Violence against Women – The wife of Bath’s Tale, The Clerk’s tale, The Rape of Lucrese, Wuthering heights and The Penelopiad

The aim of this paper is to provide insight in to the gender based differences in status and power that exist between men and women and how these differences influences the susceptibility of women to acts of violence with specific reference to the primary sources; The wife of Bath’s tale, The Clerk’s tale (From The Canterbury tales), The rape of Lucrese, Wuthering heights and The Penelopiad. Specific areas of discrimination and their influence on the incidence of physical, sexual and emotional abuse will be brought to focus by the context of this paper and they will include; The normalization of gender based acts of aggression such as domestic violence, sexual assault and psychological abuse, The stereotypical definition of gender roles by the society that serve to encourage violence towards women, objectification of women and the power balance within intimate relationships.

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While analyzing The wife of Bath’s tale and its capacity to inform a discussion on gender based perspective on violence against women, one is confronted by the stereotypical definitions of the roles of women in intimate relationships from the account of the wife of Bath of the ‘tribulations of married life’ informed by her experience during the course of her five marriages. She describes her success in marriage as being influenced by the amount of ‘sovereignty’ she could get over her husbands (Chaucer, 1948). She describes an incident of domestic violence and how she utilized this occurrence to gain sovereignty over her fifth husband. In the medieval ages, provincial laws did permit men to rebuke their wives for unruly behavior with many Christian texts describing the woman as the carriers of human sin and the cause of the downfall of the human race.  This provides motivation for the man to take up a role in controlling the woman in order to prevent actions that may lead to the downfall of the family. This rebuke for unruly behavior could take the form of hitting with the fist, such as in the case of the wife of Baths but it was unacceptable for a man, according to provincial law to beat his wife to an extent where she was incredibly hurt or died (Regner et al, 2009).This could be the reason why when the wife of Baths feigned death, her husband promised her anything if only she would agree to live. In this text the wife of bath is a classic representation of the societal view of women in the medieval ages as sexually insatiable, shrewd and treacherous monsters. It also shows how society has normalized violence against to the point that a woman can only learn to retaliate in order to escape it but cannot avoid it.

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 The tale and the story of the fate of the Young Knight also attempt to challenge the societal norms about the roles of men and women in marriage and how a shift in the balance of power can prevent violence and destruction. The young knight rapes a maiden in King Arthur’s palace, he is given the task of discovering what women desire most by the queen in lieu of the death penalty that had been demanded by the people (Chaucer, 1948).The king, by giving up control to his wife was able to avoid killing the young knight and reform his behavior considerably. The young knight, by giving up his need for control to the hag was able to gain a better perspective on intimate relationships and his role within them as well as mitigate his sexual entitlement. Despite the jest implied throughout the telling of the tale, it challenges the requirement by the male gender to dominate over their wives in the marriages and tries to show a situation where relegating this control would have far better outcomes and would result in a lower incidence of violence.

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The clerk’s tale provides insight in to the psychological and emotional aspect of domestic violence and the imbalance of power within relationships. The Marquis subjects his wife Griselda to the suffering of knowing that her children had been put to death and finally that he himself had divorced her and was intending to marry a new wife just for the purpose of testing how much she would be willing to endure without becoming resentful of him (Chaucer, 1948). Griselda endures the suffering without any complaint or grievance and remains completely devoted to her husband despite his unwavering ‘cruelty’.

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The tale may be seen as praise of the attitude of Griselda which eventually gets rewarded by her husband or even a mockery of it since all the torture she endured could have been avoided had she not been so meek and subordinate to her husband. Speaking out, adopting a proactive role would have allowed her the opportunity to gather information about the whereabouts of her children and save herself unnecessary distress. In this tale the male is given an all-powerful role and the woman is supposed to subjugate herself to him and accept whatever decision he makes regardless of its effect on her wellbeing. The clerk advises the ‘noble wyves’ to use their arrows of eloquence to pierce the stoic armor of their husbands and to avoid nailing down their tongues in feigned or real humility. In the execution of acts of violence against women, one person controls and asserts power over another.

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It is not the aim of the perpetrator to end the relationship with the woman on whom he exerts control over, it is his aim rather, to through these actions, draw his victim closer to himself (Sepali et al 2012). This is clearly seen In this tale as the Marquis has genuine affection for his wife, but through his actions, he seeks to draw her closer to himself by making her completely dependent on him even to the point of placing her life and that of her children in his hands and this according to the society should be the role taken up by an exemplary wife. This cultural inequality between the roles of man and women and these stereotypical representations of the meek and submissive wife versus the willful and omniscient husband serve to legitimize acts that lead to emotional distress and even exacerbates these acts (Regner et al, 2009).

The rape of Lucrece focuses on the objectification of women and the consequences of unbridled emotions on the part of the man. In the poem, Collatine brags to his fellow soldiers that his wife, Lucrece, is the most desirable and virtuous of all other wives. His descriptions of his wife whets Tarquin’s sexual appetite, who goes to visit Lucrece and takes advantage of her unprotected state to rape her in the night (Shakespeare, 2009). The objectification of women comes across in the description of Lucrese provided by Collatine which comes across as if the woman is not human but a priceless work of art of sculpture or a painting that only serves the purpose of propagating a man’s fame but has no humanity attached to it. This could be the reason why Tarquin does not see any fault in gauging the merit of Collatine’s description by raping his wife.

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In this poem the powerlessness of women in these situations of sexual violence is explored in the words of Lucrece who blames herself for her inability to defend herself from her assailant and eventually take her own life. The guilt that ensues on the part of the violent and non-violent males is also shown through the distress exhibited by Tarquin after he commits this act and the guilt and thirst for vengeance displayed by Collatine upon the loss of his wife. In this poem, the woman is subjugated by the man, she is powerless and unable to defend herself and suffers grave consequences for this powerlessness. The man is less susceptible to be the victim of sexual violence and he feels he is entitled to sex and views the woman as the object of satiating his needs. The subjective position occupied by the woman does not even give her the power to seek any sort of retribution against her assailant, she can only rely on her husband and her father to do this for her, her only action remains to save herself the torment of living with the shame that results from the violence by committing suicide (Shakespeare, 2009)

Heathcliff’s treatment of Isabella in Wuthering Heights is extremely cruel and violent, he has no pity, he pays attention to her screams cries only as a means to motivate him to crushing ‘her entrails’. He imprisons Cathy and Nelly and uses violence to express all his emotions including love. Edgar’s success in   forcing Catherine to choose him over Heathcliff despite her nature shows the power of the man to debilitate the identity of the woman by imprisoning her psychologically, emotionally and socially. The impact of childhood trauma on patterns of abuse is shown in this novel through the character of Heathcliff who is constantly abused in his childhood and the trauma from this abuse affects him such that his love for Catherine turns out to violent and he loses her due to this (Bronte, 2003). It should also be noted that this novel was published when domestic violence had started becoming an issue of public concern in the Victorian society and it succeeds in providing a critique of the middleclass domesticity by showing how the powerful males in the home abuse the weaker females and children by battering, isolating and imprisoning them.

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The Penelopiad aims to tell Penelope’s account of Homer’s Odyssey. Specific acts of violence against women that come to light through this text include; female infanticide, rape and sexual assault, neglect and murder (Atwood, 2006). Penelope’s father, Icarius, throws her in to the sea after he receives information from an oracle that she will weave his burial shroud which he assumes means that she would be the one to kill him. After her marriage to Odysseus, he neglects her for a long period of time to go fight in the Trojan War. He delays in returning home by engaging in various exploits by getting involved with the goddess Circe. Penelope’s gets overwhelmed by number of suitors who had assumed that Odysseus had died and were seeking her hand in marriage, they threaten to ‘eat’ her kingdom into poverty by holding daily feasts in the palace. Penelope tries to mitigate the crisis by telling them that she would only get married once she had finished weaving her father’s shroud and delaying the weaving by unweaving the shroud during the night. In order to conceal this secret from her suitors, she instructs her maids to seduce them and distract them (Atwood, 2006). Unfortunately, this plan backfires on her maids considerably when her suitors find out and rape the maidens. Much later, Odysseus returns and orders the execution of the maids and these maids later haunt Penelope in the underworld, without saying a word and staying away from her grasp when she tries to go near them. The acts of abuse against women and their powerlessness in defending themselves against the men within the context of the story shows the innate discrimination and second tier humanity accorded to women in the society and the capacity of this discrimination to cause intense psychological distress, trauma and eventually lead to the death of women at the hands of the superior male species.

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Women clearly have a higher vulnerability to violence in all its contexts and their susceptibility to this kind of violence does not decrease with age as that of men does (Sepali et al, 2012). As witnessed in Wuthering Heights Heathcliff’s vulnerability as a child provided the basis upon which acts of violence were perpetuated against him but he grew up, attained status and was no longer susceptible. On the other hand, a woman continually experiences threats of aggression and is a victim of abuse from the onset of her life to its culmination. The low status bestowed upon women by the society by giving them a subsidiary/ supportive role to the man who is supposed to dominate over her entire life contributes to the attitude displayed by perpetrators of these actions who regard them as normal and even believe that they are entitled to behave the way they do and it is the duty of the woman become an outlet for their anger, sexual and emotional frustration. Gender inequalities that are in many ways defined by the society increase the risk of violence from intimate partners by creating unequal balance of power within the marriage that gives one partner autonomy over all the affairs if the home and turning the marriage from a partnership to a dictatorship (Sepali et al, 2012). To provide a hope for the future, the society needs to be educated on its role in shaping perceptions and this information needs to be utilized to move away from the traditional stereotypical roles that deny humanity, confidence and freedom to certain genders and grant full autonomy to others.

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