Absolving the Sin: Redemptive Feminine Figures in Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Prologue" and John Milton's Paradise Lost

Rory Griffiths, University of South Carolina - Columbia


Geoffrey Chaucer and John Milton have been ceaselessly studied in isolation to one another, but undergraduate students must begin to study them in conjunction. Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” serves as social critique of medieval misogynist practices that allows students to study social practices as they study his language. Milton’s Eve in Paradise Lost reflects the religious and social instability that marked the Interregnum of the English Civil War, allowing Eve to embody the culture’s desire to return to a virtuous Church. Students will learn to examine the space of the authorial paradox, primarily the questions of authority that arise when an author attempts to instill the object of the writing with agency—the linguistic problems of making the object an active agent when its position requires being acted upon. Each author escapes the potential failure of authority by constructing halves of an apology that, when brought together, achieve a full corrective image of femininity that undermines the core argument of pervasive misogyny. Alyson’s sexual nature allows her the authority of experience, from which she is able to reclaim agency and sovereignty, but she lacks the ability to avoid misreading philosophy and Scripture. She balances the duality of her voice as the text of Chaucer’s context while her body reflects the cultural practices that restore her sovereignty. Eve’s sin is her desire to know God and Reason, which becomes a movement from God; her sin is redemptive in the space it creates for Man’s salvation and fulfillment of God’s plan. Milton absolves Eve of the Sin of the Fall by proving her movement was both innocent and beneficial, marking women as intelligent and the bearers of potential Grace. By studying these feminine figures of Alyson and Eve as partially redemptive feminine figures, undergraduate students in a British Literature survey source can begin to contextualize the shifts in the debate of gender politics. When held next to each other, these authors’ language reveal the enduring strengths of one another, Chaucer’s brilliant wit emphasizes Alyson’s sexual knowledge, while Milton’s richness of depth allows for Eve’s sin to be meaningful, turning the Fall into Man’s salvation.