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The Canterbury Tales and the Role of Women

The concept of gender roles has existed as long as a society, and it does not lose its relevance to this day. The study of women’s position is a subject of research that has generated much discussion, even in ancient times. However, often only writers could show the life of women of their time, at the risk of being subjected to harsh criticism. One such writer is Geoffrey Chaucer, who lived in the 14th century and wrote the legendary Canterbury Tales. This essay aims to explore two of these stories, the Knight’s Tale and the Miller’s tale, to examine the development of women’s role in them.

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The Canterbury Tales are considered Chaucer’s most important work, even though they are incomplete. Since this collection appeared during the early days of printing in England, the stories have made a significant contribution to the formation of the English literary language. Chaucer was able to take the traditions of French novels and translate them into English, adapting and transforming them according to historical realities (Han 63). However, the poet’s main merit is to reflect the realities of England at that time, with the help of an honest portrayal of society. Besides, much attention in the stories is paid to the theme of love and betrayal, both in elegant and everyday form. It is on this that the opposition of the Knight’s story and Miller’s story is built.

The first tale, which is also the first narrative in the collection as a whole, tells the listener about two friends in love with one girl. Palamon and Arcite saw Princess Emily, the duke’s sister-in-law, during their imprisonment, and love causes their friendship to deteriorate (Chaucer). Each of them strives to conquer her in various ways, praying to the gods for success. Palamon prays that the princess will become his wife, Arcite desires victory over her opponent, while Emily wants to remain unmarried or marry a man who truly loves her.

The story ends with a trial by combat, the results of which suddenly satisfy the pleas of all three people. Palamon loses the fight, but the winner Arcite, dying from a sudden fall, asks Emily to marry his comrade. Thus, this story is the perfect example of a tale of exquisite love, combined with manifestations of chivalry and mythological references. The woman practically does not play any role here; she is presented to the reader only as a prize, which two rivals are trying to win. Even at the end of the story, she does not marry the winner, but the defeated knight, who nevertheless loves her.

Miller’s narrative is as far as possible from knightly romance and tells about a carpenter, his wife, Alisoun, and two young people who want to sleep with her. The previous story’s difference can be seen already at the beginning since the main emphasis is built on the desire for physical intimacy with a beautiful woman (Chaucer). The carpenter rents one of the rooms to a young scientist, one of those who strive to get closer to Alisoun. Taking advantage of her husband’s temporary absence, the man coerces the woman into intimacy with persuasion. At the same time, Alisoun regularly receives and accepts gifts from the second admirer, ignoring all signs of attention and pleas for kisses. Thus, the woman here takes a much more active position, weaving intrigues behind her husband’s back, accepting gifts from one lover, and sleeping with another. The story is full of many crude and vulgar jokes; however, in this way, Chaucer brings the narrative closer to harsh reality.

While the Knight’s story is a typical example of chivalrous romanticism, the drunken Miller tale is as close to reality as possible. Although the woman in this story is still in a subordinate position as she is forced into intimacy, she is not just a prize to be won. Thus, through a comparison of the views of various strata, Chaucer develops the theme of women’s role in society. The poet shows that despite their position, they still have voices and can be active characters.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales: Seventeen Tales and the General Prologue. 3rd ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.

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Han, Vivian Yuwei. Chaucer’s Critique of Romance: Anelida and Arcite, Troilus and Criseyde, and the” Knight’s Tale. 2020, Web.

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