22 October, 2002

Understanding "The Wife of Bath's Tale"

The following is an assigned essay which was completed for a grade. Unfortunately, some formatting has been lost in the transition to LJ.

Author: Eric J. Herboso (EricJHerboso@yahoo.com)
Class: ENG 121.02 (Composition I), for Dr. Schaub
Assignment: Paper 3; Evolution Of Midterm Exam Essay

Chaucer didn’t like ‘ordinary’ stories. In his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, he emulated nearly every style of writing from nearly every perspective, yet somehow he made every one more than what it at first would seem. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is no exception. The tale seems decidedly short, since the prologue to the tale is longer than the tale itself. But this shortness by no means reduces the depth of thought in the tale; indeed, it seems as though every line has some hidden meaning or connection if taken in context with the whole of the book. Perhaps the most striking example of this is not fully in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” but also in its comparison and contrast with the “General Prologue” of The Canterbury Tales.

In that “General Prologue,” the Wife of Bath is described as hardy and stubborn, as well as egotistical and well traveled. But most importantly, she “knew of the remedies of love, … / for she knew that art’s old dance” [ll. 477-8, “General Prologue”]. This particular aspect of the Wife of Bath is a recurring theme in the text. For example, in the prologue to “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” one can easily notice that she has had dominion over all her husbands in some way or another, and as her life progressed, she reveled in more and more power in her relationships. In this context, this is an example of knowing well ‘that art’s old dance’; by knowing and understanding the situation of love, she has twisted it to her best advantage.

But when she finally gets to the actual tale, her ending reflects not mastery over love, but the triumph of sharing love equally. Obviously, this is her ideal, since it is her story, and the entirety of the story was based around the main character trying to figure out what it is that women most want. (We know that she believes in this ideal specifically because the rules of the game set up in the “General Prologue” indicate that each story told must contain an intended moral [l. 800, “General Prologue”].) So why hasn’t she practiced what she preached? Why didn’t she even attempt that ideal with any of her numerous past husbands?

The answer can be found in the “General Prologue.” (Note the intertextuality here; this theme is repeated throughout The Canterbury Tales.) The Wife of Bath is not dumb. She knows what she is doing, and she has done a lot in her life. But she is full of herself. She thinks herself better than every husband she’s had; she believes herself to be too good for them. Even at church, she is too proud to be seen as less than the best. “In all the parish there was no wife / entitled to make her offering before her, / and if one did, certainly she was so angry / that she was out of all charity” [ll. 451-4, “General Prologue”]. She even went so far as to outdress her peers, though Chaucer likely exaggerates when he says, “I dare say that [her kerchiefs] that were on her head of / a Sunday must have weighed ten pounds” [ll. 456-7, “General Prologue”]. This rivalry, though solely with other women, is evidence of her extreme ostentation.

It is for this reason that she does not practice love in the same way she teaches her ideal. In order for her to be willing to ‘share the love’ as the ending of her tale remarks, she must first be in a marriage with a person that she feels grateful for being with. If she does not view her mate as better than herself, then her pride will not let her ‘share the love.’ Furthermore, this view is so chronic within her thinking that she exclaims in the prologue to “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” “I’ll have a husband – I won’t make it difficult -- / who shall be both my debtor and my slave, / and have his trouble / in the flesh while I’m his wife. / All through my life I have the power / over his own body, and not he” [ll. 153-8, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”]. She even admits to her use of past husbands; “of the tribulation of marriage, / … / … I myself have been the whip…” [ll. 173-5, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”]. Yet her own ideas on love glorify two individuals sacrificing themselves for the other. Notice that in her most recent marriage to Jankin, she learned this ideal first hand, since Jankin used her in the same way she had used her past husbands. Fortunately, it all worked out in the end, though not in what she considers the ideal; “I was as kind to him / as any wife from Denmark to India, / and as true, and so was he to me” [ll. 823-5, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”].

What is most interesting here is the fact that these observations would not be possible without looking at the intertextual references. How the Wife of Bath feels and acts and why she feels and acts as such is depicted in The Canterbury Tales, but not in any one single place. Rather, one must read each part not in solidarity, but in the context of the whole work, if one wishes to see the hidden meanings and connections throughout the whole book.

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