Chaucer on marriage
Chaucer looks at male and female perspectives on marriage and shows the entire institution to be a farce, stereotyped by wealthy, flaccid old men and young, beautiful, deceitful wives. January, the old man in the merchant’s tale, says “wedlock is so easy and so cline” (1264), which is sarcastic as the merchant has already spoken out against marriage, and women in particular. Yet January’s motivations to get married are hardly pure, but more practical and shallow.
For “sixty year a waffles man was heel and followed ay his bodily delete/ on women” (1248-50); after sixty years of fooling around with numerous women, he is ready to have a wife “on which he mighty engender hymn an heir” (1272). Rather than choosing a wife who is wise and loving and would care for him in his old age and sickness, he makes his decision as if he were choosing livestock, saying “l wool noon Old ‘. Nary Han… / she shall Nat passe twenty year… /and bet than old beef is the tender feel” (1416-20).
What is ironic is that January sees this way of approaching marriage as pure because it was so normal and standard. The purity of marriage would come if it were based on love and mutual respect, but instead for most men it is about having an heir and a beautiful wife. January can’t see that he’s leaving himself vulnerable to a young wife that will be deceitful and seek pleasure from younger more attractive men, instead thinking he can “a young thing may men gee,/ right as men may warm hex with handed Pyle” (1429-30).
In the wife’s tale, she shows that old men cannot actually mold their young wives into good, loving creatures. Although the wife of Bath “sits [she] twelve year was of age… ‘ housebound at creche door [she has] had five” (4-6), she is no innocent. She manipulates and terrorizes her old husbands with her sexuality to gain money and control, until they are her “[detours] and… [thralls]” (155). She ends up molding her old husbands to her will.
For her a husband is a source of income, and she always sakes sure she has one lined up on the sidelines. She had her fifth husband ready to marry her by the time her “fourth housebound was on beer” (587), and she “wept but small’ (592), being already “purveyed of a make” (591). Even though the fifth husband that she takes is younger than her and she is now in the old man’s position, she is still able to control her young husband to a certain degree, although it is much harder.
It seems like an innate ability that women have to control their cabanas because its more than a survival method, but a way to find pleasure despite being in a technically submissive role. But a true marriage shouldn’t be about control. This is what makes marriage such a Joke to Chaucer, and he is very cynical towards it. The tradition and sanctity of marriage means nothing because it is based on a foundation of lying and shallowness. Men and women conform to their stereotypes because of how society has shaped them and made marriage such a necessity.