Cultural theorist Stuart Hall describes representation as the process by which meaning is produced and exchanged between members of a culture through the use of language, signs and images which stand for or represent things (Hall, 1997). Representation is a basic need for communication, without representation we wouldn’t be able to communicate with one another, as representation is mainly about meaning, which then leads to understanding. So how is meaning created? Meaning is produced when someone assigns a certain word to an object. The object might have existed before, but it didn’t have a meaning until someone came along and gave it a name. According to Hall, representation is produced by two systems that complete each other to form meaning, the mental representation which includes all objects, people, concepts, and language, which allows us to describe these objects, and people and concepts. However, there are several theories that describe how language is used to represent the world; three of which are outlined above: reflective, intentional, and constructionist.
With a reflective approach to representation, language is said to function like a mirror; it reflects the true meaning of an object, person, idea or event as it already exists in the world. The Greek word ‘mimesis’ is used for this purpose to describe how language imitates (or “mimics”) nature. Essentially, the reflective theory proposes that language works by simply reflecting or imitating a fixed “truth” that is already present in the real world (Hall, 1997).
The intentional approach argues the opposite, suggesting that the speaker or author of a particular work imposes meaning onto the world through the use of language. Words mean only what their author intends them to mean. This is not to say that authors can go making up their own private languages; communication–the essence of language–depends on shared linguistic conventions and shared codes within a culture. The author’s intended meanings/messages have to follow these rules and conventions in order to be shared and understood (Hall, 1997).
The constructionist approach (sometimes referred to as the constructivist approach) recognizes the social character of language and acknowledges that neither things in themselves nor the individual users of language can fix meaning (Hall, 1997). Meaning is not inherent within an object itself, rather we construct meaning using systems of representation (concepts and signs); I will elaborate upon these systems further in my second model.
Although it is open to different interpretations, the intentional approach was used for this analysis of Geoffrey Sauer’s book. The writer discusses the travails of various women in a way that he wanted the readers to understand, highlighting specific areas on each that affect the direction of his story. How readers perceive the women in the story is open to interpretation, which makes the intentional approach more suitable for this assignment.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale contains women discussed within various stereotypes that are consistent with the cultural norms of the 20th century. Jankin adds to the mix with clerical misogyny, which reinforces the male suspicion of all women as the inheritors of Eve and thus the cause of men’s downfall. The wife is also able to dominate her husbands by other methods, which she often recommends to other “wys wyfs”. Here Chaucer is obviously appealing to his audience as there are no other wives on the pilgrimage but also the Wife may be suggesting that is not only her who acts in this manner therefore condoning it. She firstly accuses them of indecent behavior, thus covering her own faults and then reverts back to nagging. Her ability to nag and argue is complemented by her knowledge of many parables, fables and even astrology and she uses this to get the upper hand on her husbands but is defeated by Jankin as a scholar at Oxford, which demonstrates the repression of women through lack of education. Maritally, he is also a bully who expects to be obeyed at every turn.
The Wife is bossy, garrulous, compelled to gossip, deceitful and sexually voracious. Yet we engage with the Wife as a rounded person whose fictional character encompasses more than the stereotype suggests. We enjoy her lust for life and new experiences, her heartfelt desire for love and acceptance, the way in which she makes the best of the circumstances she faces, combined with the realisation that the years are robbing her of her charms. Chaucer enables us to laugh at her and feel for her at the same time. The wife is an experienced female who has five husbands and demands her marital rights openly. This is perhaps not in line with the cultural perspective of wives in the medieval times who were expected to be submissive and adopting an attitude of servitude. The story reflects this wife as a modern day feminist, as she potrays the idea that men and women are the same. Another way of supporting this notion stems from the fact that men from past times found it socially acceptable for them to have many wives but it was an abomination for a woman to have many husbands.
From another angle, she compares herself with men who are superior in the society. While defending herself, she appears as a living example of antifeministic tradition, as she has all the qualities that a woman should not have according to the patriarchal discourse. On the one hand, the outspoken woman tries to justify her life with her open and forward speeches. On the other hand, she questions the general teaching of the church and the society. While the Wife of Bath ignores the authority, she defends her rights and even deconstructs the Christian doctrine. In her prologue and tale, she is able to triumph over discourses and portrays herself as a dominant figure.
Wealth and property feature heavily in the wife’s portrayal of marriage and along with the issue of her independence is responsible for many of her marital conflicts. The first three husbands “riche and olde” were married each for “hir land and hir tresoor” then discarded as the Wife looks for other prospects. When one of these husbands tries to restrict the Wife’s spending she refuses to let him be both “maister of my body and of my good” so refuses sexual priviledges to her husbands as this would render her just a possession of them.
Gender is partly the subject of The Wife of Bath’s Tale:
- Initially, the Knight commits the ultimate gender crime, denying the personhood of the girl he rapes
- In return, he is then put at the mercy of the Queen and an entirely female court
- The Knight’s quest is not about what people most desire, but discovering what women most want. Ostensibly it is about female ‘maistrie’ over men.
Yet ultimately, the gender opposition this implies breaks down. The marriage between the Knight and the magical lady seems successful because both are prepared to compromise, taking – and relinquishing – control within the relationship.
Hall, S. ed., 1997. Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices (Vol. 2). Sage.
Chaucer, G. and Ellis, S., 2014. Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales. Routledge.
Chaucer, G. and Ashcroft, P., 1961. The wife of Bath’s prologue. Caedmon.