The Canterbury Tales: “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” genre: Mock Chivalric RomanceMr. CrickBritish Literature (ENG III)Mr. Fahey’s NotesQuote: “Experience, even if there were no other authority in this world would be groundsenough for me” (183).Experience: This is the FIRST word out of the wife of Bath’s mouth for a reason. Herprologue (and tale) is all about her and wrought from her own experience. She uses herexperience to critique her own culture and challenge the conventions of conservativesociety. Unlike the knight, she does not get her authority from traditional sources, despitethat her tale also takes place long ago and far away, there is no citation to ground her talein the historical past. She is the second worldliest character, after the knight, though hersetting is chosen for an entirely different purpose than to legitimize and protect her fromresponsibility, but rather to set the stage for her general criticism of “chivalry”.Quote: “We don’t love a man who…watches where we go, we want to be at large” (197).This emphasizes why Alison from the miller’s tale rebels so intensely to be contained,controlled and cooped up by her jealous and insecure husband. The wife of Bath’s nameis also Alison, which is no coincidence. The wife of Bath consistently emphasizes thatwomen should have their own agency and authority over their own lives, thus presentinga firm contrast and divergent perspective from the knight’s tale. The wife of Bath doesnot support the conventions of the patriarchal society in which she lives; however, sheworks this system toward her own benefit. She uses her womanly assets and plays thepatriarchal system to her advantage, ultimately gaining independence. She begins, whenyoung, poor and beautiful, to go after old, rich men in order to inherit their wealth. Thewife of Bath uses sex to gain wealth and power. She has three husbands like this, andthroughout maintains autonomy over her body and her wishes.Quote: “God bade us expressly to increase and be multiplied” (183).The wife of Bath quotes the Bible constantly in support of her position, demonstrated bythe quote above, a testament to her literacy and education. She feels sexually liberated,sees sex as a fun, healthy and good thing that should be engaged in. She has fivehusbands, welcomes the sixth (presumably a future husband) and admits to other loversas well.Quote: “I don’t want to keep myself… entirely chaste” (185).The wife of Bath gets around, and although she very freely sleeps with men she alwaysdictates the circumstances under which sex happens in her life.Independence: In addition to her accumulated wealth, the wife of Bath is andindependent businesswoman, who successfully competes in the European textile industry
(against men presumably). She is a weaver, and continues to augment her wealth in thisway. Once she has enough money, she turns it around, and she goes after and decides tomarry a young stud named Jenkins because he’s sexy and young and she’s in love. In thisway, the wife of Bath demonstrates a bit the almost mercenary nature of her character.Quote: “A wise woman will concentrate on getting that love which she does not possessfor my own profit and pleasure” (191-192).These are her motivations in life, profit and pleasure, sex and money and she encouragesthat a woman always be looking for something and someone better!Quote: “Profit whoever may, all is for sale!” (201).Though she makes this declarative statement, and means certainly that her sex is just sucha bargaining chip, she is always in charge of the transaction, whenever it should occur.Social Rank: “I don’t care how poor he (Jenkins) is or from what class” (211).The wife of Bath challenges the notion of social class completely when she marriesJenkins. This is one of the most progressive aspect of the wife of Bath and is contrary tothe knight’s perspective, where he explicitly emphasizes the importance of social rankand class status. Indeed chooses Jenkins, “for love and not money” (207).Women: The knight thinks women only have a voice when they are crying and askingthings of a noble knight, otherwise they should have no agency or autonomy overthemselves, and therefore have no voice. The wife of Bath suggests, rather, that womenshould be in charge, and explains that they want sovereignty and power over the men intheir lives, an opinion which is expressed explicitly in his tale.Confidence: The wife of Bath is in total control of her life, despite the patriarchalsociety. She is a strong woman and sticks up for herself every chance she gets. The wifeof Bath disapproves of the notion that women are the weaker sex, and is not afraid tomake her voice heard. She knows she has power, more power than any other pilgrimexcept the knight, and will not be ignored.Vanity: To the same point, she is quite vain, and spends twice as much time talkingabout herself as she does on the tale she tells. She always wants the spotlight on herself,and this is of course why her prologue is so long. The friar complains “this is a longpreamble to a tale!” (221), but that doesn’t slow down the wife of Bath; she keeps ontalking. She will NOT be silenced, in the prologue she explains that in church she is theFIRST to give a donation, just so every eye can fall upon her. She is so vain, that ifsomeone else donated before her, she gets petty and refuses to donate that week. Thisreveals that she only donates so that people can admire her and thus she is not reallycharitable for the right reasons. The wife of Bath is extremely self-centered and needs tobe, or at least wants to be, the center of attention at all times.
Quote: “To him (Jenkins) I gave lands and property, but afterward I repented this sorely”(211).There is a hiccup in her life plan; however, when she marries Jenkins. Eventually, thetwo get in a fight, and Jenkins knocks out the wife of Bath. He promises he will doanything as long as she is all right, and then she awakens and tells him that what shewould like is her lands, wealth, and power back. When he consents, they never fightagain, “I had got for myself, through superiority, all the sovereignty…and after that daywe never argued” (219), and this is ultimately the point of her tale.Setting: She sets the tale in the age of King Arthur, the king renown for his chivalricvirtue, and uses this context as the backdrop for her critique of the so-called honorable,knightly code.Chivalry: The very first knight we meet is terribly dishonorable. He is a classist, arapist, cruel and ignorant, even insulting the old woman who saves him. The wife issuggesting that the code of chivalry may sound good, but knights (and perhaps moreimportantly men) do no live up to these standards. This knight initially rapes a youngmaid, then insults the old woman who saves him, then breaks his vow. All of theseactions would be considered dishonorable behavior for a knight. The wife of Bath wantsto expose the shortcomings of the knights, while attempting to amplify and improve theperspective and position of women.Quote: “women desire to have dominion over their husbands as well as their lovers, andto be above them in mastery” (229).The queen forces this knight to find the answer as to “what women want” he searcheshigh and low, but men don’t know and women won’t tell him. Finally an old witchwoman gives him this answer, which he brings to the queen. It is the correct answer, andso she spares his life; however, the knight made a promise to the old witch woman that hewould do anything she asked if he kept his life.Plot: The old woman then asks for the knight’s hand in marriage as repayment. Theknight laments; expresses that he won’t do this thing because she is so old, ugly and oflow birth. In this statement he both insults the old woman who saved him and breaks hisoath. The old woman then offers him a choice… either to take her old, ugly and faithful,or she will transform herself into a beautiful young maid, but she will sleep around andbe terribly unfaithful. The knight is at a loss and doesn’t know what to do. In the end helets the old woman decide, telling her to do whatever she felt would be best. This is theRIGHT answer, and proves the knight has learned his lesson and a great deal aboutwomen. The witch woman rewards the knight by transforming into a beautiful maidAND being faithful to him.Quote: “find who is always most virtuous, privately and publically, and who always trieshardest to do what noble deeds he can, and consider him the greatest nobleman” (233).
Nobility: At the end of the tale, the wife of Bath goes on at length about nobility andwhat exactly it means to be noble from her perspective. She challenges the pilgrimknight, saying that nobility derives from personal characters and honorable behavior (i.e.anyone can be noble if they treat others with respect); in the end she expresses thatnobility comes from recognition of the divine in others and acting in accordance with thisunderstanding. She opposes the knights perspective and denounces that n0obility comesfrom ancient wealth, bloodlines or heredity and claims one’s station in life comes fromtheir noble behavior and living like Christ himself (233-235): • “Christ wants us to claim our nobility from him, not from our ancestors because of their ancient wealth” (233). • “Nobility not tied to possessions” (235). • “Nobility…was in no way bequeathed to us with our station in life” (235).