Michael Calabrese, California State University, Los Angeles

title.none: Beidler, ed., Chaucer's The Wife of Bath

identifier.other: baj9928.9610.003 96.10.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Michael Calabrese, California State University, Los Angeles,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Beidler, Peter, ed. The Wife of Bath. Bedford: St. Martins Press, 1996. Pp.. $. ISBN: ISBN.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.10.03

Beidler, Peter, ed. The Wife of Bath. Bedford: St. Martins Press, 1996. Pp.. $. ISBN: ISBN.

Reviewed by:

Michael Calabrese, California State University, Los Angeles

This new edition of Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale is at once a useful introduction to the text, character and culture (both historical and critical) of the Wife, and also an introduction to contemporary critical methods of reading her (all intended for undergraduates or beginning graduate students). The editor has selected what can only be described as a medieval "dream team": Patterson, Finke, Fradenburg, Leicester, and Hansen, to compose the critical essays in Part II, the most problematic section of the volume. Before examining these, perhaps controversial problems, let me discuss the contents and indeed the benefits of the text. I write partially from actual field experience; I used it in a course for majors entitled, Writing the Critical Essay.

The volume is part of the Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, designed to introduce works in historical and critical context. The series wants to display "current critical and theoretical ferment" and provide an introduction to the work's "biographical and historical contexts," seeking to show how "current theoretical approaches generate compelling readings of great literature" (v). Beidler provides a compressed and useful introduction to Chaucer as a historical figure, focusing on his culture, reading and sources for the Wife. A thorough pronunciation guide and then a completely newly edited version of the Prologue and Tale follows, with useful notes on language and meaning at the foot of the page. This all takes 85 pages, providing the undergraduate with a fitting introduction to the experience of the Wife of Bath's P and T, both culturally and linguistically. Interestingly enough Beidler uses the Hengwrt ms., while including in brackets the now infamous 32 lines of scattered monologue found in Ellesmere and constituting the basis for much critical commentary on the Wife. This edition and the note before it thus do the good service of illustrating the textual problems associated with the CT. In fact, these first 85 pages give quite as thorough an introduction to the Wife as has ever been available in such form.

An informative history of Wife criticism follows (89-111) but ends on a tellingly ambiguous note: "I am distressed that so many complex interpretations are written about a Chaucerian character who has, for all her famous garrulity, relatively little to say about herself. For every word she said. . . I estimate that upwards of five hundred words have been written about her in this century." "I am delighted however," Beidler rejoins hopefully, "that my favorite writer can sustain such a detailed and varied critical scrutiny." "I am puzzled," he continues, "to discover that it is not currently in fashion for scholars to speak of Chaucer's artistry.... [But] I am pleased nevertheless to note that a lesser artist than Chaucer would long ago have joined his contemporaries by slipping into obscurity. Chaucer has not slipped into obscurity, and creations like the Wife of Bath suggest that there is no reason to believe he ever will" (111). Beidler's ambivalence about the "richness of new approaches" that he is introducing seems to betray an awareness of the problems of the very project at hand in Part II. How did any set of approaches become canonical? One might counter that the volume never "says" they are canonical approaches, but it canonizes them de facto in its presentation by choosing them.

It is thus in the critical essays that follow where the volume falters, not only in the individual readings, which are sometimes oversimplified or artificial, but in the very conception of the project itself. The essays offer the following critical perspectives: New Historicist (Patterson); Marxist (Finke); Psychoanalytic (Fradenburg); Deconstructive (Leicester); Feminist (Hansen). Simply put: is this what we do? Pick a rhetoric and imagine what a criticism would be like that only cared about the specific vocabulary and concerns of the given "perspective"? Is criticism today so reified and so codified that we label our work in this way and classify ourselves as certain kinds of critics? Do we want our students to think that like fanciful rhetoricians we "pick" a vocabulary, or worse yet a "cause" and stuff the text into it?

That is to say, the essays generally read more like rhetorical exercises: predetermined, overwrought and contrived, than like scholarship or critical inquiry. In some cases they read like parody of their given "perspectives." The volume obviously intends to do something useful, bringing a lot of difficult Freud, Lacan, marriage law, etc., down to undergraduate level. And indeed one cannot read the essays without having a fiery baptism into the vocabulary and concerns of 90s criticism. But in a postmodern age, with all sorts of boundaries always getting crossed and with all our love of "transgression," it is distressing to see boundaries erected and thought packaged into rhetorical slots. We find it outdated to teach composition by rhetorical methods (analytical, compare/contrast, argument, description, etc.) so why present criticism in rhetorical categories? The volume's answer and the standard response to my attack would be: no no no; we are not saying these are the methods of criticism, just some of the methods; we are not saying that Patterson has given the historicist reading of the tale, just "his historicist" (ix). These weak caveats do not undo the impression the whole set of essays will make on the "non-specialist audience"--that criticism means picking a rhetoric and making the text fit it.

The New Historicist section (like all the critical chapters) begins with a short but well annotated, clear and informative introduction by Russ Murfin. Murfin details the literary critical texts and implied manifestoes of this movement. But then Lee Patterson's essay itself follows as a confusing smattering of ruminations on the Wife. The argument is that Chaucer confines Alisoun to a restricted identity as "wife": "Chaucer. . . turns away from some of the more difficult marital realities of his time to create a less historically specific, if admittedly kinder, world" (143). Patterson's analysis leads to some awkwardly aphoristic conclusions: "Hardly surprisingly, then, Chaucer reveals himself to be not only a man but a man of his time" (138); and later, after admitting that the Wife does display a desire for at least an ideal of compassionate partnership in marriage: "We can see that if in most respects Chaucer operates within the conceptual limits of his time, in other ways he pushes against them" (148). But what can we conclude from this? Is Paterson telling us what kind of man Chaucer was or what kind of poet? Is he attacking those who see C's sensitivity of women's issues, or does that not matter here? Is the lesson that New Historicism teaches us simply that poets were "people of their times"?

The problem is not that the argument is wrong, but rather that the tone is artificial, as if Patterson were only dramatizing what someone who called himself a new historicist would say if asked to write an essay about what a new historicist would say about the Wife of Bath. If my convoluted point here is clear, it unlocks the central problem with the volume: it offers canned criticism, dramatic monologues that define the critical rhetoric of the various approaches more than they tell us anything about the Wife. One can glean from Patterson's essay some important facts and details about medieval marriage and female options, but the conclusion that Chaucer "turned aside" from "less happy realities endured by women in his contemporary world" seems unnecessary--the result of the volume's compulsion to "do a reading" when it should be offering us social and historical insights without the reductive "reading" attached.

In the next chapter, Murfin, arguing strongly that "it has never been necessary to be a communist political revolutionary to be classified as a Marxist literary critic" (156), introduces Laurie Finke's article, "All is for to selle: Breeding Capital in the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale," with a stout apologia for Marxist criticism after the fall of Soviet Communism. Murfin argues that Marxist criticism is a form of critique, "a discourse for interrogating all societies and their texts in terms of certain specific issues." He then provides a short survey of criticism from Marx and Engels themselves up to Jameson. As in every chapter, Murfin does a fine job of getting the big names out there and presenting a voluminous field in an accessible and, one hopes, provocative way. If you have to give the history of Marxist criticism in 10 pages, then Murfin does the best one possibly could.

Laurie Finke's essay starts productively, discussing the structure of medieval society and the confusing, evolving position of what we would call the middle class. While Patterson had given us a Chaucer resisting the hard questions of female identity, restricting Alisoun to Wife status, Finke gives as a woman taking control of the economy of marriage through control of the sexual economy, through which she breeds money. But then, particularly when Finke gets to the topics of sex and violence, which are billed as a way of deepening Marxist thought by giving it a feminist component, her essay becomes almost a study in Marxist allegory. That is she labors to equate every dimension of the Wife to the paradigm of breeding capital, a phrase she borrows from Halpern's The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation. Studying the relationship between sex, marriage and money is an important and established critical interest, but Finke spends most of the essay trying to make the text conform to jargon filled paradigms: "the institution of marriage as it is presented in the Wife of Bath's Prologue is a good example of a Marxist concept of hegemony as lived experience in which base and superstructure are mutually constitutive" (175).

Indeed, but to see the lecherous Friar of the opening lines of the tale as "bespeak[ing] the dislocation created by primitive accumulation" (179) seems a stretch, a stretch Finke is aware of, for on the same page we read: "friars, although not strictly speaking vagabonds, are in some ways at least symbolic of this new dislocation." Slightly later Finke reads the rape in the tale as representative of the "violence of primitive accumulation" that Marx discusses [Marx had once metaphorically written that "force is the midwife of every old society which is pregnant with a new one] (180). Finke then continues that "the sexual economy that accompanied primitive accumulation was in its own way violent, relying on forced marriage, wife beating, and even rape to accomplish its end" (180). Finke is trying to show that the transformations (a major motif in the P and T) have as their "primary function" to "mystify the sexual violence required as marriage is transformed to serve a money economy rather than a land based one." So violence is a new feature of a money-based marriage economy? This all gets so confusing and has only an impressionistic connection to the text.

Finke ends the essay with a disavowal that this has been an "intentionalist argument," which "would be anachronistic and, an any rate, unnecessary," and concludes rather that Chaucer could not help but "replicate...the sexual economies ...of his time" (186). But the protest is too late; the rhetorical horse is already out of the barn. In fairness to the author, the argument of this essay employs the kind of language one would use if told to read the Prologue and Tale as an allegory of Marxist primitive accumulation. That's the point. These scholars are fabricating arguments, as if that were the natural and logical thing to do. But why?

Louise O. Fradenburg's article is in many ways an exception to my general critique. Its tone, openness, clarity and sense of audience awareness distinguishes it from the others. Fradenburg introduces the problems of the Wife's temporality--is she modern is she medieval? She makes the issues of dreaming and fantasy come alive in terms students will understand, but not ones condescendingly expressed. Her prose, in fact, has energy and the ring of sincerity of presentation.

To understand romance and fantasy in this medieval text we really don't need Freud or Lacan, but to compose this chapter, unfortunately, Fradenburg does, for like all her co-authors she is burdened by the need to do an Xian "reading" of Y. Ironically, Fradenburg seems to sense the entire problem at the center of my critique, and, while making room in this psychoanalytic section to talk about gender, she says in six words what I say in about 3000: "critical methods rarely work in isolation" (206 ). This is Part II's finest moment, revealing the inadequacy of dividing criticism into genres. Perhaps because of this awareness, Fradenburg's essay is the best written and the most purposeful essay--it should get the students talking about literature, imagination and gender, in both medieval and modern contexts. She moves from Freud to the "elegiac tone" (214) of the Wife's text and to the relations between past and present, fantasy and reality. Freud's "Theme of the Three Caskets" and psychoanalytic theories of the repressed and of pleasure and subjectivity inform her discussion, but she has not neglected the story itself; thus her essay addresses things that would matter to young men and women perhaps coming to this text for the first time and struggling to get some perspective on Alisoun, an amorous, reminiscing, romancer. Perhaps this is because the Wife's powerful imaginative faculty--as liar, Arthurian storyteller, and mistress of fantasy (through the Old Hag)--lends itself to this type of consideration, but Fradenburg keeps the human issues prominent, and she does not compose Freudian allegory.

H. Marshall Leicester Jr., though acknowledging that he is the "representative of deconstructive criticism in this book" (234) wants to deconstruct this very label, for he wants to draw from all the other approaches featured in this book. He appears, then, like Fradenburg, to resist his assigned task, and he wants to ground his "doing and undoing of meaning" (235) in specific moments in the text--the Wife's dream and the rape in her tale. He prefaces this excursus with a summary of dramatic Chaucer criticism culminating in a summary of his own book, The Disenchanted Self. This is not an egotistical display, but it is out of place in its overt self-consciousness. The essay itself is a ramble through a maze of indeterminacies, interruptions (a motif that Leicester playfully tropes throughout) and "undoings," leading to some jargon filled, convoluted prose. It's hard to follow Leicester. Is that the point? And despite his focus on indeterminacies, Leicester offers some strong, determined readings, seeing the Wife as victim of violence and seeing marriage as "institutionalized rape" (248). All the undoings and deconstructive fluffiness cannot "de-privilege" these potent signifiers (to borrow some trendy terms). The Wife's final curse, for example, Leicester says, "could be taken to represent something like the voice of the ravished maid, who is also, after all, a part of the Wife of Bath both in her history and in her present subjectivity" (250). Thus Leicester telegraphs his reading, "however sketchy" he says it might be (251), and "makes" or "reifies" the Wife just as critics have done for time immemorial.

But even when the essay insists on indeterminacy, it employs too many could-be-taken-to-represent-something-like's and too many as-I-argue-at-length-in's (249). Undergraduates may be flustered by the performative aspects of the essay. Beyond this, in the strangest moment in the entire volume, Leicester begins to deconstruct the very production of his essay, telling how Beidler had in fact written its first part by splicing bits and pieces of previously published material, which Leicester then edited. All this, says Leicester oddly, is "of little interest or significance, even to me" (252). He's then off again to a final series of potential perhapses: "the dance of the ladies functions, perhaps, as a brief, potential, supplemental catalog of all the women who are left out of the knight's story, of the Wife's tale, and as it happens, of this reading of mine" (253). Leicester earlier laments that tracing the implications of his arguments would "require far more space, and a far more intricate argument, than are available here" (248). But one is grateful at this point for the editor's constraints.

Elaine Tuttle Hansen's article is perhaps the most disturbing one in the collection. Working from innuendo, Hansen, after admitting in an awkward moment of self- referentiality that many have solicited her to "do [Chaucer] in", goes on to inscribe C in a shady parallelism linking him to the rapist in his own tale--two "dangerous males" "(poet or rapist)" who command our attention while the woman in the picture fades into the background (288). Such anti- male language marks the essay, as in the off-hand reference to contemporary domestic violence and televised sports: "What about the connection between televised sports, for example, in which men are the more engaged spectators, and the real abuse of women at home that they reportedly can occasion?" (279). Such unreferenced suggestions will only lead student readers to sloppy critical and cultural conclusions and paint a dark face on feminist analysis.

Again, the problem is the contrived nature of the argument, which feels as if it must produce a feminist result, in this case unfortunately allowing that to mean an anti-male, anti- Chaucer rhetoric. The final swipe at Chaucer (after the citation of "new evidence" that Chaucer was sued for rape), comes as Hansen attacks Chaucer for allowing himself the feminine freedom of play as a poet while simultaneously denying this freedom to his female characters. Chaucer thus "escapes the constraints of gender and enjoys the privileges of maleness" (288). Hansen is quite committed to "entertain[ing] the urge" to do Chaucer in, but only, she adds, "up to a point." That point is on the far side of innuendo, and "non-specialists" who are not likely to read through the complex tangle of legal documents surveyed by Cannon (cited by Hansen) are going to draw some reductive conclusions from Hansen's attacks, which verge on an (unintended) parody of feminist criticism.

If this book included, instead of a battery of critical approaches, essays on medieval marriage and records of economic history, source material on women in the middle ages (see the book by Amt reviewed in these pages by this reviewer) and a host of other documents and texts that would bring the Wife's world and culture to the students, it would be ideal for undergraduates and for everyone. But for noted scholars, in what can best be described as awkward acts of condescension, to try to communicate to undergraduates the supposed "richness" of contemporary critical approaches by dramatizing these approaches in an often ham-fisted and implausible way is not useful. No one does scholarship like this; why should undergraduates think we do? Why should the rhetoric of an "approach" guide any scholarly inquiry? What will this book enable them to do? Apply a canning process (in 5 different shapes) to other texts? This volume hands the student an illusion and never honestly tells her so, and it thus sets an dangerous precedent for the academy.

Readers and teachers may disagree with the terms of this critique and find the essays to be useful models of the kinds of concerns that contemporary criticism has. The contrived nature of the essays may appeal to some who like their criticism neatly packaged. Yet I do not see the benefit of such staging. Perhaps, to put the best possible face on it, if students get interested in the critical and philosophical histories paraphrased and summarized here, the volume will have some benefit. Teachers wishing to make use of the detailed information and bibliographies, critical summaries and useful annotations and editorial apparatus, must, I finally say, approach and teach the critical collection in this volume with some caution and pedagogical self-consciousness.