Expectations of Love
by Elmer G. Wiens
The disparity in the outcomes of the hag's marriage and Alison's marriages in Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale" depends in part on the women's differing expectations of their husbands. The hag's modus agendi depends on a knight's obligation to honour his pledge, whereas Alison's modus operandi depends on her husbands' conduct after marriage, i.e. on her circumstances. Having saved the knight's life, the hag asks the knight to permit her to be his wife. Moreover, she wants to be his love. The knight must marry, since marrying the hag lies within his might. Since the hag's definition of being his wife includes her loving him, he is duty-bound to tolerate the hag's love. Her love for him requires he show compassion to her. Perforce of her line of reasoning of the advantages of being married to her, he accepts her sovereignty to have her will. The chains of her enchantment broken, the hag turns beautiful in the knight's eyes. He falls in love with her, and she realizes the right to rule in heaven.
This relentless logic of love attained contrasts with the love between Alison and her husbands. Like husbands in real life, Alison's husbands are not knights. They do not submit to her will out of love for her beauty as she expects. Physically, she beats her fifth husband into submission, crucifies her philandering fourth on the cross of jealousy, and outwits her three horny, old husbands through flattery and deceit, attacking their fidelity to extort payment for the marriage debt. Alison's marriages are battles, a state of war that continues until she wins the right to rule, after which she controls the marital assets and the stipulation of the marriage debt. She sexually abuses her old husbands, hints she wants her fourth dead, and curtails her young fifth's reading. Vae victis — woe to the conquered. Aggressively, Alison pitches them into their purgatory, realizing the right to rule in her own hell.
Alison defies one's expectations. Described by the narrator as a church-going woman nonpareil, she presents herself unflatteringly in her prologue. Blinding herself to her immorality with her verbose diatribe, she interprets the scriptures, classical literature, and mythology to suit her immediate needs. By interpreting Alison's tale as wish fulfillment, however, one can grasp for a handle to her motives, hopes, and agenda. The hag exploits the knight as a means to an end, to be young and beautiful. As she gets older, Alison's fading features will not sustain her narcissism. To love herself, she must be beautiful, even if only in the eyes of her next husband. Without the lever of a knight's pledge, Alison will need him to love her as the knight loves the hag. Although her logic is impeccable, Alison confounds the magic of her tale with God's miracles. Alison's experiences have unsettled her faith in the possibility of such love. Through God's grace, she hopes for a miracle at the Saint's tomb to restore her faith, giving her the confidence to achieve her objective.
Beautiful, wealthy, and not yet old, Alison implicitly denigrates the attainments of the lady of her tale. With her looks, Alison picks and chooses husbands, as worthy as any, who freely marry for her looks and sex — caveat emptor. In contrast, the hag's guile in trapping an errant knight — a rapist — to fall in love with her taints her success. Worse, Alison's interpretation of the Arthurian legend questions the possible existence of a marriage partnership centered on individual sovereignty through love. She replaces the biblical exhortation that husbands exert dominion over wives, with her refrain that wives take dominion over husbands, as the logical, practical, and preferred outcome of marriage. Alison's myopic view of marriage affects her expectations. Pessimistically, uncharitably, and filled with vanity, she drags all marriages into her hell, by praying that all husbands submit to her definition of the essence of marriage.
Works Cited and Consulted
Chaucer, Geoffrey. "From Canterbury Tales." The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Volume One. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Addison-Wesley, 2003. (301-421).