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Essay About The Wife Of Baths Tale

Essay About The Wife Of Baths Tale

















































The Canterbury Tales

Fragment 3, lines 857–1264


In the days of King Arthur, the Wife of Bath begins, the isle of Britain was full of fairies and elves. Now, those creatures are gone because their spots have been taken by the friars and other mendicants that seem to fill every nook and cranny of the isle. And though the friars rape women, just as the incubi did in the days of the fairies, the friars only cause women dishonor—the incubi always got them pregnant.

In Arthur’s court, however, a young, lusty knight comes across a beautiful young maiden one day. Overcome by lust and his sense of his own power, he rapes her. The court is scandalized by the crime and decrees that the knight should be put to death by decapitation. However, Arthur’s queen and other ladies of the court intercede on his behalf and ask the king to give him one chance to save his own life. Arthur, wisely obedient to wifely counsel, grants their request. The queen presents the knight with the following challenge: if, within one year, he can discover what women want most in the world and report his findings back to the court, he will keep his life. If he cannot find the answer to the queen’s question, or if his answer is wrong, he will lose his head.

The knight sets forth in sorrow. He roams throughout the country, posing the question to every woman he meets. To the knight’s dismay, nearly every one of them answers differently. Some claim that women love money best, some honor, some jolliness, some looks, some sex, some remarriage, some flattery, and some say that women most want to be free to do as they wish. Finally, says the Wife, some say that women most want to be considered discreet and secretive, although she argues that such an answer is clearly untrue, since no woman can keep a secret. As proof, she retells Ovid’s story of Midas. Midas had two ass’s ears growing under his hair, which he concealed from everybody except his wife, whom he begged not to disclose his secret. She swore she would not, but the secret burned so much inside her that she ran down to a marsh and whispered her husband’s secret to the water. The Wife then says that if her listeners would like to hear how the tale ends, they should read Ovid.

She returns to her story of the knight. When his day of judgment draws near, the knight sorrowfully heads for home. As he rides near a forest, he sees a large group of women dancing and decides to approach them to ask his question. But as he approaches, the group vanishes, and all he can see is an ugly old woman. The woman asks if she can be of help, and the knight explains his predicament and promises to reward her if she can help him. The woman tells the knight that he must pledge himself to her in return for her help, and the knight, having no options left, gladly consents. She then guarantees that his life will be saved.

The knight and the old woman travel together to the court, where, in front of a large audience, the knight tells the queen the answer with which the old woman supplied him: what women most desire is to be in charge of their husbands and lovers. The women agree resoundingly that this is the answer, and the queen spares the knight’s life. The old hag comes forth and publicly asks the knight to marry her. The knight cries out in horror. He begs her to take his material possessions rather than his body, but she refuses to yield, and in the end he is forced to consent. The two are married in a small, private wedding and go to bed together the same night. Throughout the entire ordeal, the knight remains miserable.

While in bed, the loathsome hag asks the knight why he is so sad. He replies that he could hardly bear the shame of having such an ugly, lowborn wife. She does not take offense at the insult, but calmly asks him whether real “gentillesse,” or noble character, can be hereditary (1109). There have been sons of noble fathers, she argues, who were shameful and villainous, though they shared the same blood. Her family may be poor, but real poverty lies in covetousness, and real riches lie in having little and wanting nothing. She offers the knight a choice: either he can have her be ugly but loyal and good, or he can have her young and fair but also coquettish and unfaithful. The knight ponders in silence. Finally, he replies that he would rather trust her judgment, and he asks her to choose whatever she thinks best. Because the knight’s answer gave the woman what she most desired, the authority to choose for herself, she becomes both beautiful and good. The two have a long, happy marriage, and the woman becomes completely obedient to her husband. The Wife of Bath concludes with a plea that Jesus Christ send all women husbands who are young, meek, and fresh in bed, and the grace to outlive their husbands.

The Canterbury Tales

From the beginning through the Wife of Bath’s description of her first three husbands Fragment 3, lines 1–451


The Wife of Bath begins the Prologue to her tale by establishing herself as an authority on marriage, due to her extensive personal experience with the institution. Since her first marriage at the tender age of twelve, she has had five husbands. She says that many people have criticized her for her numerous marriages, most of them on the basis that Christ went only once to a wedding, at Cana in Galilee. The Wife of Bath has her own views of Scripture and God’s plan. She says that men can only guess and interpret what Jesus meant when he told a Samaritan woman that her fifth husband was not her husband. With or without this bit of Scripture, no man has ever been able to give her an exact reply when she asks to know how many husbands a woman may have in her lifetime. God bade us to wax fruitful and multiply, she says, and that is the text that she wholeheartedly endorses. After all, great Old Testament figures, like Abraham, Jacob, and Solomon, enjoyed multiple wives at once. She admits that many great Fathers of the Church have proclaimed the importance of virginity, such as the Apostle Paul. But, she reasons, even if virginity is important, someone must be procreating so that virgins can be created. Leave virginity to the perfect, she says, and let the rest of us use our gifts as best we may—and her gift, doubtless, is her sexual power. She uses this power as an “instrument” to control her husbands.

At this point, the Pardoner interrupts. He is planning to marry soon and worries that his wife will control his body, as the Wife of Bath describes. The Wife of Bath tells him to have patience and to listen to the whole tale to see if it reveals the truth about marriage. Of her five husbands, three have been “good” and two have been “bad.” The first three were good, she admits, mostly because they were rich, old, and submissive. She laughs to recall the torments that she put these men through and recounts a typical conversation that she had with her older husbands. She would accuse her -husband of having an affair, launching into a tirade in which she would charge him with a bewildering array of accusations. If one of her husbands got drunk, she would claim he said that every wife is out to destroy her husband. He would then feel guilty and give her what she wanted. All of this, the Wife of Bath tells the rest of the pilgrims, was a pack of lies—her husbands never held these opinions, but she made these claims to give them grief. Worse, she would tease her husbands in bed, refusing to give them full satisfaction until they promised her money. She admits proudly to using her verbal and sexual power to bring her husbands to total submission.


In her lengthy Prologue, the Wife of Bath recites her autobiography, announcing in her very first word that “experience” will be her guide. Yet, despite her claim that experience is her sole authority, the Wife of Bath apparently feels the need to establish her authority in a more scholarly way. She imitates the ways of churchmen and scholars by backing up her claims with quotations from Scripture and works of antiquity. The Wife carelessly flings around references as textual evidence to buttress her argument, most of which don’t really correspond to her points. Her reference to Ptolemy’s Almageste, for instance, is completely erroneous—the phrase she attributes to that book appears nowhere in the work. Although her many errors display her lack of real scholarship, they also convey Chaucer’s mockery of the churchmen present, who often misused Scripture to justify their devious actions.

The text of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue is based in the medieval genre of allegorical “confession.” In a morality play, a personified vice such as Gluttony or Lust “confesses” his or her sins to the audience in a life story. The Wife is exactly what the medieval Church saw as a “wicked woman,” and she is proud of it—from the very beginning, her speech has undertones of conflict with her patriarchal society. Because the statements that the Wife of Bath attributes to her husbands were taken from a number of satires published in Chaucer’s time, which half-comically portrayed women as unfaithful, superficial, evil creatures, always out to undermine their husbands, feminist critics have often tried to portray the Wife as one of the first feminist characters in literature.

This interpretation is weakened by the fact that the Wife of Bath herself conforms to a number of these misogynist and misogamist (antimarriage) stereotypes. For example, she describes herself as sexually voracious but at the same time as someone who only has sex to get money, thereby combining two contradictory stereotypes. She also describes how she dominated her husband, playing on a fear that was common to men, as the Pardoner’s nervous interjection reveals. Despite their contradictions, all of these ideas about women were used by men to support a hierarchy in which men dominated women.

The Canterbury Tales Essay Questions

The Prioress wears "a brooch of gold ful sheene / On which ther was first write a crowned A, / And after Amor vincit omnia" (General Prologue, l.159-162). Might "Love Conquers All" be the moral of the Tales?

This question asks you to consider the Tales as a whole work, and to trace the theme of love conquering all throughout the work. Remember that with a question like this, it is just as possible to disagree as to agree: just make sure you justify your answer with examples from the text.

Useful tales to look at might include The Miller's Tale, The Merchant's Tale, The Prioress' Tale, The Manciple's Tale, The Wife of Bath's Tale .

Choose one word (and its variants), and use it as a key to the interpretation of any one Tale.

This question asks you to follow the fortunes of a single word through any tale, and structure your argument around the repeated uses of this single word. You should start by highlighting all the moments in the tale that the single word appears, and talk about how its meaning changes or deepens as the tale progresses.

Useful tales to look at might include The Miller's Tale (suggested word: "pryvetee"), The Wife of Bath's Tale (suggested word: "clooth"), The Franklin's Tale (suggested word: "trouthe"), The Shipman's Tale (suggested word: "tail") or The Merchant's Tale (suggested word: "corage").

What do women most desire in the Tales?

This question asks you to look at the characterization and presentation of the female characters in the Tales (which could include characters within tales as well as female pilgrims). Remember to begin by examining the Tale from which the question comes.

Useful tales to look at might include: The Wife of Bath's Tale, The Miller's Tale, The Merchant's Tale, The Shipman's Tale, Melibee .

"The Wife of Bath is Chaucer's most completely drawn character." Do you agree?

This question asks you to compare the characterization of the Wife of Bath to any of the other characterizations in the Tales. Do you think the Wife is completely drawn? If so, why? If not, why not — and which character is better fleshed out?

Useful tales to look at must include The Wife of Bath's Tale .

"Men in the Tales are largely depicted as idiots, blindly and foolishy adhering to outdated, impractical codes of chivalry and honour." Do you agree?

This question asks you to consider the presentation of men in the Tales. Look at examples which support the quotation's argument, but also remember that Chaucer includes a variety of presentations — and that there is certainly justification in the text for taking the opposing view to the quotation.

Useful tales to look at might include The Knight's Tale, The Merchant's Tale, The Physician's Tale, Sir Thopas, The Franklin's Tale .

"Chaucer writes the Tales in pairs". Do you agree?

This question asks you to consider the structure of the Tales, and consider whether each Tale has a pair. It would be a good idea to examine some tales which do fall naturally into pairs, but also to consider some that do not — or perhaps, even fall into threes.

Useful tales to look at might include The Miller's Tale with The Knight's Tale or The Reeve's Tale. The Friar's Tale with The Summoner's Tale. The Shipman's Tale with The Wife of Bath's Tale and The Manciple's Tale with The Nun's Priest's Tale .

"It is no wonder that Chaucer retracts the Tales at the end of the work. They are quite simply blasphemous." Can we read the Tales as a religious work?

This question asks you to consider the theme of religion in the Tales. It is a difficult subject to precisely consider, and would be helped by some knowledge of the religious context of the later 1300s when Chaucer was writing. Don't forget to define "blasphemy".

Useful tales to look at might include: The Miller's Tale, The Wife of Bath's Tale, The Summoner's Tale, The Prioress' Tale, The Second Nun's Tale, The Parson's Tale .

"Women in Chaucer are idealized objects of desire." Write an essay about the presentation of women in the Tales.

This question asks you to consider the presentation of women across the Tales as a whole. Remember to include contradictory facets: there is nothing to say that Chaucer's writings are consistent from tale to tale. It might be best to choose two entirely contradictory examples (say, Cecilia in the Second Nun's Tale, and the Wife of Bath) and try and find some points of similarity.

Useful tales to look at might include The Wife of Bath's Tale, The Prioress' Tale, The Miller's Tale, The Reeve's Tale .

At what point does a joke become cruel? Write an essay about one Tale of your choice.

This question asks you to look at the comedy of the Tales and to decide whether you find it funny or cruel (or a combination of the two). Consider whether physical harm is funny, whether cruelty and comedy depend on events depicted or on presentation, and on how dissimilar tales are which you find very funny, and very cruel.

Useful tales to look at might include The Miller's Tale, The Reeve's Tale, The Summoner's Tale, The Manciple's Tale, The Physician's Tale, The Wife of Bath's Tale and The Merchant's Tale .

"Chaucer, though he features himself in the Tales, is adept at vanishing completely." Write an essay about the persona(e) of Chaucer.

This question asks you to focus on what you learn about Chaucer himself: remember that there are two Chaucers, one a character, one the author.

Useful tales to look at might include Sir Thopas, Melibee, The Man of Law's Tale, The General Prologue, the Retraction .

"What nedeth wordes mo?" Is language worthless in the Canterbury Tales? .

This question asks you to write an essay about language in the Tales, and analyse whether or not you think it is presented as having value, as being worthless, or — more likely — that it is some combination of the two.

Useful tales to look at might include The Reeve's Tale, The Manciple's Tale, The Nun's Priest's Tale, The Knight's Tale, Chaucer's Retraction .

How To Cite http://www.gradesaver.com/the-canterbury-tales/study-guide/essay-questions in MLA Format

William, Robert. Chainani, Soman ed. «The Canterbury Tales Essay Questions». GradeSaver, 30 November 2008 Web. Cite this page

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