously rebukes him, and he begs pardon:
Esglantine. Ah! Mon Seigneur, vous avez tort; Vous rengregez mon desconfort. J'ay requis en piteux langage Mon Pere de moy descoller. Cher Seigneur, vous devez garder Vos Subjectz, par vostre prouesse, Et vous me voulez diffamer, Pour un peu de folle jeunesse; Parquoy desconfort tant me blesse, Que j'ayme mieux mon tems conclure, Maintenant honneur, & sagesse, Qu'estre addonné:e à telle ordure.
Le Seigneur. O vé:né:rable Cré:ature, Sur toutes bonnes la ré:gente Je renonce à ma folle cure; Pardonnez-moy, pucelle gent: Levez-vous, sus tost, excellente, En vertu, la source & fontaine, De chasteté: la fleur regnante, Et en vous d'odeur souveraine.
[Esglantine. Ah, my Lord, you do me wrong, you renew my misery, by preventing me from piteously persuading my father to behead me. Dear lord, you ought to protect your subjects by your power, yet you want to dishonor me for the sake of a little youthful folly. Therefore misery so hurts me that I would rather die, preserving honor and chastity, than be given over to such lewdness.
The Lord. O noble creature, Queen above all that are good, I renounce my foolish intention; pardon me, noble maiden: rise up at once, excellent one, source and fountain of virtue, reigning flower of chastity, the sovereign fragrance of which is in you.]
He crowns her with flowers, as a "dé:coration / De chasteté:"; and even the valet bids the "pucellettes" watching the play to observe the effect of good behavior. The reformed lord assures Grouxmoulu of friendship, and the old man points the moral for the spectators: "La matié:re est similitude / Pour bonnes filles."
Like Chaucer's The Franklin's Tale, where the event rather than the wisdom of Arveragus's and Dorigen's generosity justifies their capitulation to the squire's adulterous demand, the 1536 French morality teaches trust in the mercy of a power that may be pacified but cannot be opposed. There is no question of punishing the lord for his appalling treatment of the old serf and his daughter; rather they must be grateful for his friendship after he has been converted by pity (the pity which as Chaucer says runs soon in "gentil" hearts) for the girl so steadfast in righteousness.
The implication is that she should be able to count on the chivalric obligation that the strong owe to the weak according to the medieval ideal of feudal or hierarchical justice. Being an ideal the system is constantly violated in reality (I do not have in mind here the demographic incidence of rape so much as its literary equivalent, stories in which it occurs in spite of poetic justice, where "reality" stands for the code or discourse that is in opposition to the ideal that interrogates it). So, anachronistically, Chaucer reads the paradigmatic classical anecdote of rape, the Legend of Lucrece, as an inversion of the code of chivalry, where a lord behaves like a vileyn:
Tarquinius, that art a kynges eyr,
And sholdest, as by lynage and by ryght,
Don as a lord and as a verray knyght,
Whi hastow don dispit to chivalrye?
Whi hastow don this lady vilanye?
Allas, of the this was a vileyns dede!
(Legend of Good Women, 5, 1819-24)
It was "a vileyns dede" because politically destructive; in contrast, the rape of the Sabine women was sanctioned as a political necessity--and accepted in the end as a fait accompli by the Sabines. They could not have reclaimed them without many deaths. Nor could Lucrece reclaim her former relationship with Colatyn without a death: her death. Unviolated, she was an exactly equivalent sign of her faithfulness to her husband: when he and Tarquin observe her weeping over his absence at the siege,
Hyre contenaunce is to hire herte dygne,
For they acorde bothe in dede and sygne.
Here sign and signified are interchangeable: there is nothing arbitrary about their relationship. She is what her countenance reveals, which is as much as to say that her body is a precise indication of her value: she exists for her husband, as a sign of "wifly chastite" (1737) reciprocally signified in her body. Baudrillard writes, paIn feudal or archaic caste societies, in cruel societies, signs are limited in number and their circulation is restricted. Each retains its full value as a prohibition, and each carries with it a reciprocal obligation between castes, clans, or persons, so that signs are not arbitrary.(FN14)
However, for Tarquin, who ignores the prohibition of the sign, she is an ambiguous sign; he formulates an image of her in his mind, which becomes a sign of pleasure, as he regards it, but of unlawful desire, as society does:
Ryght so, thogh that hire forme were absent,
The pleasaunce of hire forme was present;
But natheles, nat pleasaunce but delit,
Or an unrightful talent, with despit.
After he has read the sign his way, her body ceases to signify for her husband or society as it had done before. In spite of what appears to be her total lack of complicity in the change (having swooned, "She feleth no thyng, neyther foul ne fayr" ), she cannot re-sign herself except by resigning herself, through death, to opt out of that feudal system of signs and become a different sign, for later ages, of heroic adherence to a patriarchal ideal of wifely faithfulness.
Chaucer's expressed purpose in telling the legend of Lucrece is to evoke pathos. To that end he alludes to the compassion of Augustine. Whether or not he knew that Augustine condemned her suicide,(FN15) he encourages pity for the very helplessness that hints at complicity (for anyone brave enough to stab herself should not have been so afraid of Tarquin's knife as to offer no resistance at all). But compliance is not really an issue, for the tragic outcome is inevitable anyway. She cannot escape like violated Christian virgins whose consciences exonerate them and whose suicide, as Augustine says, would only incriminate them of murder before God to whom they still belong. She has no recourse, like them, to the subjective distinction between "my body" and "myself."(FN16) For her, rape and death are two sides of the same coin.
Just as the exacted equivalent for Lucrece's death is Tarquin's banishment (1862-63), so in The Wife of Bath's Tale, when the rapist's casual oppression has aroused "clamour" and "pursute unto the kyng Arthour" (889-90), the narrative undergoes a change in direction: from being the agent of exploitation he becomes the victim of the court's excommunication. The King relinquishes his patriarchal privilege of imposing the death penalty, and allows the Queen to impose a temporary banishment, "for to gon / A twelf-month and a day," at the end of which the knight must return and yield his "body" to the final judgment of the court of ladies (909-12). Only the outcome of the tale prevents these penalties from being equivalent; the hag's answer allows him to return and yield his body not to "iren" (906), but to her.
The further exchange he attempts, "Taak al my good and lat my body go" (1061), depends on a false equivalence, and fails. For he is still comically thinking in aristocratic terms of his rights as a consumer, so that now that the tables are turned and his body is to be victimized, he complains in precisely the language of the unaristocratic miller Symkyn (in The Reeve's Tale) of the foul disparagement that marriage with a poor person of low birth would do to his family.
But in addition he is made to realize that the financial compensation he did not offer his victim would in any case hardly have been acceptable. He shies away, as she could not, from a situation in which he will be forced to pay his marriage debt. In the absence of love, such payment is little better than submitting to legalized rape: indeed, as Barbara Gottfried suggests, "the literalized metaphor of the marriage debt is terrible ... [incorporating] ... the male dread of the insatiability of female lust, and the male fear of the loss of freedom entailed in his desire of the female."(FN17)
If money is not likely to compensate for rape, it is a question what penalty could be equivalent. Proposed alternatives were death, banishment, or, if the victim were agreeable, marriage.(FN18) To the knight, there is little to choose between them: the hag's solution, marriage, represents not love but "dampnacioun" to him (1067). But of marriage more later: at present, it is important to recognize that banishment is not an offer of life instead of death, but a symbolic equivalent for death. Baudrillard writes:
Death is ultimately nothing more than the social line of demarcation separating the 'dead' from the 'living': therefore, it affects both equally. Against the senseless illusion of the living of willing the living to the exclusion of the dead, against the illusion that reduces life to an absolute surplus-value by subtracting death from it, the indestructible logic of symbolic exchange re-establishes the equivalence of life and death in the indifferent fatality of survival.(FN19)
Life and death are interdependent terms, each defined by the other, and we do wrong to nullify the idea of death by reducing it to a mere non-existent nought in contrast to the sole positive of life. The best illustration that survival may be as symbolically fatal as death is provided, as so often, by Shakespeare. In Richard II he portrays death as equivalent just as much to a life of banishment as it is to a banishment of life.
The King condemns Mowbray to endless banishment:
The sly slow hours shall not determinate
The dateless limit of thy dear exile.
The hopeless word of 'never to return'
Breathe I against thee, upon pain of life.
Or of death: it makes no difference. "Never to return" is precisely the defining condition of death. Too old to learn a new language, Mowbray asks "What is thy sentence then but speechless death?" (166). Nevertheless he regards physical death as another form of life:
if ever I were traitor,
My name be blotted from the book of life,
And I from heaven banished as from hence.
For his adversary, too, life and death are interchangeable. Had they been allowed to fight, Henry Bolingbroke says,
One of our souls had wandered in the air,
Banished this frail sepulchre of our flesh,
As now our flesh is banished from this land.
Even the living body is a sepulchre; in the current estimation of rape, and nullification of the idea of death ("today, it is not normal to be dead, and this is new"),(FN21) the body is the highest good to be preserved at all costs. To emphasize the equivalence of death and banishment, Gaunt's imminent death proves life is outside the King's gift: though he can take years away from Henry's banishment, he cannot allow him back in time to enable "blindfold death" (217) to let Gaunt see his son. And Gaunt, "extinct with age and endless night" (215) will be no worse off than Mowbray, exiled "To dwell in solemn shades of endless night" (171).
Both excommunication and execution are aimed at curtailing the body's usefulness to society. Only those who return, physically from exile or, conceivably, as ghosts or inspiring memories, can be made of use again. In The Wife of Bath's Tale the body of the exploited woman disappears; not so that of the rapist. To a modern reader it seems ironic that the Wife's tale should concentrate on the rapist's body rather than on the girl's. But this is to be expected, if society has historically been implicated in the excommunication of unassimilable others. Vivisectionists, zookeepers, slave-owners, colonizers of one sort or another, have all been concerned with the manipulation (whether that means to preserve, kill, use, instruct, or in some other way to socialize the unsocialized) of the other than the manipulator. Captives and slaves (not any more, we like to think) might be treated no better than animals: Chaucer's Shipman sent his captives home by pushing them into the sea, and slaves, particularly sick ones, being brought across the Atlantic to work on the West Indian plantations might like other cargo be jettisoned as ballast in heavy weather, for owners were insured against such losses.(FN22)
The rape victim is one who has suffered the extreme consequences of being relegated to a class which the oppressor perceives as alien, since she is denied access to the privileges of whatever dominant group he identifies with: she belongs, in short, with the excommunicated, and therefore may, if within range, be exploited. But when society is willing to assimilate such marginalized others, the rapist himself becomes a candidate for exclusion. Death or banishment is the legal equivalent for the felony of which he is found guilty.
In the Wife's tale, however, the knight's excommunication is only temporary. What is envisaged is not the undoing of the rape, which neither his head nor his answering the Queen's riddle could really atone for, but his reincorporation within the structures of the courtly society of which he had forgotten he was a member. The girl is not a member, or not a full member, of this society, and can be ignored until her body is wanted again, or until it again becomes a sign of deviant or acceptable behavior on the part of one of the members, male of course, of this society. And this is, indeed, what it does become before the tale is over, her disappearance being as symbolic as her "reappearance" in the persons of the hag and the transformed wife.
"Wo was this knyght, and sorwefully he siketh" (913), not because of any consciousness of wrongdoing, but solely because of excommunication from his society. Contrasting what he calls primitive societies with modern ones, Baudrillard locates the difference in "a social principle of exchange opposed to a psychical principle of prohibition," "a symbolic process opposed to an unconscious process."(FN23) Unprogressive societies maintain stability through the collective and largely unthinking repetition of compensatory rituals; in societies that suffer or encourage individualistic enterprise as the condition of growth, culturally imposed checks on antisocial behavior need to be individually interiorized. In the emergent society of the Wife's tale, a society developing somewhere midway between Baudrillard's extremes, both these social conditions apply. The knight has at first no inner prompting to beware the "thou shalt not" of external authority, and finds himself fatally at odds with the masculine world of prohibition and punishment. But then he passes to the ritualistic feminine world of gifts and exchange, whose principles of compensation he understands even less.
The symbolic exchange of bodies in The Wife of Bath's Tale indicates a society radically different from the modern, in which a lesson such as the knight is given on how women ought to be treated would hardly compensate for disobeying the psychical prohibition against treating her merely as a body, not a psychic entity, in the first place. As a result the initial act that prompts the lesson seems to be regarded with less dismay than a twentieth-century reader would normally expect, and with less acknowledgement of the power of the victimized to rebel.
This power is well exemplified in a modern tale like Somerset Maugham's The Unconquered.(FN24) As his title suggests, Maugham enlists sympathy for the indomitable spirit of the victim. Refusing any exchange that would allow her ravisher to make reparation, she insists on his excommunication, though at a huge cost, material and psychic, to her family and herself. Maugham's tale describes the brutal rape, during the second World War, of Annette, a French farm girl, in the presence of her helpless parents, by Hans, a German soldier who had called to enquire the way to a nearby village. Later he returns, somewhat conscience-stricken and ready to make reparation, first by presents and eventually by an offer of marriage. Her parents are won over, but not she. Her hatred is compounded by the fact that she hopes to marry a local teacher, now imprisoned in Germany. In spite of all her family and he can do, she remains inconsolable, and the tale ends even more tragically than it began.
As might be expected of a specimen of modern realistic fiction, Maugham's tale pays more attention to the ugly features of the rape, and to the conditions that provoked the callous assault, than The Wife of Bath's Tale does. A recent study of rape in American society examines four possible causes, gender inequality, pornography, social dislocation, and the influence of legitimate violence, and attributes it mainly to a combination of these causes, perpetuated because of vested (usually economic) interests in maintaining the social differences that encourage rape.(FN25) These causes apply in varying degrees to Hans's case. His sense of masculine superiority, nurtured by a belief that women generally find him irresistible, encourages him to treat the French farmer's daughter without consideration; he is at first angered, and later distressed, by her resistance. The second cause, pornography, is found to be the weakest of the four, unless accompanied by sadism, since rapists are apparently motivated rather by violence than by sexual fantasy: and indeed Hans is surprised to find himself growing attached to Annette, since physically he has considered her unattractive. The third and fourth causes, isolation from normative social and family influences, and the violence fostered by martial conditions, are the strongest mitigating features in the case against Hans: even Annette's father admits to having done things during the first World War that were unthinkable in peace time. Not only Annette, but Hans too, may be regarded as a casualty of war, and it is Maugham's achievement that he manages as the tale develops to swing sympathy gradually towards the rapist who so undeniably forfeits it in the opening pages.
Hence, in spite of the marked difference in tone and outcome, Maugham's story develops (coincidentally--I am not suggesting any more direct influence) in a similar direction as the Wife's tale, with the psychological punishment of the man. It could have ended, indeed, happily for both him and the woman, but for her refusal to go beyond punishment, as the hag does in the Wife's tale. The difference between the two is that Maugham allows Annette to voice and maintain the natural modern response to anti-feminist brutality, whereas the victim in the Wife's tale has no voice, or only a voice that is subsumed in the general "clamour," and in the verdict of the ladies of the Queen's court. Whereas she remains unindividualized, indeed unidentified, Hans's victim, scornfully perceived at first as merely "Ein Weibchen. A woman," acquires a name, Annette Pé:rier, a rank (she has been a teacher, and knows more than he does) and a fascination that eventually causes him to fall in love with her; and her indomitable personality enables her, in spite of her family's indigence that only Hans can alleviate, to maintain her ascendancy and finally frustrate his most cherished hopes. But in refusing to exchange, she suffers more than she triumphs.
The essence of power, says Baudrillard, is not the ability to deprive, but rather the capacity to bestow.(FN26) To seize booty, to impose a levy, a fine, a tax, to require a service, or enforce labor, to exact a penalty are all exercises of power that are limited by their potential for reciprocation or retaliation; the obligation to repay is always there, whether realized or not. But the bestowal of a gift entails no such obligation; in fact, by conferring an obligation which it cannot allow to be repaid it constitutes itself as unassailable power. Thus Abraham is justified not by his works, which would imply the indebtedness of the justifier, but by the free gift of God's grace,(FN27) because God is axiomatically all-powerful.
Both Hans and Gawain demonstrate their power, their virility, by taking: "Be verray force, he rafte hire maydenhed." In consequence they owe whatever form of restitution can be exacted from them. Once exacted and equivalent, their power is nullified. But how is equivalent restitution to be measured?
"I could kill him," says Annette: "his death wouldn't satisfy me. I should like to torture him as he's tortured me. I think I should die happy if I could find a way to wound him as he's wounded me" (p. 302). His death would let him off the hook, allow him out of the obligation to make equivalent reparation. King Arthur has the power to condemn the errant knight to death, but that would be of no benefit to the society of which both are members, nor to the women who have got in through their association with Arthur, and least of all to the victim and those of her sect on the margins of that society whose only hope of incorporation lies in the attentions of knights kept alive for the purpose.
The power of the master always primarily derives from this suspension of death. Power is therefore never, contrary to what we might imagine, the power of putting to death, but exactly the opposite, that of allowing to live - a life that the slave lacks the power to give.(FN28)
Neither Hans nor the knight is permitted to offer the ultimate gift of their lives, for that would absolve them of the obligation to make reparation; instead, they must be allowed to live to be of use. The knight is given his chance of life because the women need him--once he has learnt how he can be of service. Hence his education in what women most desire.
It is nevertheless not true to say that the rapists have simply taken. They have also given: most obviously, a potential for maternity, realized in Annette's case, but additionally a sharing, not only in the body, but also in the social structures in which the body moves. The exploitation which Hans and the knight were guilty of consisted less in the maidenheads they took than in the unwanted gifts they forced upon unwilling victims too helpless to refuse. The hag is glad enough to claim those social structures, through marriage on the victim's behalf, but since neither marriage nor Hans's death can please Annette, she must find a way to return his gift.
Until she does so she cannot be rid of him. Her ardent desire is to impose on him the excommunication that will render him useless where he most wishes to be useful. "Why can't you leave us alone?" she asks; the answer that he prefers not to give is
that he wanted a little human friendship. The silent hostility that surrounded them all at Soissons got on his nerves so that sometimes he wanted to go up to a Frenchman who looked at him as if he wasn't there and knock him down, and sometimes it affected him so that he was almost inclined to cry. (p. 291)
What he desires is admission into the society his violence, and that of the conquering army he represents, have excommunicated him from, and he tries to bribe his way in with presents. So too Gawain's acceptance of the Queen's task indicates not simply that he wants to live (if that were all he could presumably have jumped bail, accepted excommunication and not returned after his year and a day's banishment), but that he wants to get back into the society his action seems to have forfeited.(FN29) The development of the tale is from exploitation through banishment to reciprocity. And it can be this because its message is social rather than the satisfaction of private desires.
This is not the case in Maugham's story, where the woman's hatred of the conqueror sets her at odds with the conquered society in which she finds herself. The story's motivating force is not what Frenchwomen most desire, or require, when invaders are in control, but what she, Annette, does. "Isn't it enough that you've ruined my life?" she asks, when Hans begs forgiveness; and he replies, "Well, that's just it. Perhaps I haven't" (p. 296). Indeed he is the best hope left for her welfare, and that of her parents and their farm which he plans to restock. "Oh, come, daughter, the time has passed for foolishness. You must be realistic. Pierre is dead. Hans loves you and wants to marry you. He's a fine-looking fellow. Any girl would be proud of him as a husband. How can we restock the farm without his help?" (p. 302). To use him would give him legitimacy. It would reincorporate him in the society from which her hatred is determined to banish him. Collaboration, that is, reciprocity, would be common sense, in the circumstances, but it would inscribe him as master, and herself as victim. So she must refuse his presents, as far as starvation permits, and find a way to return the gift she could not refuse. The way she finds brings the story to its chilling climax.
Comedy, magic, and the Wife's fantasy of self-renewal seem to distance the events of her tale from the realm of the possible and therefore of the serious. In fact the tale illustrates the opposition of the patriarchal world of penal finality and the matriarchal world of reciprocity and endless circularity. Once the knight is handed over by the political authority to the court of ladies, the parodic court where forfeits are not a blow but a kiss, he passes from the world of penal jurisdiction to a world of game: of riddles, of tests, of rewards. It is a game the ladies want him to win: as at Arthur's court in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, "Ladies laghed ful loude thogh thay lost haden."(FN30) If they lose, they win: the forfeit is more highly valued than the victory; the kiss counts more than the riddle. Winning or losing are within their prerogative. After all, the Queen's ladies in the Wife's tale are the evaluators of the answer Gawain brings. Why should he expect the hag's answer to prove any better than anyone else's? It can only be right if she turns out to be, in effect, the spokesperson for the ladies of the court. Any answer to their riddle must come from themselves, for the right answer is whatever answer they are prepared to accept.(FN31)
So the exploited woman allowed no voice is given a voice in the answer of the hag and the verdict of the ladies. And all the knight can do is reproduce their own answer, echo their verdict, join the communicative exchange in complete reciprocity. He must accept as a gift what he took by force, and return by force what he thought his rank and gender had presented to him as a gift. The body that signified his desire returns transformed as a sign of his degradation when the girl at the river is replaced by the hag in the forest. Her final transformation, into the obedient wife to whom, paradoxically, he has ceded sovereignty, signifies his readmission into the circuit of the society he had ruptured.
So rape as violence, chief sign of modern man's and woman's indignation at society's refusal to grant them the privacy they have been persuaded their individuality deserves, is itself transformed (not condoned, but transformed), in a medieval society we believe we have transcended, into readjustment for both victim and violator of that society. The Wife of Bath's Tale is not about death, or self-indulgence, but about rehabilitation.
BRIAN S. LEE
University of Cape Town
1 Quotations are from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry Benson, et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987). T. L. Burton, "The Wife of Bath's Fourth and Fifth Husbands and Her Ideal Sixth: The Growth of a Marital Philosophy," Chaucer Review 13 (1978): 34-50, praising lines 887-88 as a "masterpiece of condensed dramatic characterization," somewhat fancifully suggests that the parenthetic phrases interrupting the rhythm of the couplet reflect the helpless girl's brief resistance to the knight's overpowering violence (p. 45). In Burton's view, the Wife "envies the girl this encounter with a man so sexually powerful" (p. 45; original italics).
2 See Louise O. Fradenburg, "The Wife of Bath's Passing Fancy," Studies in the Age of Chaucer 8 (1986): 31-58, especially p. 34, and references at n. 8.
3 Sheila Delany, Medieval Literary Politics: Shapes of Ideology (Manchester U. Press, 1990), p. 127.
4 Robert J. Blanch, "'Al was this land fulfild of fayerye': The Thematic Employment of Force, Willfulness, and Legal Conventions in Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale," Studia Neophilologica 57 (1985): 41-51.
5 Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976), translated I. H. Hrant (London: Sage, 1993), p. 29.
6 Richard Firth Green, "Chaucer's Victimized Women," Studies in the Age of Chaucer 10 (1988), 3-21; see p. 4. If Chaucer was "all womanis frend," as Gavin Douglas called him, it was especially because he recognized "the double standard by which the sworn word between man and man might be regarded as absolutely binding, whereas in affairs of the heart it became merely an expedient device to gain one's end" (p. 18). Green's concern is with victims of seduction and betrayal, not of rape.
7 Kathryn Gravdal, "Camouflaging Rape: The Rhetoric of Sexual Violence in the Medieval Pastourelle," The Romanic Review 76 (1985), 361-73.
8 Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love, ed. Frederick W. Locke and trans. John Jay Parry (New York: Ungar, 1957), p. 24. For an extended account of the De amore, see D. W. Robertson, Jr., A Preface to Chaucer (Princeton U. Press, 1962), pp. 391-448. The following passage is pertinent: "In Chapter 11 we are told that peasants love naturally, so that if one is so imprudent as to fall in love with one of them, the usual flattery is not quite enough, and it may be necessary to use a little force in addition. Although this doctrine is actually complimentary to the peasant girls, it should not be overlooked that Andreas says that it is improvident to love one. And there is nothing in what he says that implies any kind of license to rape peasants" (pp. 443-44). At what point does seduction that includes a little force become rape?
9 Cf. The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, ed. Donald B. Sands, Middle English Verse Romances (New York: Rinehart, 1966), pp. 323-47. For this and other analogues, see B.J. Whiting, "The Wife of Bath's Tale," in Sources and Analogues of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales", ed. W. F. Bryan and Germaine Dempster (U. of Chicago Press, 1941), pp. 223-68. Gawain's reputation as a seducer is best known from Malory and Tennyson, but he is also represented, e.g. by Chré:tien and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as the flower of courtesy.
10 The Metamorphoses of Ovid, translated Mary M. Innes (London: Penguin, 1955), pp. 254-55.
11 Le Roman de la Rose, 5559-628, ed. Ernest Langlois (Paris: Didot, 1914-24). See also The Romance of the Rose, translated Harry W. Robbins (New York: Dutton, 1962), section 27, pp. 118-20.
12 A summary with extracts from the play is printed by Francois and Claude Parfaict, Histoire du thé: atre francois, 15 vols. (Paris, 1734-49), 3 (1745): 145-50.
13 In Livy, Ab Urbe Condita III, 48, and all derived versions except those dependant on Le Roman de la Rose, Virginia is stabbed, not beheaded.
14 Baudrillard (1993), p. 50.
15 Augustine, The City of God, 1.18: John Healey's translation, ed. R.V.G. Tasker (London: Dent, 1945), 1:22-24.
16 On the medieval tendency to blur the distinction between body and soul, see Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1992), especially ch. 6, "The Female Body and Religious Practice in the Later Middle Ages," pp. 181-238.
17 Barbara Gottfried, "Conflict and Relationship, Sovereignty and Survival: Parables of Power in The Wife of Bath's Prologue," Chaucer Review 19 (1985): 202-24: 211.
18 "The rapist could nullify his sentence by agreeing to marry his victim ... [however] ... the defiled woman alone determines whether or not the rapist should marry her": Blanch, p. 42.
19 Baudrillard, p. 127.
20 Quotations are from William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (The Oxford Shakespeare, Compact Edition), ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), p. 373.
21 Baudrillard, p. 126.
22 J. Edward Chamberlin, Come Back to Me My Language: Poetry and the West Indies (U. of Illinois Press, 1993), p. 37.
23 Baudrillard, p. 136. He explains that "primitive" societies "do not gain access to the symbolic by means of the intercession of an immutable Law, the image of which is sketched in the social order itself: the Father, the Chief, the Signifier and Power." Rather, "the symbolic is precisely this cycle of exchanges, the cycle of giving and returning, an order born of the very reversibility which escapes the double jurisdiction, the repressed psychical agency, and the transcendent social instance."
24 W. Somerset Maugham, The Unconquered, in Collected Short Stories (London: Penguin, 1963), 1:284-308.
25 Larry Baron and Murray A. Straus, Four Theories of Rape in American Society (Yale U. Press, 1989).
26 Baudrillard, pp. 36; 41-2.
27 Romans 4: 2-4.
28 Baudrillard, p. 40.
29 For the alternative that he wants psychological, rather than social, integration, see the Jungian analysis by Eric D. Brown, "Symbols of Transformation: A Specific Archetypal Examination of The Wife of Bath's Tale," Chaucer Review 12 (1978): 202-17: "The relationship of the knight to the girl he rapes, the court of women, the hag, and the transformed maiden may be an expression of a psychic interaction with the mother archetype leading to the ultimate goal of finding the anima" (p. 208).
30 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. J.A. Burrow (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 1. 69.
31 Gerald Richman, "Rape and Desire in The Wife of Bath's Tale," Studia Neophilologica 61 (1989): 161-65, arg