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THE TALES: SUMMARIES AND NOTES
The Wife of Bath’s Tale
The Wife of Bath’s Tale continues the theme of sovereignty of women that she had dealt with in her Prologue. It also focuses on the issue of what constitutes a proper marital relationship. The tale is thus rich in meaning. The source of the tale can be traced to Jean de Meun’s "Roman de la Rose".
The protagonist of the tale is a Knight who has raped an innocent country girl. As punishment for his heinous crime he has to find out the answer to the question: what women desire the most. The Knight roams the entire country in search of the answer in vain. Suddenly he meets an old hag who gives him the answer: women most enjoy dominating their husbands. The Knight wins his pardon by giving the right answer in court. The old hag claims her share since she has told the Knight the correct answer and forces him to marry her. The old hag then presents him with the choice of having her old, ugly and faithful or beautiful and disloyal. The Knight allows the hag to make the choice herself. She is delighted to have won ‘maistrie’ and rewards the Knight by being both beautiful and faithful all the time. The Wife of Bath’s Tale is thus an appeal for the liberation of women. In the medieval age women were supposed to be subservient and expected to love, honor and obey their husbands. The Wife of Bath’s assertion that women should have ‘maistrie’ in marriage amounts to an apostasy.
Chaucer has portrayed a real woman in the Wife of Bath. She is not free from faults. Chaucer satirizes the frailties of women through her character. While she is a sinner, she does not earn our reprimand. She has had numerous affairs in her youth. She has flirted with Jankin while still married to her fourth husband. At her fourth husband’s funeral, she was less filled with grief and more occupied in taking notice of Jankin’s fine legs and resolving to marry him despite the vast gap in their ages. She is guilty of adultery but frankly acknowledges it. Chaucer does not pass any judgements on her and even asks the reader to have sympathy for her. Whether Chaucer sympathizes with her opinion on marriage and celibacy is not clear. But one thing is apparent that he did not agree with the existing ideas of celibacy of his times.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale is an exemplum, which is a story told to illustrate a strongly held opinion. It presses home the point that women most desire sovereignty in marriage.
The Tale may also be read as a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which an old crone gets transformed into a beautiful lady, acquires a handsome Knight for a husband and leads a happy life. It has all the ingredients of a fairy tale. Some critics suggest that the old hag wasn’t literally transformed into a beauty but only acquired beauty of character.