Marriage According to Geoffrey Chaucer and Jane Austen


The most discussed subject in the works of Chaucer and Jane Austen is the topic of marriage. It is still a hotly debated subject. What kind of relationship a husband and wife should have, how the domestic duties are to be shared, and whether both are equal, or whether they can ever be equal, are very interesting topics for discussion. Chaucer had the right insight to catch the delicate nature of this sensitive issue hundreds of years ago. It can be seen from the way he presented it through his humorous characters. Jane Austen too possessed the creative skill to portray the sentiments of the women in her age, at the same time staying within the limitations her society imposed on her. A critical evaluation of the way the characters of these two writers looked at life and marriage is the focus of this paper.

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The discussion relating to the subject of marriage in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” begins with the tale from The Wife of Bath and ends with Franklin’s comments. It is not good to use the word “ends”, as the discussion continues among the readers even now. Though ideal marriage is still a dream among man and woman, it continues to catch scholarly attention. Chaucer’s men and women discussed it with great irony and humor, without the arrogance and anger that go with it today in the form of the feminist movement. Chaucer’s pilgrims, thirty in number, decide to tell two stories each while going and another two while coming from their pilgrimage to St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury. As they narrate their stories Chaucer depicts the social habits of his characters. The most interesting tales are about marriage and the problems in married life. The pilgrims involved in this conversation form the “marriage group”.

The most advanced view comes from The Wife of Bath. She has the experience of living with several husbands. She agrees that chastity is good, and knows why the church is glorifying it. However, she believes that the female body is for use. A woman need not follow virginity. Let the saints abstain from sex. The fleshly delight of Bath can be seen sparkling as she narrates her experience, coated with irony and humor. She makes sure that she always dominates her husband. Her narrative power keeps her listeners rapt in wonder. The pardoner interrupts her to say: “Ye been a noble preacher in the cas!” The one to be wounded is the Clerk because her fifth husband was a Clerk. He takes up the challenge and narrates his ideas of marriage through the character Griselda.

Clever as he is, the Clerk touches the word marriage only after about sixty lines of his tale. Then onwards it serves as an antithesis to that of Bath. He says that Griselda always maintains serenity and patience throughout her married life. By dwelling on the Petrarchan moral, the Clerk was trying to demolish the views of Wife of Bath. He praises Griselda’s power of endurance at her moments of trial. On the other hand, The Wife always abused her husband or tortured him. The Clerk expects every woman to learn Griselda’s sense of fortitude. Merchant’s encomium on marriage adds further thrust to the ongoing debate. Listening to his bitter experience the host says, “Now such a wife I pray God keep me fro!” No one has so far spoken about an ideal marriage or the role of love in it. Franklin at last comes out with his views. He is for “love and gentilesse” in marriage.

Great changes had taken place in English society by the time Austen started writing. However, women by and large lived the life of domestic animals. Austen’s domestic novels reveal the social picture of her female characters while giving enough room to treat them as individuals with flesh and blood. The fact that Austen had to confine herself in a closed room to write her novels speaks volumes about the state of women in her society. In her male-dominated society, marriage was considered to be the final accomplishment of a young lady. It is a reward for the heroines who lived virtuous life. Jane Austen’s first three novels, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park, reveal the unconditional agreement to marry as a mark of female accomplishment. In her last three novels, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion, awareness emerge to control oneself and look for love as an essential requirement in wedlock.

The easiest way to realize Jane Austen’s attitude to marriage is to turn to the pages in Pride and Prejudice where Mr. Collins places his proposal before Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas. Elizabeth bluntly rejects his proposal. Collins cannot understand her needs and desires. Miss. Lucas accepts him without any hesitation. Collins makes very wise and calculated arguments to both the girls. Though the appeals are the same, one rejects and the other accepts. Lucas wants a successful husband. Miss. Bennet wants to love and joy as part of married life.

The same theme of persuasion and acceptance or denial runs throughout Jane’s novels. Her stories are about the rhetoric of persuasion and the art of choice-making. Seldom has she depicted an emotional love scene. No Paul and Miriam can be seen in her novels. Austen is a critic of human behavior. The readers keep watching how her girls react to the situations in which young men of marriageable age, with enough wealth, of course, move about. Austen, however, learned to challenge the conventions of her time as she moved to her last novels. She kept Elizabeth Bennet from committing to marry Darcy till he cleared all the misunderstandings. They enter their married life only after clearing their pride and prejudice. She is finally sure that Darcy loved her. His rigid attitude had created prejudice in her, and she thought he would be a tyrannical husband.

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What Chaucer depicts through his characters is the medieval attitude to marriage and the man-woman relationship. From the “Canterbury Tales,” it becomes clear that mastery and love cannot go together. The word love seldom comes in Chaucer’s tales. The most revolutionary attitude of the time is brought out by The Wife of Bath when she argues a widow can marry. She deserves credit for opening up a dangerous subject. Usually, such issues are taken up only by scholarly people. Thus she challenges conventions and the undeclared male authority to dictate terms. Jane Austen’s insight into female impulses is great. She leaves adventures to writers like Fielding. She knows her limitations. Within her limited world, she is supreme in understanding human impulses. It is through parties, countryside walk and mutual family visit that she manages to unravel the secrets of her characters. Without meeting Frank Churchill, Emma thinks he would make a good husband. She takes the opinion of others and arrives at her decisions. It may look strange, but it was so, and Austen reproduces the reality as it was.


Both, Chaucer and Jane Austen are realistic writers. They have the pulse of their age at the tip of their pen. Their contribution to the development of literature has already been recognized. Chaucer is the Father of Literature. Their character analysis and their simple style coated with humor and irony influenced many writers. Their views about marriage have influenced many writers, giving birth to great novels.


Hansen, Serena. “Rhetorical Dynamics in Jane Austen’s Treatment of Marriage Proposals”. Persuasions On-line, V.21, No. 2 (Summer 2000).

Kittredge, George Lyman. “Chaucer’s Discussion of Marriage”. Web.

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