In modern society and throughout history, men and women have always been separated and characterized by their differences. In literature, this familiar dynamic is often represented by a power struggle between the sexes. Usually, it is women who must fight for their own independence and sense of respect from society, and this remains true even today: as of 2017, according to the World Health Organization, “1 in 3 (35%) women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime” (World Health). Male dominance over women arises as a central theme in both Atwood and Chaucer’s works, as these men and their female counterparts struggle to strike a peaceful and mutually fulfilling existence in the wake of sexual assault. In the 14th century text Wife of Bath’s Tale, as well as in the modern text, “Stone Mattress” by Margaret Atwood, this power struggle between male and female characters drives the storylines. In The Wife of Bath’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer and “Stone Mattress” by Margaret Atwood, two almost parallel scenarios demonstrate that women and men can coexist happily in a society that addresses the importance of openness and honesty between the sexes and, above all, respect for women.
In both stories, the immediate reactions to sexual assault against women greatly differ; in this way, these responses provide important insight into the overall importance of women within their societies. For instance, after the knight rapes the maiden, he is almost instantly brought to King Arthour’s court to answer for his crime, where it is understood that, “By cours of lawe, [the Knight] sholde han lost his heed” (892). Through swift action and harsh judgment, Chaucer demonstrates that there seems to be strong respect for women in this society. To further emphasize this point, the queen takes a major role in determining the knight’s fate when she and a group of women “preyeden the king of grace/ Til he [the knight’s] lif him graunted in the place” (895-896). In this way, Chaucer portrays women as authority figures over the knight, placing the power back in women’s hands after the assault of the maiden. In contrast, society reacts differently to Bob’s rape in “Stone Mattress.” When Verna is left on the side of the road after the rape, Bob’s friend, Ken, picks her up and tells her to “[not] say anything” (7). Though Ken seems to feel some pity for her, he ultimately urges Verna, who is clearly traumatized, to remain silent about the rape, establishing just how little respect and sympathy exists toward women in Verna’s society. Atwood further emphasizes this when Bob attempts to silence Verna’s crying in the car, threatening her by saying “Shut up or walk home” (7). This suppression of truth, intimidation, and forced silence seems to indicate that, especially to the men, rape is normalized and not a big deal in modern society. Compared to the Knight’s environment, Verna seems to be in a society where women are expected to carry the burdens of men’s actions against them. Furthermore, Verna reflects how Bob had “gone scot-free, without consequences or remorse, whereas [Verna’s] entire life had been distorted” (7). In other words, this culture of silence works against victims like Verna and greatly encourages men like Bob to continue their behavior. While the Knight receives immediate and drastic punishment for his actions, it is almost the reverse for Verna.
After committing their crimes, both the Knight and Bob receive chances at redemption in hopes that they will learn how to respect women along the way. In the Knight’s case, the queen intercedes to halt his death penalty. She gives him a riddle instead, telling him, “I graunte thee lif if thou kanst tellen me/ What thing is it that wommen moost desiren” (904-905). This riddle not only gives the Knight a chance to escape death but also simultaneously forces him to find out more about what women want. He almost fails to solve the riddle until he meets the Old Wife, who promises to share the answer under one condition: “The nexte thing that I requere thee/ thou shalt it do, if it lie in thy might…” (1010,1011). In this way, the Old Wife can now indoctrinate her soon to be husband with the lesson he was supposed to learn. Verna acts similarly, giving Bob the chance to right his wrongs, but in a less straightforward way than the Knight’s ultimatum. As Verna contemplates Bob’s fate, she gives him two ways to escape death: “If he recognizes me spontaneously, I won’t kill him… If I tell him who I am and he recognizes me and then apologizes, I still won’t kill him” (10). She decides that Bob can redeem himself through acknowledging his past crime, specifically by apologizing or even just recognizing her; if he can do this, then he at least deserves to keep his life. Although this chance is not explicitly communicated to Bob, he still must repent for his actions in some way. Thus, through these chances at redemption, the Knight and Bob are given a chance to prove that they understand and are sorry for the moral wrongs that they have committed against women.
Both the Old Wife and Verna give their rapists a chance at redemption in order to ultimately emphasize the importance of respect. After the Knight complains about his new wife’s age and ugliness, the Old Wife feels not only comfortable, but empowered enough to lecture him about his disrespect toward her. As a result of her passionate speech, the Knight realizes his faults and submits himself to the Old Wife, claiming, “I put me in your wise governaunce” (1231). As the Knight feels embarrassed and ashamed of himself, he finally learns his ultimate lesson and gives full mastery to the Old Wife, a clear sign of respect and deference to her superior wisdom. When she rewards her husband by transforming into a younger and more beautiful woman, she claims that “We be no lenger wrothe,/ For, by my trouthe, I wol be to you bothe,/ This is to sayn, ye, bothe fair and good” (1239-1241). Because the Knight expresses his honest emotions towards his wife and the Old Wife is able to respond equally honestly, this transparent relationship shows how open communication can lead to happy harmony between men and women.
In contrast to the Knight, Bob fails to atone for his sins. Unlike the Old Wife, Verna has mental conversations with herself but does not communicate them to Bob: “Shouldn’t bygones be bygones? … Why should any human being be judged by something that was done in another time, so long it might be centuries” (10). Just as she was urged to be silent about her rape in the past, she is again silent about seeking resolution and atonement from her rapist. This clearly shows that, because her society has embraced silence and shame rather than straightforward communication, she is bound by the same rules. Because Verna’s society treats her rape as something that should not be spoken about, which heavily implies a lack of respect toward women, Verna struggles to demand an apology from Bob instead of being encouraged to directly address her suffering. When Verna finally does reveal herself to Bob on the stromatolite island, it is the moment of truth: Bob reacts by “smirking” in a way that evokes a troubling image for Verna, in the form of “a vivid picture of Bob capering triumphantly in the snow, sniggering like a ten-year old. Herself wrecked and crumbled” (11). At this moment, Verna realizes that Bob has not changed, living his life “scot-free, without consequences or remorse” (7). Most importantly, she also realizes that Bob has lived for years with no respect for women; therefore, Verna kills Bob. Compared to the Knight and the Old Wife’s relationship, Verna and Bob’s relationship is characterized by a clear inability to respect women, as well as an important dismissal of transparency that could have helped Verna find closure for her pain. Thus, because Verna’s society has chosen to embrace silence rather than encouraging open communication, Verna cannot safely speak her mind. Eventually, the tension between man and woman grows so much that one party takes violent measures. This further demonstrates that, without society promoting respect for women, as well as honest communication and transparency between men and women, happy coexistence is extremely difficult to achieve.
In the the Wife of Bath’s Tale and “Stone Mattress,” relations between men and women are portrayed in drastically different ways. Interestingly, the Wife of Bath’s Tale is essentially a fairy tale told as a fable, whereas “Stone Mattress” has the characteristics of a more realistic society where relations between men and women are far from mutually respectful. This comparison seems to demonstrate that the perfect relationship between man and woman can only be achieved in an idealized world, a world in which women are respected and therefore can share that respect with men by allowing transparency. For example, in the The Wife of Bath’s Tale, sexual assault is a serious crime for which the Knight faces death, whereas in “Stone Mattress,” it is barely acknowledged and victims are silenced. By treating sexual assault with seriousness and severity, women are able to feel more respected and valued in society, yielding greatly improved relations between men and women. The Wife of Bath’s Tale also demonstrates this by showing that, because the Knight and the Old Wife are able to openly discuss their emotions, they are able to achieve peaceful harmony in their relationship. In contrast, the lack of respect for women in Bob and Verna’s society presented in “Stone Mattress” fosters a rejection of thoughtful, open discussion that leads to the complete destruction of their relationship. In this way, a comparison of the two texts provides interesting insight about the importance of societal respect for women, particularly by encouraging safe and honest communication for women to address their inequality, as a means for happy coexistence between men and women.