Sunday, January 26, 2014

What Women Want Most



One of the stories in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is about a young knight of King Arthur’s.  The knight could not control his lust when he came across a beautiful maiden.   Arthur’s Court was scandalised by the rape and the knight’s execution was ordered.  The Queen and her ladies, however, interceded and got the punishment commuted.  The knight is given a year’s time to find out what women want most in the world.

The knight went from place to place finding out what women wanted most.  He got different answers from different women.  “Wealth and treasure,” said some.  Honour, jollity, pleasure, gorgeous clothes, fun in bed... thus went the women’s options.  Some even wanted to be “oft widowed and remarried.”  Seeing that women could never agree on one thing, the knight rode back with the odour of death in his nostrils. 

On his way back, he came across an old hag.  Chaucer’s narrator, Wife of Bath, reminds us that those were the days of fairies and elves, days before religious leaders displaced those spirits.  [Believe me, this is not my personal dig at religious people; read Chaucer, if you don’t believe me.]  The horribly ugly old woman promises to salvage the knight’s life provided he pledged himself to her.   What can be more important than one’s existence?  The knight makes the pledge. 

A woman wants the self-same sovereignty
Over her husband as over her lover.

This the old hag’s answer to the Queen’s question.  Every male lover is a veritable puppet in the hands of his female counterpart.  But the roles reverse after marriage.  What women want most in the world is absolute mastery over their men.  This answer elicits a resounding endorsement from the Queen and her ladies.  The knight’s life is spared.

But only to be claimed by the old hag.  “... keep your word and take me for your wife,” she demanded in the presence of all the VIPs in the royal court.  The knight was nauseated.  “Take whatever I have,” he pleaded with the hag, “but leave my body to myself.”

His plea fell on deaf ears though the hag was not deaf in spite of her senility.  He refused to look at her, let alone touch her, on the bridal bed.  She admonished him, as all grandmothers do, that physical looks did not matter at all.  What matter are the inner qualities.  What if he marries a woman who is as pretty as Helen of Troy but is also unfaithful like her? 

The hag was ready for a compromise, however.  The knight was offered the choice: either he could have her old, ugly and faithful till she died, or she could change herself into a pretty young wife whose fidelity he wouldn’t have.  Remember, both she and the knight belonged to a time before religious leaders snatched miracles from the fairies along with their habitats.

The knight was in a dilemma, the kind of which only women can fabricate.  He submits himself to her.  He lets her make the decision.  The submission makes her happy.  That’s what all women want, hasn’t she taught him?  She rewards the knight with both her beautiful youth and fidelity.  Submission does bring rewards, especially where women are the masters. 

That’s Chaucer’s story.  And his narrator’s view.

What if we changed it?

What if we were all willing to be a little vulnerable, to be helpless, to give up control... to be companions rather than masters... willing to trust... ?



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18 comments:

  1. Wife of Bath, like Shakespeare's Cleopatra, is a complex and interesting character. Your narration and conclusion have made her fascinating:)

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    1. Thanks, Amit, for a wonderful response. I love that comparison between Alice (Wife of Bath) and Cleopatra. Both were promiscuous. Both had a wonderful philosophy to preach. And when you say my conclusion makes sense, I'm gratified beyond Cleopatra and Alice.

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    1. Going back to Chaucer's 14th century is digging a little too deep, isn't it, Ankur?

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  3. Let me begin by saying how happy the mention of Chaucer and his masterpiece make me. Seldom do you find treasures from our literary past on IndiVine. Then, the way you have interpreted the chapter and, in a way, held the mirror back at us is skill-full. While Chaucer himself must be proud of you this moment, let me just say that re-locating that classic's idea to today makes me proud of you too.
    Of course, to stay "loyal" to my sex and politically correct too, I will say Chaucer was wrong. :)

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    1. Oh, come on, Sakshi.

      I'm proud of having studied Chaucer. Chaucer can never be proud of me.

      What's Chaucer saying? Life's a mystery controlled by politics and politics in those days meant priests and kings. Women had their way of controlling the whole lot of beastly men. Ha ha...

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  4. She married five times and no doubt she had a strong will and even in modern context she could be regarded as a bold woman .
    I especially liked your mentioning of the religious leaders in a sarcastic manner..

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    1. Yes, Alice married 5 times, and in the first 4 cases she bossed over the men. The 5th man was her boss, but she managed to subdue him too... There are a lot of interesting things to study about this lady especially in the context of the Biblical woman who, according to Jesus, had 5 husbands but was currently living with a man who was not her husband.

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  5. Hello Sir, Chaucer spoke for his times. Today, the woman doesn't need a man at all. She can stay as it is, on her own. She is full of herself and complete. I know you may disagree with me. But, today when I am working with so many of these wonderful women, I guess what I write, shall come to pass sooner than we think. Missed a lots of post from you since I am touring. Hope to catch up as soon as I am back.

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    1. Of course, Krishna Rao, today's women are bosses of a different sort. Yet Chaucer is relevant, you know. The urge to control others, to manipulate, is stronger than ever today.

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  6. Chaucer is relevant in this era to some extend.. I don't agree with him totally, given that his views were a result of his times...a few things don't match.
    Wonderful to read about him again.

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    1. Time changes, but certain aspects of human nature don't. The desire to boss over others hasn't changed a bit, has it?

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  7. How true! All of us want to lord over others. Not sure whether that is because of our own insecurity. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story.

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    1. This desire for lordship is coeval with mankind, I think. Is insecurity the reason? Or could it be the spirit of one-upmanship?

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  8. Out of everything women loves herself to be estimable. That was what I used to believe. Well, how does 'self-same sovereignty' relate to a modern world woman not married and not in love? I think maybe the woman these days would apply this by demanding for equality among all her colleaugues in their profession.

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    1. No doubt, Namrata, as time changes interpretations of texts should change too. But why do women choose to stay single today? Isn't that an assertion of one's lordship? I don't want to surrender myself in relationship - Isn't that the attitude?

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  9. Chaucer sounds true even now... I liked the tale. I have only read the prologue of Chaucer.

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While having a frugal breakfast of dosa with chutney, I watched my wife’s face.   Pain was writ large on it.   Two days of struggle ...