Geoffrey Chaucer - The Canterbury Tales - The Wife of Bath's Tale

 


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In Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, The Wife of Bath's Tale, although it has a more serious and moral tone than her prologue, is in many ways a continuation of her prologue, the story and the way in which it is told being dominated by her personality, attitudes, and beliefs. The most obvious connecting link is the common theme - the sovereignty of women in marriage. In her prologue The Wife describes how she has devoted much of her life to living up to her unshakeable decision:

An housbonde I wol have, I wol nat lette,

Which shal be bothe my dettour and my thral (154-5)

She uses her tale to extend this idea from being a personal preference, and a maxim to be followed by ‘every womman that is wys’ (524) to a universal truth. The knight of her tale is set the task of finding:

What thing is it that wommen moost desiren. (905)

When he gives his answer to a supreme court of women, headed by the queen, there is no disagreement at all:

Wommen desiren to have sovereinetee

As wel over hir housbond as hir love,

And for to been in maistrie him above. (1038-40)

In al the court ne was ther wyf, ne maide,

Ne widwe, that contraried that he saide, (1043-4)

The fact that the knight's life is in the hands of the queen rather than the king is in itself a sign that the tale is a product of The Wife's imagination. King Arthur has condemned the knight to death, according to the law of the land, and yet in response to the pleas of the queen and other women,

. . yaf him to the queene, al at hir wille,

To chese wheither she wolde him save or spille (897-8)

Thus even The King of England is subject to his wife.

The Wife uses her tale as a vehicle for her own views, and often she leaves the tale altogether and resumes the self-centred theme and colloquial style of her prologue. She lists all the alternative answers the knight received to his question, the list including everything which, in her prologue, she has shown that she demands from a marriage as well as ‘sovereinetee’.

Somme seyde wommen loven best richesse,

Somme seyde honour, somme seyde jolinesse

Somme riche array, somme seyden lust abedde,

And oftetime to be widwe and wedde. (925-8) . . . And somme seyen that we loven best

For to be free, and do right as us lest, (935-6)

Her inclusion of herself with ‘we', and the unusual inclusion of ‘oftetime to be widwe and wedde’ make it clear that this is The Wife's own interpolation, beyond the requirements of the tale.

The Wife digresses from her tale after the first half dozen or so lines to air her views on another subject close to her heart, ‘limitours and othere hooly freres’ (866). Her grievances against the church are many. The church's solemn repressive attitude towards sex, and most other forms of enjoyment, conflict strongly with her robust hedonism. In the prologue she exclaims

Allas, allas, that evere love was sinne! (614)

The church was also responsible for the dissemination of anti-feminist literature and attitudes, and here The Wife, an arch-feminist, is in direct conflict.

For trusteth wel, it is an impossible

That any clerk wol speke good of wives, (688-9)

If we turn to the character of the Loathly Lady of The Wife's tale, we find some differences between her and The Wife, and some similarities. The main characteristic they have in common is the wish to dominate their husbands. There is also a marked similarity in their tactics for achieving this goal. Both make their husbands suffer, and both use the persuasive techniques of argument. Both also draw upon authorities in support of their arguments; The Wife from The Bible, Ovid, and many others, and The Loathly Lady from Dante and Seneca.

Just as, in the prologue, The Wife puts up the husband's assumed complaints against her, putting him in the wrong, and knocking his arguments down one by one, so the Loathly Lady puts up the knight's objections.

Thou art so loothly, and so oold also,

And therto comen of so lough a kinde (1100-1)

She adds the fault of being poor, not even mentioned by the knight, and by pseudo-logic presents the faults as virtues. Both women succeed in gaining the submission of their partners for the same reason - the husbands are so frustrated and exasperated that they give in to get some peace.

The chief difference in the approach of the two wives is that whereas The Wife argues almost entirely on personal grounds, The Loathly Lady argues on the more objective and moralistic grounds of living up to the claim of ‘Nobility', the true source of which was a much discussed subject in the middle ages. On one level we can assume that Chaucer has introduced this theme for the edification of his audience, but it is also likely that The Wife has included this serious subject in order to comply with The Host's original request in The General Prologue for,

Tales of best sentence and moost solaas (800).

In her prologue The Wife demonstrates herself to be an intelligent woman, and good at dissembling. At the funeral of her fourth husband, for example, she acts the part of the grieving widow, so she would undoubtedly be able to act out the serious tone necessary for the Loathly Lady's ‘Nobility’ argument. Putting herself in the role of The Loathly Lady also serves The Wife's purpose of championing the cause of women, in that to subjugate a knight and prove him to be ignoble would be a greater achievement than the real life subjugation of her first three elderly, feeble, husbands, and it is achieved by a more acceptable means than her childish deceitful attack on Jankin. In this way, and in the final transformation of The Loathly Lady into a beautiful young woman, the tale can be seen as a wish-fulfilment on the part of The Wife.

Thus The Wife's tale is more than appropriate to the prologue; it is essential that we know the character of The Wife through her prologue before we can fully make sense of the tale.

Bibliography

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale. Ed. James Winny. Cambridge University Press. 1965.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Ed. James Winny. Cambridge University Press. 1965.

Ian Mackean runs English Literature Resources & Essays , (where his site on Short Story Writing can also be found), and Books Made Into Movies.com . He is editor of ‘The Essentials of Literature in English post-1914’. He is also a keen amateur photographer and has made a site of his photography at Photo-zen.com photography

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