“‘Make no mistake, it is impossible / That any scholar should speak good of women, / Unless they’re saints in the hagiologies; / Not any other kind of woman, no! (Chaucer, 167).’” This statement by the Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales is indicative of a well-known fact – literature, particularly that of earlier eras, has been largely transcribed by male scholars. By extension, the ability to shape and create and mold perfect characters lie in their hands. Too often, this equates to poorly written female figures, women that reflect the patriarchal context of their production, women that fail to surpass the boundaries between male and female, women that are characterized as villainous and heinous if they do, all the while their male counterparts receive fame and glory and praise.
These sentiments are reflected in a plethora of ancient texts, including The Odyssey, the 1001 Arabian Nights, and The Canterbury Tales. Despite the emphasis that is placed on male protagonists and their achievements and the often negative characterization of females who rebel against the gender norms of their respective societies, there are women in these tales that manage to cross, challenge, question, and transcend their respective roles by refusing to be controlled by those in power – these are the women that would be considered feminists, the women that would be considered powerful female characters in modern society.
Composed in the 8th Century B.C.E., The Odyssey, which is typically attributed to Homer, is widely acclaimed as one of the oldest works of literature to exist in contemporary society.
One of the common themes within The Odyssey is the risks associated with female agency, which is exemplified through Penelope. A faithful wife who patiently awaits the return of her husband, Odysseus, from the Trojan War, and dutifully fends off the arrogant, abusive suitors in Ithaca, while weaving in between – Penelope is the epitome of the ideal woman, according to Homer.
Although Penelope is intelligent, resourceful, and strong-willed, all characteristics that are represented through her actions, such as secretly unraveling the loom and testing Odysseus, she is ultimately defined by her marital status – she is subservient to Odysseus, and in his absence to her son, Telemachus. In Book 1, when Penelope berates the bard, Phemius, Telemachus orders her to, “‘Go in and do your work. / Stick to the loom and distaff. Tell your slaves / to do their chores as well. It is for men / to talk, especially me. I am the master (Homer, 1.356-359).’” Through these words, Telemachus asserts his dominance as the head of the household, while effectively confining Penelope to the domestic sphere.
Since Homer presents Penelope as the Golden Standard (for all women), it becomes necessary for her to be constrained by patriarchal norms as this allows him to highlight the dangers of female autonomy – if females are not constrained if females are not bound by patriarchal norms if females are granted power and freedom, they are free to abuse it, to betray their husbands, much like Queen Helen of Sparta and Queen Clytemnestra of Mycenae do. It is importonlyant to note that in previous versions of The Odyssey, all of which were translated by male scholars, Helen often described herself as a “whore” or a “bitch”. In contrast, in the 2017 translation by Emily Wilson, the first one by a female scholar, Helen describes her “face as the cause that hounded them” (Homer, 4.148). The use of harsh, derogatory language against Helen and Clytemnestra, but not against Odysseus, who also commits adultery throughout the epic, reflects the foundational misogyny within The Odyssey.
There are examples of empowered female leads in The Odyssey, present in the form of Athena, Circe, and Calypso. All of these characters play a role in Odysseus returning to Ithaca, whether it be positive or negative. These powerful roles are only available to them, however, because they belong to the realm of the divine. This distinction exists to reflect the potential of mortal women, if only they were granted an equal amount of freedom and power to control their futures as well. The Odyssey cannot be considered feminist literature, by any means, but for a work of literature that is inherently misogynistic and flawed in its portrayal of women, it includes a multiplicity of strong female characters that rebel against gender norms – even if a number of them are presented in a negative light for being too forward or failing to possess valued attributes.
The 1001 Arabian Nights, a compilation of texts from the Islamic Golden Age, is revolutionary in its portrayal of females when compared to The Odyssey. The narrator of The 1001 Arabian Nights is Scheherazade, the daughter of the Vizier, which is already a stark contrast from The Odyssey, in which the male protagonist, Odysseus, is emphasized and celebrated and the orators, or bards, are never females. Scheherazade is characterized as a pleasant, witty, and polite woman who is extremely knowledgeable in a variety of subjects. In addition to being intelligent, Scheherazade is courageous, willingly risking herself to protect her city from the wrath of the murderous King Shahryar, who marries a virgin each night only to kill them in the morning because of his First Queen, who betrayed his trust by committing adultery. She actively defies her father upon his refusal to marry her to King Shahryar, proclaiming, “‘I wish thou wouldst give me in marriage to this King Shahryar; either I shall live or I shall be a ransom for the virgin daughters of Moslems and the cause of their deliverance (1001 Arabian Nights)’”, even after he threatens to subject her to violence to teach her a lesson about disobedience. Unlike Penelope, she refuses to be subjugated or subservient to males, deciding to become a savior, a heroine, instead. By weaving elaborate, riveting tales and utilizing his curiosity (King Shahryar) to ensure her continued safety, Scheherazade manages to remain alive for 1001 Nights, after which she becomes the Queen. One would assume that Scheherazade would be prone to feminist tales, considering her motives behind marrying Shahryar, but that is not the case. A number of her tales, especially the first few, contain female characters who betray their husbands, commit heinous deeds, and trick males into doing their bidding. However, this might have been done intentionally on her part to gain favor with King Shahryar.
It is difficult to compare The 1001 Arabian Nights to The Odyssey because while The Odyssey is accredited to Homer, The 1001 Arabian Nights isn’t accredited to anyone in particular, although Antoine Galland is credited as the first European to translate it. No matter who the work can be accredited to, Scheherazade can be characterized as a powerful female character who transcends the boundaries of gender by being a weaver of tales, by using the power of the spoken word to protect herself and other women.
The Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1387, is centered around a storytelling contest between pilgrims traveling to Canterbury from London. It is reflective of The Odyssey in certain parts, such as in The Man of Law’s Tale, while it closely resembles the progressive nature of The 1001 Arabian Nights in others, such as in The Wife of Bath’s Tale. In The Man of Law’s Tale, the protagonist is Constance, a Roman Princess. In the tale, descriptions of Constance’s beauty, virtue, and humility travel to the Sultan of Syria, who is enamored by her and desires to marry her. Instead of challenging societal norms the way Scheherazade did, Constance readily agrees to marry the Sultan, stating, “Women are born to bondage, suffering; / To live beneath the dominance of men (Chaucer, 123),” completely ignoring the fact that she possesses a considerable amount of power over the Sultan who is ready to convert to Christianity for her. Her complacency continues throughout all the hardships she encounters, from the years on the sea in a rudderless boat to being framed for murder, to being cast out by her evil mother-in-law, to meeting pagans and heathens.
Constance relies on her faith to protect her virtue and herself, never once becoming frustrated by her struggles and hardships. Her faith in Christianity isn’t in vain, however, as it continually ensures her safety – she convinces both the Syrians and the Pagans to convert to Christianity for her and her problems are readily solved by God, who performs miracles (such as assisting her on her journeys across the ocean, revealing the real culprit of a murder she is framed for, etc.) for her. Her passive demeanor and willingness to submit to the dominance of others, rather than assuming control over her future is part of the reason that Constance isn’t and wouldn’t be considered a powerful female character in contemporary society or literature.
In contrast, the Wife of Bath is generally considered a contemporary feminist, with her beliefs and ideas being revolutionary for the Late Middle Ages. There is an emphasis on The Wife of Bath’s Tale, which is apparent from The General Prologue, which is lengthier than the actual tale. The Wife of Bath has a modern outlook on the blatant misogyny that is present in a patriarchal society. Defying the traditions and customs of the Late Middle Ages by being a spouse to at least 5 men, the Wife of Bath presents ideas that would be considered radical back then – confronting the double standards of society, denouncing the social norm of considering females inferior to males, and advocating for a woman’s right to sovereignty (and her right to choose whether or not she desires that sovereignty). By pointing to religion to prove her points, stating, “I know that Abraham was a holy man, / And Jacob too, so far as I can tell; And they had more than two wives, both of them, / And many another holy man as well (Chaucer, 151)”, the Wife of Bath depicts her intelligence and knowledge – she is an educated woman who has gradually formed opinions on the gender imbalances in society. In each of her marriages, the Wife of Bath fails to conform to the conventions of society, essentially redefining the structure and ideals of marriage for the audience. Although her primary motive is to further her marital experience through the tale, she becomes an advocate for gender equality, as well as marriage equality, because of her staunch belief in women’s rights.
The fact that Chaucer includes extremely different female protagonists in The Canterbury Tales raises questions regarding his own beliefs – Was Chaucer a feminist? The Man of Law’s Tale is a part of the Saints’ Lives Genre, a popular work of literature during the Late Middle Ages, while The Wife of Bath’s General Prologue and The Wife of Bath’s Tale are radical in and of themselves. The dichotomy between the Man of Law’s Tale and The Wife of Bath’s Tale may be a result of the rapidly transitioning social structure of society during the Late Middle Ages – partially due to the Bubonic Plague, which caused upheaval in the lives of the peasants and the nobility. These rapidfeminism changes may have been a part of the reason that Chaucer decided to address the power imbalance between males and females through the Wife of Bath.
In The Odyssey, The 1001 Arabian Nights, and The Canterbury Tales, some female protagonists defy traditions and customs in favor of being the masters of their fates. It can be relatively easy to separate feminist characters from anti-feminist characters, based on the modern definition of feminism. In contemporary society, Penelope and Constance wouldn’t be considered feminists, while Helen, Clytemnestra, Athena, Circe, Calypso, Scheherazade, and The Wife of Bath would. But, what exactly constitutes a feminist? What exactly fits the bill for a powerful female character? Penelope single-handedly raised Telemachus, managed Ithaca, and remained a faithful, devoted wife to Odysseus for 10 years, while Constance refused to abandon her faith despite the countless hardships she was forced to undergo and managed to convince the Sultan of Syria and the King of Northumbria to convert to Christianity for her. In that regard, wouldn’t Penelope and Constance also be considered powerful female characters? The modern definition of feminism is limited in its scope – only one kind of feminism can exist, onlyandonlyonly and only one kind of feminism can exist. To be a modern-day feminist, women need to fit a specific criterion, to be a certain way. But, isn’t that anti-feminist in and of itself? Doesn’t it strip women of the right to choose? And isn’t that the true definition of feminism – the right to choose, whether it be between becoming a housewife or the CEO of a major company, marrying early or never marrying at all? It is according to the Wife of Bath. Judging from the conflicts surrounding the right type of feminism today, it might be time for us to start thinking about adopting ideas from feminists in the past.