Chaucer’s the Wife of Bath’s Tale Character Analysis
Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem, The Canterbury Tales, satirically chronicles thirty pilgrims and their journey to Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury, England. Throughout the poem, Chaucer creatively utilizes the literary technique of a frame narrative, which is essentially stories within a story. The outer frame consists of the pilgrimage to Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine, where each pilgrim, including Chaucer the Pilgrim, exhibits a cross-section of fourteenth century England, omitting only royalty and serfs. Before embarking on their pilgrimage, the pilgrims meet at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, directly outside London. At the Inn, the Host, Harry Bailly, proposes the idea of a tale-telling contest. Bailly suggests each pilgrim tells two tales in each direction of their trip to prevent boredom. The teller of the most entertaining and moral tale wins a meal courtesy of the “losers” at the journey’s end at the Tabard Inn. Chaucer incorporates the telling of each of the tales by creating an inner frame within the poem. While he intends one hundred twenty tales, Chaucer dies in 1400 A.D., leaving only twenty-four tales, two of which are fragments, remaining. In telling the twenty-four tales within a more sizable tale, Chaucer demonstrates an uncanny ability to match the tale to the teller. One particular tale, the Wife of Bath’s, is perhaps the best example of Chaucer’s cleverness as a writer as he creates a unique character, whose Tale reflects her independent and controlling personality.
The Wife of Bath’s physical description is presented in Chaucer’s General Prologue. Chaucer details her appearance, writing, “Bold was her face, handsome, and red in hue” (15). Chaucer also notes that “She had gap-teeth, set widely [apart]…”, and very large hips. The Wife of Bath’s distinct physical appearance distinguishes her from the appearances of most traditional women of her time. Her defined features make her sexually attractive and “Her sanguine complexion … indicates a good-natured gregariousness” (Rossignol, “The Wife of Bath” par. 3). In the General Prologue, Chaucer also reveals the Wife of Bath is “somewhat deaf”. This impairment does not curb her overly social nature, however, as Chaucer paints her to be an independent, self-assured woman whose boldness is reflected in her Prologue and her Tale.
How it works
The Wife of Bath’s non-physical characteristics are equally introduced in the General Prologue. Chaucer describes the Wife of Bath wearing a finely woven kerchief, soft shoes, a flowing mantle, and a wimple to conceal her aging. In addition, she wears hose of the “finest scarlet red” (15). This bold color is a reflection of her passionate, and even lustful, nature. Michelle M. Sauer says, “The Wife is bold, outspoken, forthright, and, above all, passionate” (par. 15). Chaucer also uses this color to represent her power and confidence, which distinguish her from the other women of her time. The Wife of Bath clearly has an adventurous spirit as she is well-traveled and “skilled in wandering” (Chaucer, GP 15). She travels alone, venturing to places such as Jerusalem and Rome. She is also a skilled cloth maker, she likes to laugh and talk, and she knows “all the remedies for love’s mischances”.
The Wife of Bath’s role in Medieval society is that she represents a woman who is not defined by the social boundaries of her time. Throughout the Middle Ages, most women “were expected to conform to certain standards of behavior, and particularly, when married, to perform certain [household] tasks (Rossignol, “The Wife of Bath” par. 2). The Wife of Bath, however, does not adhere to these standards. Instead of cooking, cleaning, and rearing children, the Wife of Bath focuses on her “prodigious sexual appetite” (par. 2). The Wife of Bath has had five marriages, becoming a bride for the first time at the age of twelve. Chaucer writes, “She’d had five husbands, all at the church door” (GP 15). Despite the number of the marriages, the Wife of Bath has never had children. Children would have interfered with her future relationships and “the fact that the new husband would be expected to support any minor children, would have made her a less attractive commodity in the marriage market” (Rossignol, “The Wife of Bath” par. 2). Further emphasizing the Wife of Bath’s independent spirit is the fact that she travels alone on her pilgrimage. While the other pilgrims are traveling for religious reasons, she is seeking a sixth husband, again demonstrating her nonconformist personality. Despite her controversial nature, however, Chaucer ultimately creates a character who is a “positive representation of independent womanhood”. The Wife of Bath’s positive image is echoed in her Prologue and Tale.
In the beginning of her Prologue, the Wife of Bath establishes her firm belief that life experience outweighs authority. She asserts, “‘If there were no authority on earth / Except experience, mine, for what’s worth,” (Chaucer 258). While many people in the Middle Ages look to religion as the main form of authority, the Wife of Bath defies this ideology. She exposes the inconsistencies and loopholes in the literal text of the Bible, and “She presents her defense somewhat in the form of a scholastic argument that might occur among clerics,” (Ruud par. 2). Using convoluted logic, she justifies her sexuality by arguing that God did not command virginity and define the amount of times a woman could marry. The Wife of Bath believes she has the right to discuss these controversial topics because she has experience in these matters (Bloom par. 2).
Central to the Wife of Bath’s Prologue is her description and justification of her five marriages. The Wife of Bath explains her marriages saying, “Three of them were good and two were bad. / The three that I call “good” were rich and old (Chaucer 263). She considers her first three husbands “good” because she can easily control them and will one day inherit their fortunes (Ruud par. 4). The Wife of Bath’s fourth husband was not as easily controlled, as he was unfaithful and had a mistress. While married to him, she fell in love with Jankyn, who would become her fifth husband, one whom she married for love but who was abusive. In detailing these five marriages to the other travelers in her Prologue, the Wife of Bath asserts herself to be the ultimate authority on marriage.
The overriding theme of the Wife of Bath’s lengthy and complicated Prologue is that happiness in a marriage boils down to control. She achieves control by manipulating her husbands, criticizing their behavior before they can criticize hers, and refusing to have sex with them until they give her ownership of their property. “By these means she suggests that marriage is a battle of the sexes and that one way to win that battle is through deceit and trickery” (Rossignol, “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” par. 2). Although the Wife of Bath boasts that she married Jankyn for true love, her version of love is a distorted one. Their marriage consisted of abuse and manipulation, and only after the Wife of Bath fakes her death and forces Jankyn to promise to never abuse her, she becomes satisfied. Once again the Wife of Bath acquires the upper-hand and possesses the reins of her marriage (Bloom par. 11).
The Wife of Bath’s long-lasting Prologue sparks several interruptions from various pilgrims. The first pilgrim to interrupt is the Pardoner. The Pardoner claims he is about to marry, however, after listening to the Wife of Bath’s description about the sense of control in marriage, he declares he will halt his marital pursuits. He says, “I was about to take a wife; alas! / Am I to buy it on my flesh so dear? / There’ll be no marrying for me this year!” (Chaucer, WBP 263). The Wife of Bath’s lengthy description of her five husbands later prompts the Friar to declare, “‘This is a long preamble to a tale!’”. The Summoner responds to his comment by cursing him, saying, “‘Well, damn your eyes, and on my behalf’”. The Friar and Summoner continue to argue until the Host quiets them down and informs the Wife of Bath to begin to tell her Tale.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale is classified as a Breton Lais, which is a courtly romance featuring knights, nobility, and supernatural events. These tales are based on the ideals of loyalty, honor, and love, and they often consist of conflicts that arise from sexual relationships between a man and a woman (Rossignol, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” par 1). Chaucer includes all of these themes in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, which involves a knight convicted of raping a young maiden, hoping to prevent his death sentence if he can answer one question for the Queen: “‘What is the thing that women most desire?’” (282). He finds the answer from a old hag whom he promises to marry, and his life is spared, leaving him alive, but married to a woman he finds unappealing. Finally, the Tale concludes with the knight submitting to his wife in allowing her to choose her future, which ultimately brings both of them satisfaction and happiness.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale revolves around the theme of love and control. Bound by duty and honor, the knight marries the old hag, and then further submits himself to her authority when he allows her to make her own decision regarding whether or not she should remain old and ugly, but loyal, or young and beautiful, but disloyal. The knight declares, “‘I leave the matter to your wise decision. / You make the choice yourself, for the provision’”. In gaining sovereignty and power in the relationship, the old hag transforms into a young, beautiful, and loyal woman. “She gains mastery over a young husband, but also regains her own youth and beauty” (Ruud par. 9). The theme of the tale is thus revealed: love and happiness for all persons in a relationship are achieved through power and control.
Exactly as the Wife of Bath’s Prologue reveals her belief that happiness results from a woman assuming control in a marriage, her Tale exhibits the same belief. Ruud says, “The tale illustrates what…[The Wife of Bath] believes is the chief point of her prologue: that a happy marriage is one in which the woman has “‘sovereignty’”. Clearly, only the Wife of Bath could tell this tale, as it is a direct reflection of the beliefs she holds dearly. The character of the old hag embodies these beliefs, and represents the Wife of Bath herself. When the old hag states, “‘And have I won the mastery?’” (Chaucer 291) she echoes the Wife of Bath’s opinion that domination is key to marital bliss. Both women are clever, a bit conniving, and they get what they want. The old hag’s marriage to the knight, furthermore, mirrors her own marriage to Jankyn, as in both cases, the couples find happiness and true love when the wife assumes control, allowing them all to live “…ever after to the end / In perfect bliss…”.