In focusing upon the Chaucer’s treatment of the female sex, there are three main areas to consider. The first is Dorigen’s actions, and the second is the other characters treatment of her. The third is his general attitudes towards the sex and their position in society. Arveragus, the noble knight, during his first appearance in the tale, at the very beginning, behaves just the way we would expect a chivalrous, honourable knight to behave, and even exceeds this expectation.
Before they are married, he plays the roles normally taken – he is at the lady’s beck and call, and she is in control. However, unlike normal, when they are married, he refuses to reverse these positions. He, rarely in the time in which the tale was set, believes in equality in marriage, and says to Dorigen that he will never try and take control, or be jealous of her, as long as he lives: ‘That nevere in al his lyf he, day ne night, ne sholde upon him take no maistrie Again hir wil, ne kith hire jalousie’ However, he does, very soon, commit the act of leaving her to go to foreign lands, to fight. While this is required of a knight, and would be seen as a grand, rightful act, it is important to consider how much he was thinking of his wife in this decision. This can be taken as merely an act of such importance, and such reverence to the society in which he lived that no one would even think of him staying for his wife, or it may be a callous gesture.
Near the end of the tale, when he returns, he continues to play the part of the noble husband, and rescues Dorigen from her predicament. However, whether the method by which he does this is of a man who considers himself equal to his wife, and thinks of her feelings as paramount is open to opinion. He tells her she must stick to her trouthe, and fulfil her promise to Aurelius. This, while solving the problem, could well have resulted in disaster for both of them, if Aurelius hadn’t recognised the honour in what Arveragus had done. This act seems to be more trying to fulfil the obligations to society Arveragus believes himself to have, rather than fully considering the way to solve the problem which would leave his wife happiest.
The reverse, Dorgien’s treatment of Arveragus, in equally noble as his, in almost every respect. While she may have failings, not being honourably to her husband is not one of them. She equals the promise he makes of equality after they are married, by promising and swearing to god that no trouble or strife shall ever affect hem through any act of hers. This is a deeply ironic statement, due to the later events, but the sentiment is true, and admirable. When he leaves, she pines for him, and wishes he could return safely, and never actual considers infidelity, except in jest, with Aurelius, which is where the trouble begins.
Aurelius, a handsome young squire – ‘Oon of the beste faringe man on live’ – behaves considerably less honourably. At no point, up until the very end of the tale does he properly consider her feelings, and the depression he must be causing her be forcing her to uphold a promise made solely in jest. The dedication he puts into making the rocks to disappear for her is a sign of his passionate desire for her, but his lack of consideration for whether or not she truly wants to fulfil her trouthe shows that these are the acts of a selfish man.
He almost redeems himself at the end, in the eyes of the reader, by releasing her from the binding of her promise, even though it leaves him in massive debt, with nothing to show for it. However, this is perhaps a decision he should have made long ago, before involving the philosopher and magician at all, which would have saved the entire situation. His failure to just give up and not force Dorigen into her commitment is the driving force behind the narrative behind this tale, since had he not, the moral dilemma would not have occurred.
Dorigen’s treatment of Aurelius is considerably better than his treatment of her. She is put, when he first confesses his love for her into a difficult position, and after out rightly refusing him, which is the correct thing to do, she sets an impossible precondition for his love to be fulfilled. She makes it perfectly clear she does not love him, and will always be a wife who loves, and is true, to her husband. Here, while she tries to take into account his feelings, she also sticks true to her husband. It is not her fault that Aurelius takes her promise so seriously. Is there anyway that a married women can respectably fully take into account the feelings of another man, above those of her (admittedly absent) husband?
Another section of Dorigen’s actions that need examining is how she deals with her problems. While in her dealing with both the prominent men in the tale, she is shown to have behaved well, and stuck by her husband and the values of her society, here she stumbles. When the two promises she has made begin to act in separate ways, forcing her to choose between either one, she begins to come apart. She has no idea what to do, or how to solve the problem. She bemoans her fate, and begins to consider suicide, citing cases through history who have done so. However, noticeably, every case she raises has had a situation far more serious than her own. Aurelius, while not considering her feelings, is not a dishonourable person, and would not force her into keeping her trouthe if she protested too heavily.
Chaucer’s general view of women in this tale does seem to be very complimentary. He tries to demonstrate that perhaps short-changed by their society’s respect for promises made, and that men are too often viewed above women. Dorigen certainly seems to more considerate of her husband’s feelings than he is of hers, often placing the demands of society, and of being a knight, above those of keeping his wife happy
Also, with Aurelius, she tries to be realistic, while still attempting not to bring him done to earth too painfully, whereas he continues, blissfully unaware of the harm and upset he is causing her. Chaucer’s noble portrayal of the female sex only falters when it comes to Dorigen’s failure to deal with her problem. However, for the time in which the tale was written, this is a remarkably forward thinking piece of literature, in a world where men were viewed as complete superiors to women, especially in marriage.