The Wife of Bath's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Theme & Analysis

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Virginia has a Master's degree in Curriculum and Development and a Ph.D. in English

'The Canterbury Tales' is a classic of English literature, written by Geoffrey Chaucer over six hundred years ago. One of the most familiar and best loved tales is that of the Wife of Bath, discussed in this lesson.

Collection of Tales

Chaucer's story features a company of travelers entertaining each other with individual tales as they make a religious pilgrimage to Canterbury. Before the tales begin, there is a General Prologue describing in some detail the members of the company. It is worth noting that Chaucer assigns each character a typical role or status in the society of the day, which was just beginning to include a merchant, working class. You will notice, too, that the personality and status of the teller is generally reflected in the type of tale he or she tells.

The Wife of Bath

The Wife of Bath is perhaps one of the most familiar characters in the company of travelers. She is actually not a wife at the time, but admits readily to having had five husbands and being ready for number six to come along. Alisoun, her given name, is described as assertive, out-spoken, and rather bawdy. She is Chaucer's contribution to the tradition of fallen women, who have a lust for life that is just a bit outside of propriety. Although she is described as an older woman, her tale reflects her continued interest in things romantic.

The Wife's Prologue is exceptional in the work as a whole, as the prologue is longer than the tale itself. Alisoun seems compelled to give plenty of background information about her life and her experience with men before telling her tale. Contrary to the teachings of the Church at the time, for her, sex is for both conception and pleasure. She decries the notion that virginity is better than marriage using simple common sense: ''And surely if no seed were ever sown, / From where then would virginity be grown?''

The Wife of Bath's Tale

The tale itself is set in King Arthur's Court, giving it the air of a fairy tale or legend. We begin with a young knight, who cannot keep himself from raping a beautiful young maiden. The King allows the Queen to decide what will be done with the young knight. She sends him out into the world for one year to find out what women desire most.

The Knight Sets Out
The Young Offender

He travels all over the country and finds many answers: wealth, loyalty, motherhood - but none of these seems quite right. Nevertheless, his year is up and he returns to the court. As he approaches, he sees a group of beautiful maidens seated on the lawn, but when he gets closer, they are all gone. The young knight is left with only an old hag, who promises to give him the one answer he seeks if he will grant her what she desires.

The Old Woman Promises to Help the Knight
old woman

He agrees, and she tells him that what women most desire is to control their husbands, to have sovereignty. As it turns out, this is the correct answer, and the young man is compelled to marry the ugly old woman.

That night in bed, he tries every excuse to leave her untouched: his noble birth, his youth and handsome face, his humiliation at everyone in court knowing about his loathsome wife. The old woman shames him by reminding him that nobleness does not come from birth, but from good deeds and the grace of God. He kisses her, only to find that she is now young and fair, as well as loyal and good-hearted.

The Old Woman Transformed
The Woman Transformed

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