Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale" from The Canterbury Tales.
The Canterbury Tales
- originally conceived as a series of 120 tales x but: completed 22 tales, began 2 others
- the title: the Canterbury Cathedral was a favourite pilgrimage site, the site of murder of archbishop Thomas Becket, a famous English saint (murdered 1170)
- uses a fictitious pilgrimage as the framing device for a number of stories
<> collections of tales linked in such a way were common in the later Middle Ages (e.g. Boccaccio's Decameron with 10 narrators telling 10 tales within 10 days)
x unlike in Boccaccio, Chaucer represents a wide spectrum of ranks and occupations in his narrators
- the variety of tellers is matched by the diversity of their tales: the stories contrast in genre, style, tone and values
- some of the stories are linked by the interchanges among the pilgrims who react to the tale and sometimes quarrel
- several narrators' stories also respond to topics taken up by previous tellers
- draws on the tradition of anti-feminist writings nurtured by the medieval church which held women inferior to men for their irrational, material and earthly tendencies
- the Wife asserts her female experience, defends her rights and justifies her life as a five-time married woman
- ironically confirms the accusations of the clerks x but: also satirizes the shallowness of the stereotypes of women
"The Wife of Bath's Prologue"
Both the Prologue and the tale comprises irregular stanzas of varying length, rhyming aabb. This type of rhyme reinforces the humorous effect. The Wife's narrative complies to the stereotypical notion of how woman talk: she is digressive, non-linear and lengthy. She presents her own experience as a woman and at the same time generalizes to provide her view of womanhood, marriage and how they should be treated.
The Wife defends herself against the accusation that a woman should never remarry. She herself was married five times and is ready to welcome a sixth husband. She cleverly supports her right for remarriage(s) by finding examples in the Bible. She claims that if God demanded virginity, marriage as such would be condemned. She also muses on the function of the genitals, concluding that they were made for reproduction. She is interrupted by the Pardoner who feels discouraged from marriage, though the Wife has not yet began her story.
The Wife has had three good husbands and two bad ones. She shows a very pragmatic view of marriage, presents an extended lesson on how to deal with a husband and how to make him do as the wife pleases. She emphasizes free access to husband's gold, supply of fashionable clothes and occasions for amusement. She seems to be using her body as an instrument for getting what she wishes from her husband. She commonly practices deceit, tricks or blackmailing in marriage.
She mentions her fourth marriage to a reckless men who was keeping mistresses. She claims the man took away her youth. At the same time she was acting as his purgatory and thanks to her efforts he is certain to have departed to heaven.
Her fifth husband beat her but she loved him the best because she could always re-win her as a lover. She met her fifth husband when her fourth husband was still alive and married him soon after she widowed. He was half her years old but disappointed her in devoting her energies to his books rather than to his wife. He even tried to lecture her the Bible, Greek philosophy and mythology. Upon this she tore out several pages out of his book and that was why he hit her hard. They reconciled and the husband gave the Wife free hand to do as she liked.
The Wife finishes her Prologue. The Friar comments on its great length: the Prologue indeed is very long and turns out to be even longer than the following Tale. The Summoner blames the Friar for interrupting the Wife's speech and the two are about to argue. They are silenced by the Host who encourages the Wife to tell her tale.
"The Wife of Bath's Tale"
The Wife sets her tale hundreds years ago in King Arthur's time when fairies and wonders were still commonly seen. She relates the story of a rape of the queen by a knight. The queen spares the violent knight from punishment under the condition that he will find out and tell her what women most desire.
Here the Wife leaves the knight to relate the story of Midas, the king with donkey ears, to show that women can keep no secret. She retells Ovid's tale, claiming that it was not the king's barber but his wife who failed to keep the king's secret.
Returning to the knight's quest. The knight comes across an old woman who gives him the answer in exchange for his word that he will fulfil each her wish if it is in his power. At the court and before the queen, the knight claims that women most desire sovereignty, that is to master their husbands. The answer is correct and the knight is granted life.
The old woman asks the knight to marry her and he must keep his word. The knight hesitates to do his duty of the wedding night. His wife promises him to mend her ugliness and old age within three days if he behaves properly to her. She reflects on Jesus, Dante and the origin of gentility. She is of a low rank herself but concludes that gentility comes from God and one's noble deeds. She also claims that there is no fault in poverty or old age.
She gives her husband two choices: either she will become a beautiful and young but troubling wife, or she will remain as she is but make her husband a good wife. The husband leaves it up to her to choose and the wife observes that she has achieved mastery over him already. Then she turns into a beautiful young wife and the two live happily ever after.
AuthorGeoffrey Chaucer. (c. 1343 - 1400).
Full Title"The Wife of Bath's Prologue" and "The Wife of Bath's Tale" from The Canterbury Tales.
ComposedBetween c. 1386 - 1400.
Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Wife of Bath's Prologue". The Canterbury Tales. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999. 253-272.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Wife of Bath's Tale". The Canterbury Tales. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999. 272-281.