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Relationships in Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath ’and Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice': Analysis of Elizabeth Bennet

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“In a patriarchal society, economic power conquers all.” Compare and contrast, in light of this view, how wealth affects relationships in Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath ’and Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice.

A patriarchal social system can be defined as a system where males are in authority over females in all aspects of society where their economic power gives them the ability to influence the behaviour of others through deliberate and politically motivated use of economic assets thus specifically, in this instance, allowing them domination over relationships and marriage. Ironically, by looking at Alisoun, The Wife of Bath, Chaucer agrees with this view as she is presented in a powerful, wealthy position which grants her to marry five times. However, Alisoun’s gender raises question of dispute by contradicting the idea of patriarchy. Conversely and appropriately in the context of the Regency era, in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice the men radiate economic power, especially Mr. Darcy and Bingley, which attracts the opposite sex which is how society was propagated.

With one of the most famous lines in literature, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single in man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’ Austen sets out her narrative’s premise. This statement, while introducing the idea that marriage is often a business transaction at this time, also foregrounds the satirical tone of the novel. This is emphasized by the staccato structure of the last clause which lends Austen’s sentence a comical timbre. The writer’s intentions in terms of the style of writing are made very clearly; she is not interested in visualising the world she describes but, through the use of irony and satire, Austen employs realism as her chosen mode of writing. While hiring economy as a lens to focus on men, she implies – with a scornful tone- that the need of a female partner is a life necessity which one ‘must’ equally be in ownership of.

Additionally, the narrator’s position is mirrored by Elizabeth’s behaviour who offers a conventional defence of satire aimed at human folly only though she hopes she ‘will never ridicule what is wise or good’. Chapter 11 gives an ideal depiction of the caustic attitude adopted by the novel whilst touching upon superiority – a matter given by social class hierarchy and wealth. While Elizabeth subtly mocks Darcy that he ‘ís not to be laughed at’, carrying the conversation in a light-hearted manner, Darcy chooses a grave seriousness in response to the ‘tolerable’ companion as he considers ‘follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies’ a weakness to possess. Darcy’s pronouncement that ‘where there is real superiority of mind, pride will always be under good regulation’ implies that he considers himself a cultured and knowledgeable – a privilege given to him by his social class that contextually not many could afford – which puts him in a position of control thus supporting the view that money and wealth allow him to conquer pride.

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Similarly, Chaucer introduces a powerful, experienced Wife of Bath through her prologue, ‘Experience, though noon auctoritee/ Were in this world, were right y-nough to me/ To speke of wo that is in mariage’. It is revealed that the wife had married five times and thus the view is supported as she has no children revealing her principal reason for marrying so often is solely for economic power as is in Austen’s time. The introductory line implies that marriage is just a burden for her which frankly places her in a superior position to the Bennet sisters in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and their mother’s view that all should marry as a matter of urgent necessity. By having both writers place the idea of how economics affect relationships from the very beginning, symbolically the importance of marriage as a serious business in the context of the Regency era and the Middle Age is reiterated.

‘If you’re looking for a nice, neat relationship between teller and tale, you’ll miss out on the fascinating contradictions and ironies produced by Chaucer’s complex mix of voices, which both undermine the genre of the tale and raise questions about the underlying ideas it claims to promote.’ So argues Dr Katherine Limmer. Conversely to Austen whose writing intents are candid and straight-forward, Chaucer hires density within the disputes put forward under an ironic façade. In the Middle Ages, literature was filled with the favourite theme of vilifying the frailty of women, however, Chaucer’s tale is not a moral denunciation for or against women. He has created a woman in the person of the Wife of Bath who both exemplifies all that has been charged against females but openly glorifies the possession of the respective qualities asking the reader to accept a woman’s point of view and, perhaps, even feel sympathy for her.

Beneath a comic surface lie nuances, paradoxes and contradictions that a reader must be alert to in order to understand the realities of the contemporary world the novel tackles – particularly women’s place in it. One common view of Jane Austen is that her novels typically present powerless, penniless women, whom are desperate to marry their way into the world, else having to face financial hardship and loneliness which a superficial reading of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ could easily lead to. In an age when mass-market fiction tended to feature impoverished heroines who had to earn the love of immaculate, socially superior men, the novel provides an innovative contrast to this stereotype. Comedy, as is characteristic of Austen’s writing, is counterbalanced by an awareness of poignant alternatives. Elizabeth Bennet, in particular, presents a strong independence of mind and spirited freedom of her thinking about the world, even in spite of the pressures caused by its narrowness, snobbery and the restrictions of its conventions. When challenged by Lady Catherine de Bourgh upon her rumoured engagement to her nephew, Mr. Darcy, interrogates her if she is ‘resolved to have him’. Elizabeth maintains a dignified, but determined stance claiming she has ‘said no such thing. I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or any person so wholly unconnected with me’. Within the limits of her situation she is an extremely strong young woman, however, her strength does not go beyond the conventional propriety of a daughter and a wife; duty to marrying into wealth remains the central to the female agenda

Before the Renaissance, women of medieval Europe often came to prominence primarily through their family connections, through marriage or motherhood, or as their father’s heir when there were no male heirs, women also occasionally rose above their culturally restricted roles. A few women, like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, made their way to the forefront of accomplishment and power through their own efforts. Similarly to Elizabeth Bennet, the Wife is witty, intelligent and equally opinionated coming over as a brave and revolutionary figure. In her Prologue, the Wife challenges a patriarchal world, empowering herself with her voice and body as she defies the strict conventions of marriage in Medieval society by selectively quoting and emphasising notions from the Bible to prove her point. The Wife sees marriage and relationships as business transactions arguing that ‘a knowing woman’s work is never done to get a lover if she hasn’t one’ (look up original version) implying that for a shrewd woman the idea of marriage goes beyond love as seeking for financial stability instead seems to beby far more crucial. Throughout her prologue, the wife uses rhetorics to rebel against the idea of being pure and marrying once when cleverly using examples from the Old Testament , such as King Solomon who ‘we hear he had a thousand of wives or so’ . Having Solomon – a fabulously wealthy and wise king – to compare, the Wife makes the reader question why is it acceptable for a man to marry so often, but when a woman ought to do so, her actions are instantly frowned upon further manipulating the reader to question society’s conventional standards of men and women. Ultimately, drawing on a feminist thought the Wife does a valuable job of shamelessly attacking societal expectations of women making her a Medieval heroine unlike Elizabeth Bennett who though presents a gallant stance, she is limited within her social situation.

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Relationships in Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath ’and Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’: Analysis of Elizabeth Bennet. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 6, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/relationships-in-chaucers-wife-of-bath-and-austens-pride-and-prejudice-analysis-of-elizabeth-bennet/
“Relationships in Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath ’and Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’: Analysis of Elizabeth Bennet.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/relationships-in-chaucers-wife-of-bath-and-austens-pride-and-prejudice-analysis-of-elizabeth-bennet/
Relationships in Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath ’and Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’: Analysis of Elizabeth Bennet. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/relationships-in-chaucers-wife-of-bath-and-austens-pride-and-prejudice-analysis-of-elizabeth-bennet/> [Accessed 6 Feb. 2023].
Relationships in Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath ’and Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’: Analysis of Elizabeth Bennet [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2023 Feb 6]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/relationships-in-chaucers-wife-of-bath-and-austens-pride-and-prejudice-analysis-of-elizabeth-bennet/
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