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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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MAJOR CHARACTERS

DAME ALICE, the Wife herself, is her own main character. She gives us a vivid picture of herself. Obviously she loves to talk and pauses only when she's lost her place in her long ramble. She tells us (lines 609-616) that she was born when Venus and Mars were in conjunction with Taurus. According to this horoscope, Venus would make her beautiful, but Mars would make her heavy. The sweet voice bestowed by Venus becomes loud and raucous thanks to Mars' planetary influence. All in all, the planets make her charming, joyous, and boisterous.

Some readers say Dame Alice is totally lifelike, others say she is larger than life. Some say she loves men, as they are obviously her life-long passion, while others contend she is carrying on a life-long war against them. You decide. Is she at fault for wanting dominion over her husbands? (Your answer should depend on what you see in the character, not on whether you're male or female.) Notice that she not only puts men down, she also satirizes women, pointing out that they can't keep their mouths shut and that she's right up there with the worst of them.

Another question is how she feels about the life she's lived. When she stops to think of her vanished youth, you can see it as a real sadness over lost time, or as a shrug of her shoulders and a joyous desire to get on with the rest of her life. Either way, Chaucer doesn't praise or blame her, but lets her look forward to her sixth husband, whoever he may be.


The KNIGHT in the tale is not well defined, because he's more of a receptacle for Dame Alice's teachings than a man in his own right. Because he rapes a woman (a virgin, at that) he's sentenced to death; but we don't hear a peep from him. In fact, the only time we see any emotion on his part is when he's upset: at discovering he has an impossible task to perform, at hearing that he has to marry the old hag, at having to sleep with her. The only time he is genuinely happy, in fact, is when the wife has total control over him (and has become young and faithful). This is the point Dame Alice wants to convey.

The OLD WOMAN in the tale doesn't have a name, but she packs a powerful moral punch. When the knight complains in bed about having to sleep with a wife who is old, poor, and ugly, she delivers a strong and well- reasoned sermon about the nobility that comes from God, not from a bloodline. Finally she shows she will win his love by becoming both beautiful and faithful. Her intelligence and reasoned responses are as articulate as those of the Wife herself.

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