The Wife of Bath’s Tale Theme
Chaucer uses The Wife of Bath’s Tale and Prologue to shed light on the way that women were seen and treated in the middle ages and paint them as crude creatures. He does this by setting up an unlikable character who is a woman to make a case for women’s rights and want for power, and then having that character tell a tale in which a man submits to a woman and is rewarded handsomely. By doing this, he paints the picture of cruel women telling men that they should behave and submit to them so that they can finally get something out of a relationship.
Men in the middle ages had complete power over the women in their communities, to the point of women having no control over their lives. Eve committed the first sin to damn humanity, and because of her, women were seen by the people of the middle ages as liars, traitors, cheaters, and motivated for only selfish reasons (Witcombe). This led to many authors in the middle ages to condemn women in their works. The Wife of Bath is a devious character that he weaved just for this purpose. In her prologue, she talks of all the men she married and her experiences with them. She says that although her first three husbands were wonderful to her, she fought with them, cursed them, lied to them, and even made them believe that they did and said things that they didn’t. She says that she did this because women are naturally better at being deceptive, and that she could get whatever she wanted. She continues to talk about how all women only want what they can’t have and don’t actually care if they are given something freely (Greenblatt and Simpson, pg. 303-315). This sets up an unlikable, crude character for the audience that will advocate for something controversial (women’s rights) in order to make her argument less appealing. Chaucer uses this technique to make the push for women having a say in their marriage less admirable, because if all women are as horrible as the Wife of Bath makes herself out to be, why would someone want to advocate for their say in everyday life?
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In the tale, a hundred years before the current time of The Wife of Bath herself, the knight is out travelling when he happens upon a woman so beautiful that he “cannot help himself” and rapes her. Again, linking back to the unlikable character telling the story, most of Chaucer’s audience upon reading the demonization of the knight might dislike The Wife of Bath more for painting such a violent picture of a man. The people of the land send him back to King Arthur for punishment, and King Arthur, as he should, punishes him to death; however, the Queen, Guinevere, steps in and says that she will leave the night alive on one condition. In order to live, the knight will have to tell Queen Guinevere what women really want (Greenblatt and Simpson, pg. 319-321). This is when Chaucer introduces the Wife of Bath’s question, “what do women what from men?” In addition, you can already see that the Wife of Bath’s influence has worked into the story as Guinevere, not Arthur, decides the knight’s punishment. In a real medieval society, this would not happen, as she has no authority over Arthur’s decision, therefore, it is just the Wife of Bath giving women more control in the story than what they should have had.
Then, the knight meets an old crone in the woods and she says that she will give him the answer to what women want if he does what she says after. He agrees, and then goes to Guinevere on the last day that he has to complete his quest. He tells her what the crone told him, that women want to have the same power over their husband as the husband has over them. He is spared, because according to the Queen, his answer is correct. The crone demands that the man marry her as payment for her answer. Because he is a knight and has to honor his code by keeping his word, he marries her (Greenblatt and Simpson, pg. 322-326). This particular route of events shows that the Wife of Bath herself wants to emphasize the knight’s powerlessness to the crone. He’s completely at her mercy and has to do what she says, just like the Wife of Bath did to the men she was married to with her lies and manipulation. He’s forced to submit to her and give her, essentially, “what women want”. By doing this, Chaucer is reiterating the Wife of Bath’s want for dominance over men through her telling of the tale, and also making this out to be a bad thing due to her cruel personality.
Finally, the last scene of the tale shows the knight in bed with his new, aged wife. He’s upset because she’s old and ugly, and when he expresses this, the crone, as she is a witch, tells him that she can be beautiful but unfaithful or she can be ugly and a good wife. In resignation, he tells her that she should choose what she thinks is best for them. Since he submitted to her, which is what she wanted, she becomes both positives- beautiful and faithful. He’s ecstatic and then loves his wife (Greenblatt and Simpson, pg. 326-328). By telling this part of the story, the Wife of Bath drives home the fact that men should submit to their wives. She’s essentially baiting her audience with the thought that if the men submit, it’ll be better for them and they’ll be greatly rewarded. In doing this, she is coercing her audience to think it is better to submit because there will be a better outcome in return.
In conclusion, the Wife of Bath is a character that tells a tale about submission to women. Coupled with her foul characterization, her tale is shed in a dark light and attempts to make the audience despise her plight. By creating this rift, Chaucer can continue to perpetrate the middle age’s belief that women are the root of evil and are nothing but trouble for men. He does this not only by using the characterization of the crone and Guinevere in the story, but also by that of the characterization of the Wife of Bath herself.
Greenblatt, Stephen, and James Simpson, editors. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. W.W. Norton, 2018.
Witcombe, Christopher L. C. E. “Eve’s Identity.” Eve and the Identity of Women: 3. Eve’s Identity, Sweet Briar College, 2000, witcombe.sbc.edu/eve-women/3eveidentity.html. Accessed February 12, 2020.