Chaucer's Representation Of Wife’s Personality In The Wife Of Bath

Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the world’s most renowned authors given his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales. This poem is a frame narrative, a story within a story. The outer frame of the praised classic is the pilgrimage of thirty unique pilgrims to Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury. A wide range of fourteenth-century England is represented throughout the tale, excluding only royalty and serfs. Within this motley group is Chaucer the Pilgrim, who is Geoffrey Chaucer’s voice in the Tales and the source of the witty satire that oozes from the poem. The pilgrims meet and depart from the Tabard Inn in Southwark, outside London, owned by the Host and proposer, as well as the judge, of the tale-telling contest, Harry Bailly. Bailly presents a contest that challenges each pilgrim to tell the most entertaining and most moral tale while on the pilgrimage. These tales become the inner frame of the poem. The Host suggests this scheme to prevent boredom along the painfully long journey, and each pilgrim is to tell two tales in each direction. Geoffrey Chaucer intended to write 120 tales but penned only twenty-four before he passed away, two of which are left as fragments. The prize for the winning pilgrim is dinner courtesy of the “losers” at the journey’s end at the Tabard Inn. The Wife of Bath is a very influential literary character, for whom Chaucer crafts a tale that parallels her unique and unforgettable personality. Chaucer uses his uncanny ability to match tale to teller through the Wife of Bath.

The Wife of Bath is one of the most unique characters in literature because of Chaucer’s vivid description of her. He depicts her as bold, “handsome, and red in hue”. The Wife of Bath possesses several desirable traits in a lover, including gap teeth and wide-set hips. Further, she is also partially deaf in one ear. For most of her life, the Wife of Bath has relied on her looks, but unfortunately this time in her life may be coming to a close as her looks begin to fade. She is attention-seeking, confident, sensual, and sociable. These traits are not always positively perceived but can “be seen as survival skills from a woman alone in a world controlled and dominated by men” (Slover 244). The Wife of Bath is dressed in the finest garb with a large hat and new shoes; “Her hose were of the finest scarlet red”. She encompasses all of the bold symbols associated with the color red. During this time period, widows were believed to “wear modest attire in a somber hue. A wimple should cover her forehead, a short, straight veil in her hair. The lines of her dress should be simple”. The Wife of Bath dresses the opposite of the normal guidelines for the dress of a widow, further emphasizing her boldness and non-conformity.

During the fourteenth century in England, women were given little freedom and rights. An ideal woman at this time was one who was quiet, faithful, and submissive in a relationship. Women were always expected to listen to their male superiors and were normally confined to the compounds of the kitchen. Further, wives were also solely responsible for maintaining households. Men always kept a close watch on their wives; however, “within their ‘sphere of wifely duties, considerable autonomy existed’”; occasionally, women were given more freedom in the workforce and even took over their husbands’ shops when they died. Additionally, women were expected to bear children. Being a children bearer was of utmost importance because each family needed a surviving heir to inherit. Further, this role was increasingly important since “populations and whole families were decimated by various plagues, estimated at killing from one-third to one-half (Bishop 309) of the population of Europe”.

The Wife of Bath is unlike most women of the time and does not fit this mold perfectly. She will never bow herself at the feet of one of her husbands. After being widowed, most women at the time did not remarry, and many wives’ worst fear was being left to fend for themselves (247), but the Wife of Bath has married five times. She does not have any children since they “would have complicated her desire to remarry, reducing the amount of money she would bring to a marriage because of the portion that would go to her children's inheritance” (Rossignol 1). The synopsis given about the Wife of Bath in the General Prologue aids the reader in understanding her full essence, which is revealed in her Prologue and her Tale.

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue is considered by several critics to be an autobiography of her own life, composed “of sermon and confession” (Sauer 127). She tells her own life story surrounding her five different marriages and her logic behind them. The Wife mentions her first four husbands briefly, but goes into great detail in regard to her last. She tells the others on the pilgrimage that Jankyn, the only lover to whom she gives a name, is her favorite. The Wife of Bath flouts many moral standards for this unsubmissive man, even signing away her money and property as well as her authority. She is accustomed to possessing the power in the majority of her relationships, often by denying her husbands sex; however, she and Jankyn were in a constant battle for power that can to a head in a physical fight initiated by the Wife of Bath. Jankyn unknowingly is tricked into signing back her power after he thinks he has killed her. When she finally regains the power, she “was as kind to him / As any wife from Denmark to the rim / Of India, and as true”. By regaining her money, the Wife of Bath also inherits what is most important to her: power. The Prologue is concluded by the Wife emphasizing that the ideal marital relationship occurs when the wife is dominant. She clearly desires “the kind of authority that in her culture is traditionally only given to men”.

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue is longer than her own Tale, but the length is justified through her extensive knowledge that she desires to share with those on the pilgrimage. In order for all the pilgrims to achieve a thorough understanding of her character, she delves into all five of her marriages as well as her moral code that allows her to marry rightfully multiple times. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue is greatly connected to her developed character. Though she may be only a “middle-class weaver, she clearly holds her own in an argument” and therefore, would be expected to substantiate her arguments using sound evidence, including biblical references. She argues that her instrument was intended by God, her Maker, to be used.

Throughout her Prologue, the Wife of Bath causes a lot of reactions from other pilgrims in regard to her beliefs and the extent of information she feels inclined to share. First, the Pardoner interrupts, saying he was going to marry but now has doubts after hearing the Wife’s hardships. The Wife of Bath urges the Pardoner to wait to make that decision until she finishes her story. Further, the Summoner and the Friar bicker so much because of the extreme length of her Prologue that the Host needs to settle down the two. The Wife of Bath continues to express and emphasize her independence and confidence through her well-crafted Tale.

The Wife of Bath’s Tale is a Breton Lai, a story set in the Brittany region of France that is often Celtic in origin, including elements of magic, fairies, folklore, and courtly love. Throughout the Tale, Chaucer is able to incorporate many prominent themes of his time such as rape, marriage, and power, into a progressive story that challenges the norms of fourteenth century England while simultaneously entertaining his reader. Chaucer knows that women want equality, “so it is fitting that the tale the Wife tells begins with a rape, woman’s ultimate loss of control, and ends with a complete reversal, a female-dominant marriage” (Hallissy 124). This Tale can be read as the Wife of Bath’s “attempt to correct through speech the distortions and omissions in written language about women”. She tells a story that follows the relationship of a convicted knight and a loathly hag with appearances from a young, raped maiden and the queen. All of these women in her Tale “allow the reader to see how women struggle to obtain and retain mastery over the men they are involved with”. Many husbands in Chaucer’s time were blind to women’s desire for power, but with assistance from an old wife, the knight realizes “A woman wants the self-same sovereignty / Over her husband over her lover, / And master him; he must not be above her”. Before he realizes equal power in a relationship is beneficial, the knight is openly unhappy with the marriage “wallowing back and forth in desperate style”. After the couple’s metamorphosis, the knight and the old hag go on to in “perfect bliss”. The Wife of Bath’s main goal in telling her story is explaining “her desire to dominate the male” and that despite popular opinion, “female dominance brings happiness to marriage”. She wants to emphasize that when women are actually given a chance to voice their opinion, all are able to benefit and learn in a relationship.

Several critics voice that the Wife of Bath’s personality is carefully interwoven into her Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer. An overwhelming number of parallels can be seen between the Wife and the hag that the Wife describes. The Wife of Bath is a very independent who soughts power in her relationships. Contrarily, she admits liking her last husband the best, but he was the one who treated her the worst. The hag that the Wife creates in the Tale acts similarly because she “desires a man who is a proven rapist”. Additionally, the Wife of Bath uses her tale almost a world where she is able to govern her own rules. The hag is able to regain all of her beauty, which is the Wife’s greatest wish in life, and her discouragement is seen through her “characterization of the old wife in her tale”. By the time of the pilgrimage, the Wife has lost some of her flair and attractiveness. When telling her story, she is able to give the old hag the argument that old age should be respected. The Wife of Bath is incorporating this argument to try to convince herself “age is a virtue, not a defect”. The Tale that Chaucer crafts for the Wife of Bath is extremely appropriate for her as it heightens her well-developed thesis. Many critics and scholars agree that the Shipman’s Tale was originally the Wife’s but Chaucer wrote specifically for her to emulate her feminist ideals and beliefs. Both the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale are carefully crafted to perfection by Chaucer and seamlessly fit her unique character.

Overall, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is one of the most highly praised works in history. The masterpiece documents the tale-telling contest during thirty unique pilgrims on their pilgrimage to Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury. Among this motley group is the Wife of Bath, a distinctly individualized character in the poem. Geoffrey Chaucer ultimately is able to create a tale and prologue perfectly suited for the Wife’s personality. 

16 August 2021
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