Author logo The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale - study guide

Chaucer's life and work
The Canterbury Tales
Studying the Prologue and Tale
The portrait of the Wife
The Wife of Bath's Prologue
The Wife of Bath's Tale
Preparing for Exams
Relationship of prologue and tale
Truth and fiction
The argument of the Prologue
The argument of the Tale
The propriety of the Tale
The Wife of Bath
Marriage in Prologue and Tale
Chaucer's narrative technique
Specimen exam questions
Traditional essay questions
Open-book questions

Introduction

The Wife of Bath - click to see full-size image

I have written this guide for students taking GCE Advanced level courses (a British examination), but it is suitable for university students and the general reader who is interested in Geoffrey Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales. Please use the hyperlinks in the table above to navigate this page.

If you have any comments or suggestions to make about this page, please contact me by clicking on this link.

Chaucer's life and work

Geoffrey Chaucer was born about 1340 (in the reign of Edward III). He died on October 25, 1400, in the year after the accession of Henry IV and the death of Richard II, whose reign, starting in 1377, thus falls entirely in the poet's life. The son of a prosperous wine-merchant, Chaucer entered the household of Prince Lionel (later Duke of Clarence) in 1357, beginning a very successful career as a courtier (a kind of civil servant and diplomat). He was page, among others, to John of Gaunt and briefly saw military service.

Captured in 1360 on an expedition in the Ardennes, Chaucer was promptly ransomed, partly by the king, a measure of his value to the state. Chaucer rose to high office, becoming a Justice of the Peace for Kent and, in 1386, a Knight of the Shire. In this year his career was interrupted by John of Gaunt's absence in Spain, but on Gaunt's return in 1389, Chaucer again was promoted to high office. Chaucer lived through the plague known as the Black Death, the Peasants' Revolt (1381, a protest against the original Poll Tax) and the deposition of Richard II. In spite of the turbulence of the times, as shown (retrospectively) in Shakespeare's history plays, Chaucer seems to have enjoyed success and favour throughout his career. He was the first poet to be buried in what is now known as Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.

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Although much excellent literature was written in English before the Norman Conquest, the form of the language (Old English, sometimes known as Anglo-Saxon) makes it foreign to the modern reader, while the literary forms are similarly remote from us. Chaucer is the first writer of note to produce substantial works in a form of English that is recognisably the same language that we speak and write today. To many readers, Chaucer's English is still difficult to read without help, but under the surface difficulties we find much that is readily accessible to the modern student. In the estimation of most critics, Chaucer is the most important writer in English before Shakespeare, and one of the handful of English-speaking authors whose merits are not in dispute: he is known, for these reasons, as the “Father of English Literature”.

Chaucer was highly educated and read widely, in Latin, French and Italian. His reading influenced both his subjects and his methods as a writer. His work includes a number of long poetic works, starting with The Book of the Duchess and The Romance of the Rose (a part translation of an allegorical French poem). Later works are The Parliament of Fowls, The House of Fame, Troilus and Criseyde and The Legend of Good Women. As well as many short poems, Chaucer wrote a prose translation of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius.

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The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer's most celebrated work is certainly The Canterbury Tales. Begun by the 1380s, it was never completed, and modern versions of it are productions of scholars, who have attempted to make the least bad arrangement of its various completed parts. Editors know these parts as "Fragments" but they are of considerable length.

Within a very detailed narrative about a visit to Canterbury, Chaucer sets a series of stories. These "tales" are narratives, mostly in verse (Chaucer's own story of Melibee and The Parson's Tale are in prose). While the tales are coherent and skilful examples of the story-teller's art, each in its own right, Chaucer has contrived them in ways which increase our enjoyment: for example, each tale in some way reflects what we learn elsewhere about the character of the teller (in the General Prologue or in the prologues or linking narratives written for the individual tales).

Tales are grouped in ways which constitute debates on topical subjects (such as the nature of marriage) or to achieve effects of contrast: the Knight's Tale (a worthy tale, eloquently told by a speaker of the highest social class) is followed by the much shorter, bawdy Miller's Tale. We are led to think that this "low" narrative is in every way inferior to the Knight's, but the story-telling is masterly in its wit and economy: Chaucer at once shows that there is more than one way to tell your story, and that style should be appropriate to subject. Chaucer himself appears, not only as the recorder of the events on the journey and the stories he heard, but as a character in his own right. He makes judgements, frequently misleading, on the quality of the stories, and (a deft touch) telling his own first attempted tale (Sir Topaz) so boringly that he is stopped and made to try again with his tale of Melibee.

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The General Prologue to the tales, explains how Chaucer found himself, one April day, in the company of a group of pilgrims, riding from London to Canterbury, each one of whom he describes vividly for us. As they set out from their inn (The Tabard in Southwark) their "Host" (Harry Bailly, the innkeeper, acting rather as a courier or tour guide today) proposes that as they ride out and return, each pilgrim should tell two tales (four in all). On their return to London, the teller of the best story (as judged by the Host) will win a meal, paid for by all the rest. The Host invites the Knight, in view of his social standing, to begin the game. As the Knight finishes his (very long and dignified) tale, the Host invites the Monk to follow suit, but is thwarted by the drunken Miller, who insists on speaking next: from this point on any notion of choosing the tellers of the tales by (descending) social standing is forgotten. Unfortunately, though the fragments show how the tales might be grouped in a given part of the work, the overall sequence of the fragments is not known. Moreover, each teller only has a single complete tale (Chaucer has another incomplete tale), and there is nothing at the end to correspond to the General Prologue. In spite of these omissions, the work as it stands is enormously entertaining.

The standard edition of The Canterbury Tales is that in The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, edited by F.N. Robinson (Oxford University Press, 1957). The individual tales are published by Cambridge University Press. Although you should be familiar with the tales as Chaucer wrote them, you may wish to study a modern paraphrase. By far the best of these is Neville Coghill's Canterbury Tales (Penguin, 1951) a modern English verse translation. All of these books contain useful information for further study of the tales.

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Studying The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale

In Robinson's OUP edition of the tales, the Wife's is the sixth tale (of twenty-four, including two by Chaucer), while Coghill in his modern version places it fourteenth. In both, her tale (from what is known to scholars as Fragment III, containing Group D of the tales) precedes the Friar's and the Summoner's. In Robinson she follows the Cook, while in Coghill she follows the Pardoner. In both cases, her tale is the first of a group of seven (Wife, Friar, Summoner, Clerk, Merchant, Squire, Franklin) known as the "Marriage Group", as all of them deal with the subject of authority (where it lies and how it is exercised) in married life.

The Wife is unusual in that her prologue is longer than her tale and is far and away the longest prologue Chaucer gives to any storyteller (only the Pardoner comes remotely near her for length). For most tales the prologue is usually an instructive introduction to the tale; here the tale is more of a sequel to the prologue, which is of more interest to the Wife's hearers and us, the modern readers. Like the Pardoner, the Wife tells us much about herself, but her account is almost a full autobiography; it appears, again like the Pardoner's prologue, as a mixture of confession and attempted self-justification.

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The Wife speaks directly from her experience of marriage, while her tale is presented as a kind of model illustration of her theories. She has married, while young, three wealthy older husbands; her fourth husband, closer in age to herself, resisted all her attempts to dominate him. But her most bitter struggle has been with her fifth husband, though ultimately, she got the better of him. She has been widowed five times but is eager to find a new husband. Having inherited the wealth of her various husbands, she can now be more choosy, in selecting a new partner. Her account of her own life rings true at every point. In a way it is fitting that her tale should be a fabulous story set in the golden age of King Arthur.

In studying the prologue and tale, you are not required at any time to produce word-for-word translation. You should know the narrative in outline and be able to comment on detail, in terms of the Wife's views or her/Chaucer's poetic technique. In an "Open Book" exam, quotation should be brief, frequent and relevant: there is no credit for long quotation! Close knowledge and clear understanding of the text are certainly required. A series of summaries of parts of the text appears below. This is followed by some more general critical comment, and remarks about the kinds of task you will meet in an examination.

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The Portrait of the Wife (from the General Prologue)

This vivid sketch is one of the most striking in the General Prologue. We learn of the Wife's physical appearance, her dress, her way of life and her character, while Chaucer introduces hints he intends to amplify later in the narrative. Although editions of the Wife's prologue and tale will usually contain the portrait from the General Prologue, in the work as Chaucer intended it to be in its finished state, the portrait would be separated from the Wife's speaking by at least (as in Robinson's edition) five complete tales, with prologues and linking narratives. Thus details are mentioned in the portrait but left unexplained until much later. The most important such detail is the Wife's deafness (explained in line 668 of her prologue). Her "gat-tothed" appearance, then as now, is seen as an indication of sexual energy.

The Wife is not beautiful, but forceful and vivacious. Her bright clothes and elaborate head-dress ("coverchiefs") are ostentatious rather than elegant: her hat is as broad as a "bokeler" (a buckler or small shield). Her clothes are of good quality "fyn scarlet reed" and her shoes are "moiste and newe": the effect is perhaps to advertise herself and her wealth, rather than attempt uncharacteristic finesse.

Of her life we are told that (apart from "oother compaignye in youthe") she has had five husbands, a revelation of which we certainly wish to know more. This means, of course, that she has been five times widowed (no divorce for women in 14th century England). This is rather surprising, but seems less so when (in her prologue) we learn that three of the husbands were old men. Her habit of going on pilgrimages suggests a devout woman, but her real reasons for such travel are a love of adventure, and the social opportunities these trips bring. As in the present case, most pilgrims are men (and the few other women present are nuns). One of them might be the next husband for whom she is looking out! The last part of the description tells us of her social skills, especially her knowledge of "remedies of love", an "art" which she well understands.

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The Wife of Bath's Prologue

This section contains summaries and (occasionally) comment on the important details in successive sections of the prologue. It is not a full paraphrase, but a way into the text, with which it should be used.

1-8: (numbers refer to lines in the Cambridge University Press edition, ed. James Winny, 1965; revised 1994): The Wife states that, apart from the authority of the Bible, her experience (of five husbands) qualifies her to speak of the "wo that is in mariage". This is to be the theme of what she has to say.

19-104: The Wife attacks arguments (explicit and reasonable or - like her first example - contrived and implausible) from the Bible and the Fathers (ancient writers believed to have authority in the Roman church) which purport to show marriage to be inferior to chastity. She gives contrary arguments, citing the large number of Solomon's wives; showing how St. Paul advises but does not command chastity, and quotes Paul's metaphor of golden and wooden vessels, which can both be serviceable.

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NOTE: St. Paul is the writer of many of the books of the New Testament (traditionally, fourteen letters are ascribed to him, though the authorship of some is now disputed). The second half of the Acts of the Apostles is about St. Paul's bringing the gospel to the many parts of the Roman Empire. The relevance of this to the Prologue is that the Wife knows St. Paul's letters. She correctly shows that while St. Paul recommends chastity, for those who can achieve it, the Apostle accepts that it is better to marry than to burn with passion. The passage she alludes to is in St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 7 (see also Romans, Chapter 7).

An interesting question is how the Wife knows this - in Chaucer's time there WAS an unofficial English version of the Bible (translated by Wycliffe and others between 1380 and 1397) but reading it was against the law. F.N. Robinson, in the Oxford University Press edition of the Canterbury Tales, notes (p. xxvii) that Chaucer “can hardly have failed to know Wycliffe” - but this does not mean Chaucer had read any of Wycliffe's English bible. And even if he had, he gives us no reason to think that the Wife knew it. The only approved version of the Bible was Jerome's Vulgate, in Latin, which was read TO the common people by the priests, if the priests were literate and latinate (some were not). Perhaps she has heard St. Paul's letters read in church or summarized in a sermon, or perhaps she has paid very close attention to what Jankin has said to her. In the Wife of Bath's Prologue, “the Apostle” means St. Paul.

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105-168: The Wife argues that other virtues than chastity (such as poverty) are not expected to be perfectly achieved by all. She readily admits not to aspire to perfect chastity ("that am nat I"). She argues against the view that the genitals were made merely for "purgacion of urine" and to differentiate the sexes: experience shows them to be made for pleasure and procreation. She has no quarrel with virginity, so long as it is not forced on her: she likens the chaste to bread made of "pured" (refined) flour while those who are married are as (coarser) "barly-breed", with which, in Mark's gospel, Jesus fed a crowd. She insists on her right to use her "instrument frely...bothe eve and morwe", and approves of St. Paul's command to husbands to love their wives. The Pardoner interrupts to thank her for warning him off marriage, but she promptly silences him.

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169-233: The Wife warns the Pardoner to expect to hear unpleasant things, advising him, in Ptolemy's proverb, to take heed; he applauds her intention to teach "yonge men" such as himself. The Wife speaks of her five husbands, considering together the first three, good men all, wealthy but too old to satisfy the Wife's voracious sexual appetite. She recalls with glee how hard she made them work to "holde the statut" (their marital obligations). She recalls that she and her husbands, though they tried to appease her with knick-knacks from the fair, would certainly never have qualified for the Dunmow Flitch (a side of bacon, awarded annually to the most harmoniously married couple).

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234-378: The Wife offers to other "wise wives" (though the only women present are nuns) advice on how (with help from the maid) to manage a husband. She illustrates her advice with a typical verbal assault: in this a husband is accused of meanness over his wife's clothing allowance; of lechery with the neighbour's wife and maid; of being suspicious and making drunken accusations of her conduct with other men; of preaching against the dangers of wealth or beauty in women, and against a wife's nagging; of lamenting the fact that wives cannot, like other wares, be sampled before purchase; of complaining of her complaints (that he does not praise her, is rude to her servants and relatives); of suspecting her relations with the apprentice; of hiding the keys to the coffer, and of trying to restrict her movements! (Here she digresses to praise Ptolemy's liberal teaching which she thinks allows promiscuity.) She tells how she would accuse her husband of believing gay attire to be shameless; of likening her to a cat, eager to show its fur; of jealously spying on her (though she boasts that she can outwit his spies); of calling women that "ferthe" (fourth) thing which nobody can endure (a reference to Proverbs, 30,21); of likening women's love to hell, to a parched land, or to wild fire; and, finally (!) of comparing women's love to the parasites which kill trees. Note how the unreasonableness of some of her husband's reproaches conceals the fact that for the most part, she objects to his complaining about things she has really done, and which cannot be defended!

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379-450: The Wife boasts of her false accusations, showing how she got the better of her husbands by taking the offensive. She justified her own night-time excursions with the claim that she was spying on her husband's lovers. She prides herself on having, by skill, force and nagging, gained mastery over her husbands, even trading sexual favours for gifts from them. If her husband grew angry, she would first urge him to imitate the legendary patience of Job (a character in the Old Testament), then argue that, as man is more reasonable than woman, he should exercise his reason in indulging her. She would conclude the argument by satisfying her husband's desire: her "bele chose" could make her rich, but she keeps it solely for him.

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451-502: The first three husbands have been vaguely and generally depicted above, but here the Wife provides a more definite portrait of the fourth, who was riotous and kept a mistress. Having said this, she breaks off to describe herself as she then was: fun-loving, full of vigour and a wine-bibber whom even the murderous Metellius of classical notoriety could not have deterred from drinking, which made her lecherous - a fact known to some men, who would take advantage of it. Reflecting on her younger days, she laments the passing of beauty and vigour - but, though the flour is gone, she will sell the bran as dearly as she may. She returns to her description of her fourth husband, recalling how she was made jealous by his infidelity, paying him back in like manner, though she claims to have only pretended to illicit affairs. In the end, she claims, her husband was made jealous and felt his shoe pinch. On the Wife's return from a pilgrimage (in Jerusalem) he died and was buried, at no great expense, as she freely admits.

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503-586: The Wife speaks at length of her last husband, whom, despite his ill-treatment of her, she loved best of all the five, both for his prowess in bed, and for the difficulty with which his love was won. For, says the Wife, women love best what is hardest to gain. The fifth husband was formerly a student of Oxford, lodging with the Wife's "gossib", Alisoun, to whom she told all her and her (fourth) husband's secrets. One Lent, while he was in London, the Wife had leisure to attend various vigils and processions. Walking in a field with Jankin, she dropped a hint that were she free to marry, he should wed her. She commends herself for this insight, not wishing to be like the mouse which has only one hole to which to run, going on to tell of inventing an account of a dream in which Jankin killed her as she lay in bed, telling him that she hoped, nevertheless, that he would do her good - following, in this matter, her mother's teaching. Realising that she has lost the thread of her story, she resumes it (though this digression is slight, compared to some).

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587-626: The Wife tells of her fourth husband's burial, recalling clearly the trim and shapely legs of Jankin, among the mourners. He was then twenty and she twice his age, but she minimises the difference, appealing to her coltishness and the impress, on her soul, of "seinte Venus". Returned to this subject, she tells of the excellence of her "quoniam", of the lecherousness she has from Venus and the toughness she has from Mars (whose mark she bears on her face and genitalia). Because of this mixture, she loves impulsively, following her appetite, for men of all kinds.

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627-710: The Wife tells of her wedding to Jankin and her subsequent regret at marrying. She briefly mentions Jankin's striking her (making her deaf in one ear) for tearing a page from a book of his (she will return to this subject at line 788). Jankin's misogyny (dislike of women) was aggravated by the Wife's wilfulness. She recalls how he would lecture her on the evils of women, using as authority various ancient classical writers: the wife refers to stories about Simplicius Gallus whose countryman deserted his errant wife; to a saying in Ecclesiasticus. Stating again her intention of explaining Jankin's attack on her, she proceeds instead to describe the contents of the book which caused the quarrel. This was Jankin's favourite volume, a collection of misogynist works, among which are Valerie and Theophrastus; Jerome's treatise against Jovinian; writings of Tertullian, Crisippus, Trotula and Heloïse; the Biblical Proverbs and Ovid's Ars Amatoria. From this book, Jankin would read of the wickedness of women, knowing more stories than there are of good women in the Bible. The Wife notes the bias of these works written not merely by men but by scholarly clerics, whose character (governed by Mercury) is opposed to Venus and her pleasure-loving children.

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711-828: The wife comes at last to the point of her story about the torn book. Jankin had provoked her by reading of the wickedness of Eve; of Delilah's treachery to Samson; of Deianira's abuse of Hercules; of Socrates' suffering at the hands of his two wives; of the unnatural lust of Pasiphäe; of Clytemnestra and Eriphyle, who brought about the deaths of their husbands; of Livilla who killed for love, and Lucilla who killed out of hatred; of the hanging-tree of Latumnius, and of many other unidentified tales of women's iniquity. Having related all this, Jankin attempted to rest his case, by citing a succession of biblical proverbs of the same misogynist character. Maddened beyond endurance, the Wife snatched at his book, tearing out three pages (earlier she has said it was one page), struck Jankin on the cheek and knocked him into the fire (which line 714 suggests was alight). At this, Jankin leapt up and hit the Wife, who fell, feigning death, to the floor. After noting Jankin's horrified reaction, the Wife pretended to revive, accused Jankin of murdering her for her wealth, and, as if nobly, demanded a last kiss. Jankin knelt down meekly and promised never to strike her again (pointing out, however, that her assault had provoked his retaliation). He concluded by begging forgiveness, whereupon the Wife struck him again, and feigned inability to say or do more. After this episode, she tells us, she and Jankin were reconciled and she was able, as with her former husbands, to gain the whip hand, so far achieving mastery over Jankin, as to compel him to burn the offending book. After this, she treated him as lovingly as any wife would, while she returned this love. She prays that God will have mercy on the soul of Jankin, who has evidently since died. The Wife tells her audience nothing of this death: her prologue is so chaotic in its spontaneity, that she may not know she has omitted to tell us.

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829-856: The Friar interrupts the Wife to remark jocularly that this has been "a long preamble", whereat the Summoner rebukes the Friar for his outburst, which he believes typical of meddling friars. The Friar retaliates with a threat to tell a tale ridiculing summoners, and the Summoner duly promises to tell even more scandalous stories about friars, accusing the Friar of having lost his temper. The quarrel is quelled by the Host, who likens the conduct of the disputants to that of drunkards (a subject on which he may be presumed to speak with authority). He enjoins the Wife to start her tale. She replies that she is quite ready, if the Friar will grant her permission. Rebuked by her sarcasm and the Host's reproach, the Friar asks the Wife to begin.

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The Wife of Bath's Tale

857-918: The Wife's story is set in the time of King Arthur, when fairies abounded in England; she ironically praises holy men, such as the friar, for driving them out. The "hero" of the story is a young knight, condemned to death for rape, but reprieved, at the insistence of Arthur's queen. His life will be spared if he can find out, within a year, what thing women most desire. The knight is troubled, but has no choice.

919-982: The Wife digresses to describe some of the things women are thought most to like. One of these suggestions is that women wish to be thought capable of discretion. This is clearly not the answer to the knight's question, but the Wife digresses further to quote a tale from Ovid's Metamorphoses, about Midas's ears!

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982-1072: The Wife returns to her tale, telling how the knight has failed to find the answer he seeks, when, on the day he must turn for home, he sees a group of (24) dancers by a forest. They are fairies, and when he approaches, al of them disappear, leaving an ugly old woman sitting on the green. He tells her of his troubles, and she offers to give him the answer to the queen's question, but, in return he must grant her whatever she asks for, which he promises to do. She whispers the answer in his ear (a naive touch - there is no-one around to hear what she says, but the device explains the Wife's keeping the answer from her audience). On the chosen day, the knight gives his answer before the queen and the ladies of the court: what women most desire is to have sovereignty over their husbands. All agree that the knight has answered aright and deserves to keep his life, when the old woman reminds the knight of his promise: she now demands that he marry her. He is aghast but has to accede to her request.

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1073-1264 (end): The knight marries the old woman "prively" (quietly, a "private ceremony" as we say today) but when his wife comes to bed, she rebukes him for his lack of enthusiasm. He replies by condemning her as ugly, old and of low birth. She retorts that she could amend all of these things within three days, but first she takes him to task for his attitude. She explains at length, (improbably) quoting Dante, Valerius, Seneca, Boethius, Juvenal and the scriptures, that virtue is not a matter of wealth but of character; she speaks more briefly of her age (which should earn his respect) and ugliness (which should save him from cuckoldry). She gives her husband a choice: she can remain old and ugly, but be an otherwise model wife, or she can be young and beautiful, but he must take his chances when suitors call. The knight has evidently learned his lesson because he wisely allows her to choose. She tells him that, since he has given her the sovereignty, she will be both loyal and by the morning as beautiful as any queen or empress in the world. She bids him "cast up the curtin" to see that she has already changed. The knight is ecstatic and the couple live happily ever after. The Wife of Bath ends with a double prayer: first that God will send women meek, young and virile husbands, and that cantankerous and niggardly husbands will catch the plague (no empty threat at the time when she speaks).

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Preparing for exams

It is usual for Advanced level English literature examiners to set for study a single tale, its prologue and the portrait of the teller of the tale, or the (entire) General Prologue to the Tales. However, you should be aware of these as parts of a more complex work, the complete Canterbury Tales.

You should know and be able to refer (briefly) to the circumstances in which Chaucer represents the tales as being told; of the rôle of Harry Bailly (the Host); some of the tales in outline, and their connection with the teller; of the character, social status and values of the teller of the tale. In their totality, the tales give a full picture of the world Chaucer knew: not just the everyday world of craftsmen and merchants, but the imaginative world, the world of thought, of religious and philosophical ideas. The picture is comprehensive and consistent, but not uniform: it is as varied as mankind, of whom Chaucer gives as representative a selection as we could wish for. As in a well-made play, there is a range of viewpoints, and the total work has the quality of good drama.

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Questions in "open book" exam papers usually invite you to look closely at a given passage from the total work. Important detail should be explained, and related to other parts of the text, where the same theme or idea is presented: the exam thus tests your capacity for detailed explication of text, and your ability to relate the part to the whole. You should not confine your discussion to the set passage (unless told explicitly to do so) and must not give the impression that you are seeing the prescribed part of the text for the first time. Given the relative shortness of this text, it is reasonable for you to prepare to write on any part of it; there are no passages of obviously greater importance than others. In school practice exams and work in lessons, you will be directed to study most or all of the text in detail at some time.

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In order to prepare yourself for an Advanced level examination, you might wish to follow these methods of study of this text:

  • Reading (aloud) and informal discussion to discover: what (simply) does the text mean, what themes are introduced, where do the Wife (and Chaucer?) stand on these issues?
  • Use of this study guide, of editor's notes and published study aids; customising these or making your own revision guides. You can download the whole HTML file, using the "Save" or "Save As" option on the "File" menu of your browser, or simply select the text, cut and paste, if you wish to drop this into your own word processor.
  • Use of audio tape to become familiar with the narrative - record the original if you can cope; if you use a modern verse or prose translation or summary (like that above) be sure to quote from the text proper in exams.
  • Using a highlighter pen or Post-It notes to identify key elements in the text.
  • In the remainder of this guide, you will find articles which will help you write about Chaucer's presentation of the Wife of Bath, about the view of marriage presented in the Prologue and Tale, and about narrative technique in both. You are reminded once again that the examiners will set questions on the Portrait, the Prologue and the Tale: although the Prologue seems most important, you should not neglect the other parts.

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The relationship of the Prologue to the Tale

Truth and fiction

Within the imagined (by Chaucer) world of the Canterbury pilgrims, we meet various characters who present their "own" fictions. In each case, the tale is in some way a reflection of the teller, and vice versa. While Chaucer portrays the pilgrims initially in set pieces in the General Prologue, we learn more about them as they tell their tales, express opinions and trade insults, as characters speak of themselves. The Wife's prologue is by far the longest in the whole work (two other pilgrims only - the Pardoner and the Canon's Yeoman - are given fairly lengthy prologues). She reveals herself, in the volume of what she says, more fully than any other pilgrim, but its confused nature and lack of coherence make her self-portrait less clear-cut than, say, the Pardoner's. Moreover, her account reveals a discrepancy between what we suspect to be the case, and what she wants her hearers to think of her. Her desire to wield sovereignty leads her to claim she has gained it more fully than warranted by the evidence she lets slip.

Where Chaucer allows most characters a single opening (in their tales) to express a view, the Wife has two: first, her argument from real, lived experience, then in the model case in her story. One presents compelling evidence, the other a clear narrative demonstration - autobiography and fiction together allow the Wife to state her case more forcefully than either alone could do.

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The argument of the Prologue

The Wife's stated purpose is to speak generally of strife in marriage. Her real preoccupation is with "maistrie". The struggle for this has been the cause of her woe, especially in her fourth and fifth marriages. She depicts all five in terms of combat. The attempt to gain mastery may succeed or fail, but division of sovereignty is not countenanced.

The first three marriages are uneven matches: aged, wealthy but feeble men (thought of collectively as "he") are worn out by the sharp-tongued, lustful and vivacious woman whose fortune is not so much her face as her energy and sexual prowess. Her fourth husband is a more even match for the now not-so-young Wife: her husband is about her age, has a mistress and seems not to suffer from the Wife's flirtations.

The (unexplained) death of the fourth husband leads to a match that reverses the earlier pattern, as the Wife, now well heeled, secures a man half her age to share the marital bed. Jankin wields weapons of learning in his misogynist outbursts. The Wife wins sovereignty here, it seems, because she has more stamina: Jankin, conceding "maistrie" recognises her limitless resolution and shows a hitherto concealed desire for a quiet life. The Wife claims that Jankin's yielding led her to treat him well; having "bought" a young husband, her vanity requires that he know his place, and her spoiling of him is a demonstration of her superior status. But she did not, in the earlier marriages, extend the same kindness to the husbands who had "bought" her.

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The argument of the Tale

The Prologue relies on evidence from experience - but this is particular, not universal. Setting the Tale in the mythical golden age of King Arthur, the Wife gives it a more universal application. The pagan setting expresses truths not taught by religion, but revealed in the workings of human nature. The Arthurian world is not what is but what was or ought to be - a better world than the everyday one. That women might renew youth in old age seems impossible, but giving women sovereignty plainly can be achieved - the ideal can in part be realised. If this does not happen, husbands who are "angry nigardes of dispence" are to blame.

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The propriety or appropriateness of the Tale

(Scholars have suggested that Chaucer originally intended what is now the Shipman's Tale to have been spoken by the Wife.) The tale of the knight and the loathly lady is appropriate on several grounds, less so on others. It suits the Wife because it makes the case for women's sovereignty. It is also suited to her in its telling: while some details (such as the characters and setting) are very sketchy, other details recall the Prologue, but are out of place in a romantic fantasy: these include the story of Midas's ears (here the Wife mixes mythologies) and the digression on "gentillesse" in which the Wife quotes Dante (not born in the supposed time of King Arthur; the Wife of Bath herself might be expected to quote this authority, but not the Fairy Wife of her Tale). Moreover, the debate about "gentillesse" is a distraction from the central discussion of "maistrie".

Chaucer doubtless sees that these weaknesses are those of the Wife, as narrator: before this the Pilgrims have had many excellent examples of differing kinds, and many more will follow. Part of the skill and humour of the whole work lies in the exceptions that prove the rule - one of the two tales offered by Chaucer (the pilgrim, supposedly reporting the others' tales) is so tedious he is obliged to give up and try another.

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The fairy tale setting is surprising, in a narrator so much in love with the everyday world. The account of "gentillesse" reminds us of the Wife's capacity for irrelevance, but this philosophical argument does not seem authentic - her Prologue gives us no reason to believe that the Wife values "gentillesse" at all.

It may be that the Fairy Wife represents what the Wife of Bath, conscious already of the passing of her youth ("the flour is gone") fears she will become, while the renewal of youth is her wishful thinking. The transformation of the conduct of the Wife of Bath towards Jankin in the real world is symbolically depicted in the "faery" world as the transformation of outward appearance. Thus the Tale becomes a reworking of the final part of the Prologue, as the husband gives his wife sovereignty, and marital bliss follows, "unto hir lives ende": unfortunately for Jankin, this came rather soon.

It may be also that we hear the real Wife of Bath most clearly in the (apparently improvised) opening lines of the Tale, in which she praises the activities of friars - ironically, as the finale shows: "And he ne wel doon hem but dishonour".

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The Wife of Bath: Character

In the Prologue to the Tale, Chaucer enables us to see the Wife's character in two ways: first, we have her own account of the sort of person she has been, and is; second, we see this substantiated by the manner in which she delivers her account of her past exploits. The Wife's account of herself appears largely to be honest, as she makes little attempt to conceal misdemeanours and weaknesses that she relishes in recollection, and which, she believes, will entertain her hearers.

The Wife evidently believes her character to have been determined by her horoscope; whether or not we admit the astrological influence, it is clear that the two aspects of her character which the Wife attributes to the zodiac are her dominant characteristics. She tells her hearers:

Myn ascendent was Taur and Mars therinne

attributing to Venus her "likerousnesse" and to Mars her "sturdy hardinesse". Venus has made her unable to withdraw (presumably, in context, this means withhold) her "chambre of Venus from a good felawe". Yet with this "feminine" weakness goes the less obviously feminine "mark" of Mars. She has this both literally (in the blemishes on her face and in "another privee place") and metaphorically, in the strength of character which drives her to seek mastery over all her husbands and which, in her own stories, appears most overtly in the account of her struggle with Jankin.

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Of these two qualities, the latter strikes the reader more forcefully as it is a more forceful characteristic (there is a contrast between the Wife's avowed laxity in sexual relations, and her reluctance to yield in any other area of a relationship with a man). We also see, in the manner in which the Wife delivers her prologue and silences interruptions, just how easily she can gain the whip hand (as the Friar finds out to his cost when the Wife begins her tale).

In her first three marriages the Wife has readily dominated her elderly husbands, comically attacking them for their supposedly unreasonable criticisms (which the Wife's later admissions show to have been fully justified). With the fourth husband, who has evidently taken a more obliging partner, the Wife has had greater difficulty in gaining ascendancy, to do which, she has resorted to the pretence (if it is pretence) of having lovers, making him "of the same wode a croce" and frying him "in his owene grece". Though she tells us (using a third metaphor) that, in the end, she made his shoe pinch, it is not completely clear that she ever won mastery over this husband.

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With Jankin, provoked by the Wife's stubbornness to extreme misogyny, and informed by a compendium of classical examples of female evil, she has had an even more bitter struggle. But at length, by cunning, she defeats his bookish prejudice. One feels that in this case not so much wiliness, as tenacity, has played a part. The Wife will not yield, so Jankin has bowed to the inevitable, and discovered, no doubt to his surprise, that the Wife has not abused her power over him, but has been a model of affection and fidelity.

Both her sexual energy and her "sturdy hardinesse" are evidence of the Wife's enormous vitality. This seems almost inversely proportional to that of the succession of husbands she has, so to speak, consumed, even now welcoming "the sixte, whan that ever he shall". She shows this vigour also in the recounting of the Prologue. Whereas for the other pilgrims this serves as a more or less brief introduction to the tales, the Wife's Prologue is inordinately long, twice as long as her Tale. One feels it might even have been longer, as the Wife briefly touches on matters she might well have told in more detail. The somewhat disorderly nature of the Prologue, which switches from theological argument, to personal reminiscence, and from these to the Wife's own assessment of her own and others' characters, indicates that the Wife is bursting to tell her audience at once of all of these things, and fears to leave any part of her story untold for long.

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The Wife's candour demands comment next: she readily discloses intimate details of her private life - as in the various comments on her "quoniam" or "chambre of Venus". This, we learn, is the best there is; embellished by "Martes mark"; not to be withheld from "any good felawe", and the lantern at which her husband should not begrudge any man the lighting of his candle (since the husband's own light - i.e. pleasure - is not lessened thereby). She is candid in revealing her clearly worldly attitude to religious festivals and pilgrimages. We see this in her account of her courtship of Jankin, yet she freely admits this to a company of whom many are going to Canterbury out of genuine devotion, while others are at least pretending to do so. (In this we might liken her to the Pardoner, though he tells of his greedy exploitation of simple people to show how clever and eloquent he is, and how stupid are those whom he dupes.)

The Wife claims, in her fourth marriage (and perhaps, by implication, all of them), to have had no secrets from her "gossib". To Alisoun she "biwreyed" her "conseil all", in small matters and in great, so that her husband reproached himself for ever confiding in her. There is, though, a limit to her candour: she has evidently never let her husbands know of the tricks she has used to gain mastery over them, though she now openly explains to her hearers how she and other shrewd housewives have accomplished this. It should be noted that though she addresses herself (in line 225) to "wise wives, that kan understonde" it is only really the men in her audience who can benefit from her revelations, since, according to the General Prologue, there are only two other women in the company (the Prioress and the Second Nun). And they are precluded by their situation from courtship.

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The Wife shows herself to be down-to-earth, and free of affectation in her approach to worldly pleasure, in her plain speaking, in her avoidance of delicate euphemism in sexual or lavatorial contexts, in her vivid use of metaphor. Much of this seems proverbial (as in the comparison of a plain woman to the "grey goose" in line 269) or commonplace ("drunken as a mouse", 1. 246, though in his Tale the more deliberately eloquent Knight also uses this phrase).

This naturalness in her speech might suggest lack of learning. As well as the colloquialism of much of her speech, we could cite the Wife's preference of worldly to intellectual pleasures - of love-making to Jankin's dry scholarship; of gossiping with Alisoun to attending to the finer points of religious ritual; we could cite the lack of order in the Prologue, switching from subject to subject, interrupting herself unnecessarily, as when she begins to describe her fourth husband. She also often appears to lose her thread, returning to a chosen subject with the phrase "I seye" (as I was saying) and on one occasion she thinks she has lost the thread of her story, when, by her own loose standards, she certainly has not done (l. 585-6).

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Despite all this, there is good evidence that the Wife is intelligent, learned, and capable of sophisticated argument. It is not only in everyday matters, such as her fooling of her husbands or in her "Purveiaunce" (foresight) in providing herself with spouses, that this is so. Her opening attack on those who condemn marriage shows that she is well-acquainted with the scriptures and the Fathers. She is especially well-versed in the Pauline epistles and regularly quotes from the apostle's first letter to the Corinthians. No doubt we see here the influence of Jankin (though the Wife only tells us of his reading of anti-feminist writings) and of the many pilgrimages, festivals and so on which the Wife has attended. She has evidently learned from her erudite companions, and from the eloquent sermons she will have heard. Though her arguments are not always wholly reasonable, they are no less so than those she opposes - such as the preposterous inference drawn from the account of Christ's (sole recorded) attendance at a wedding, that in Cana in Galilee.

She quotes a comprehensive range of authorities, and argues with fluency and gusto. She shows her intelligence in debate in the ease with which she handles interruption, be it the crude, but sympathetic, encouragement of the Pardoner, or the unedifying quarrel between the Friar and the Summoner. Her response is in each case appropriate to the nature of the interruption, and as she begins her Tale, she pays the Friar back many times for his presumption. In her Prologue the Wife shows further evidence of her intelligence in her use of irony, deriving humour from the fact that she has gained mastery over her husbands by taking the offensive and rebuking them for their (legitimate) criticisms of her (thereby causing them to overlook, or have difficulty in showing, that their complaints - of which she complains - have, in fact, been justified, where hers have not!

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Finally, we note that, despite her insatiable appetite for pilgrimage, festival and every other kind of ecclesiastical ceremony, the Wife's chief motives, in attending these are not those of piety: she goes to see, to be seen, to show off her finery (as, the General Prologue makes clear, she is doing on this pilgrimage), and to make sure that she is not as the mouse which has only one hole to which to run (1. 572-4) but keeps a weather eye out for eligible bachelor. All these are to be enjoyed as social occasions. In this, she is less than the truly pious (the Knight, the Parson) but better than those who make a show of piety to win respect, for financial gain, or both. That Chaucer should give her such persuasive arguments in urging marriage and repudiating chastity (or even monogamy, in the mediaeval sense) for such as herself indicates a sympathy on the poet's part with the natural and positive vigour of the Wife, who does not refuse to make use of what seem to her the best and most pleasurable of the Creator's gifts.

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Marriage in The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale

The views of marriage expressed in both Prologue and Tale are those of the Wife; whether they are also Chaucer's is debatable: others of the pilgrims tell tales giving views of marriage, but none can speak from such extensive personal experience as the Wife of Bath, and this experience is the subject of her lengthy and chaotic prologue. The vitality of Chaucer's portrait of the Wife, and the assurance he gives her in asserting the case for wives' mastery over their husbands indicate at least sympathy, if not agreement, with her point of view.

What, then, are the views of the Wife of Bath? First, she argues from scripture and experience that marriage (despite its tribulations, to which she at once refers) is no bad thing, and that successive marriages for those who are widowed are perfectly in order. Arguments against marriage (such as the preposterous interpretation of John's account of the wedding at Cana) can be countered, the Wife shows, by demonstrating how Biblical teaching is far from clear in some places, while others give support for polygamy. (The Wife does not note that the latter are all in the Old Testament.) She shows how St. Paul, in I Corinthians, claims only to advise his readers and expressly states that this advice is no binding commandment. Elsewhere (conveniently ignoring the distinction between Old and New Testaments) the Wife notes Biblical precedent for polygamy, beginning with the obscure Lamech, continuing with Abraham and Jacob, and, reaching ridiculous proportions with Solomon, who (though the Wife does not number them) had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines (I Kings 11.3). In a humorous understatement the Wife refers to "wives mo than oon". Scripture, she says, gives no fast ruling on the matter.

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She accepts that the married state may be inferior to the perfection of chastity, but notes that those who urge virginity on women do not demand perfection in other matters, such as giving away all one's wealth (which Christ commanded the rich young ruler). She may, in this,be subtly or obliquely suggesting that those who take holy orders and remain (or profess to be) chaste have no room to disapprove of her sexuality, when they are guilty of pursuing wealth. Though she accepts that marriage may be less than perfect, the Wife maintains it to be an honourable estate. She likens it to household vessels of wood (as distinct from the golden vessels representing chastity) which can be clean and serviceable to the householder.

An important feature of married life, in the Wife's opinion, is sexual intercourse: she claims that she "wol use" her "instrument/As frely as" her "makere hath it sente", and that her husband will have it "bothe eve and morwe". She claims, on the authority of her husbands, to have "the beste quoniam mighte be" and admits that she can "noght withdrawe" her "chambre of Venus from a good felawe". She relishes such boasts, and takes great delight in recounting her demands of her first three husbands. She tells us that: "Unnethe mighte they the statut holde". Her delight in forcing them as often as possible to do their marital duty seems to have been inversely proportional to their capacity to do it. Each of these three was, clearly, both "dettour" and "thrall"and the Wife admits that, having already secured their material wealth, she felt no need to "do lenger diligence/To winne hir love".

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The Wife is quite prepared to use marriage to secure material wealth and establish her own social status: her first four husbands are all wealthy men; when she eventually marries the "joly clerk, Jankin" she is sufficiently wealthy no longer to need to seek material gain from the liaison. Indeed, in a sense, Jankin's marrying her corresponds to her earlier marriages, as he accepts an older partner for material advantage. That four husbands prior to Jankin have died may suggest (if probability is being observed by Chaucer) that the Wife has deliberately chosen men old enough to be likely to die soon - though the fourth husband's taking a mistress indicates that he, at least, was not quite in his dotage. The Wife's insatiable sexual desire may also have taken its toll of the first three husbands. Jankin's early death is more surprising (we are not told the cause) in that he is a young man, but premature death was hardly a rare occurrence in Chaucer's time. That she might use marriages to accumulate wealth is no source of shame to the Wife. She rather prides herself on her acumen in securing "tresor" and "land", and on her ability to make her husbands bring her gifts and knick-knacks from fairs.

In that the Wife sees marriage as a source of sexual pleasure (or humiliation of an old and inadequate partner) and of material gain, she sees it generally in competitive terms: her desire is always to score points, or get the better of her spouse. The ruses she has used to this end she makes clear in the Prologue, even giving her hearers an example of the kind of verbal assault from which her husbands have suffered: in this, the chief part of her strategy is complaint. She faults her husband for innocent actions or trivial misdemeanours, and for any complaints he may have made of her (even though such complaints are wholly justified by her actions). In keeping on the offensive she secures as much freedom as possible for herself.

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The brazen cheek of much of this is at its most extreme in her complaint of the "fals suspicion" her husband (the fourth, evidently) has of Jankin, of whom she claims "I wol him noght, though thou were dead tomorwe", when, in fact, she woos Jankin before her husband's demise, spends his funeral (when he obliges her by dying) admiring the shapely legs of Jankin, and marries her late husband's clerk at the earliest opportunity. Other tactics in her battles with her spouses include withholding of sexual favours (line 315: "That oon thou shalt forgo") though one presumes this was not directed against the first three husbands, who would have doubtless welcomed the respite; pretending to have lovers, making her fourth husband "a croce of the same wood" as he had made her in taking a mistress; using her gossip, her niece or the maid as allies, and the telling of lies. The object of the Wife's attempts to get the better of her husbands, and the subject of her Tale, is a desire for complete dominance - "sovereinetee" or "maistrie" - in the relationship. She does not see marriage as an equal and loving partnership, and she can certainly not bear to be dominated by her husband. Only one can rule the roost:

Oon of us two moste bowen, doutelees
And sith a man is moore resonable
Than womman is, ye moste been suffrable

Man, being more open to reason, should defer to woman. That it is possible (for such as her) to achieve this has been proved in four out of five of her marriages (in the fifth with some difficulty) though her attempts to pay back her fourth husband for his infidelity suggest that, in his case, she met her match for once. In the Tale, the universal concurrence of the women of Arthur's court, with the Fairy Wife's answer to the question, "What do women most desire?", is produced by the Wife of Bath as evidence that this desire is not peculiar to her.

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Paradoxically, the Wife shows, by the examples of her marriage to Jankin and of the knight and his spouse in the Tale, that this sovereignty of wives over husbands is not only desired by wives, but desirable for husbands. She tells her hearers how, having worn down the highly combative Jankin, she treated him well, and was "as kinde/As any wyf from Denmark unto Inde". Thereafter, her marriage to Jankin was blissful and exemplary.

Whether Jankin, who had to burn his beloved book, would have agreed with this judgement is questionable, but there is no doubt that the marriage was improved by Jankin's acceptance of his wife's sovereignty. The knight in the Tale is more apt to learn: having been persuaded of his wife's wisdom, he allows her to choose whether she should remain ugly and faithful, or become beautiful, with the dangers attendant on beauty. His giving her the choice prompts the question: "have I gete of yow maistrie?" and he accepts that she has, with the result that she becomes beautiful, remains true to him and both live "in parfit joye" ever after.

The Wife of Bath does not suggest that such dramatic results can be achieved nowadays (so that rapists, condemned to death, will be excused of their crimes and gain wise and beautiful young wives). Her story is, after all, set in a golden age of the past when the land was filled with fairies. She does, nonetheless, suggest that to give sovereignty to wives is good for both partners in a marriage.That this belief may be reached with the bias of self-interest must, of course, remain a cavil.

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Narrative technique in The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale

1. The idea of a sequence of tales linked by the circumstances of the teller or tellers is not peculiar to Chaucer e.g. many works popular in the orient and in antiquity: The Thousand and One Nights, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Gower's Confessio Amantis, Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, Bocaccio's Decameron, and the Novelle of Giovanni Sercambi (ca. 1374) which also employs the setting of a pilgrimage. Often, however, this device is merely mechanical (to account for the multiplicity of tales, and give them a spurious unity) and does not fully exploit the potential for the relationship between teller and tale, and for the interaction of the different story-tellers. In The Canterbury Tales this is not so, and the depiction of the various pilgrims is in no way subordinate to the tales they tell: Chaucer is fully interested in both, and, indeed, in showing the relation between both. The device of the pilgrimage is felicitous for several reasons. It brings together a representative group of all social classes, and of varied occupations. Though all are pilgrims, their motives for being on pilgrimage vary considerably: some (the Knight, the Parson) are properly devout, others (the Friar, the Pardoner) are pilgrims for worldly professional reasons, and exploit holy orders for material gain; the Wife of Bath seems to enjoy the social intercourse afforded by the pilgrimage: she frequently goes on pilgrimage, enjoying the opportunity to show off her finery, to see interesting sights, to converse with others and (on this occasion),to keep an eye out for a sixth husband, should a suitable volunteer be among the pilgrims.

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The relationship between teller and tale is exploited fully in the Wife's Prologue and her Tale. The prologue is by far the longest in The Canterbury Tales, and in it the Wife expresses views which she, so to speak, proves in her tale: indeed, one might see the Tale as a parable, the moral or point of which she has already stated in her Prologue and proved in her experience. This moral is not merely that women desire "sovereintee" above all else, but that it is desirable (for husbands as well as for wives) that women should have it.

Chaucer has chosen to make the argument for women's mastery more persuasive by means of the explicit accordance between the Wife's stated views (in the Prologue) and (in the Tale) her parabolic proof of these. Chaucer does not, as the overall narrator, pass judgement on the Wife's argument, but in subsequent tales provides others of the pilgrims with differing opinions. However, the length at which the Wife's viewpoint is expressed shows that, whether he sympathises with the Wife, or ironically condemns her out of her own mouth, Chaucer is aware that this is a genuinely controversial question, and worthy of discussion.

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2. One narrative technique which Chaucer obviously uses to show the Wife's character in the telling of her tale and the preamble that goes before it, is to make these chaotic. The chaos is truly orderly, in that it is controlled by Chaucer, but he suggests that the Wife is so full of vitality, is bursting so much to tell her tale, that she cannot for long keep to one part of it. In consequence, her account of her five marriages is disjointed and far from complete; she departs from it to express opinions, to speak of herself or to quote her own railing speeches of the past, and, quite frequently, she loses, or thinks she has lost, the thread of her narrative. This can be frustrating to the reader, and no doubt Chaucer intends to tease us gently by so delaying the start of the Tale proper (the Friar's comment seems to be an acknowledgement of this irritation).

Although the various digressions make the narrative element in the Wife's recollection of her husbands harder to follow, the mixture of differing elements makes possible a more comprehensive treatment of her argument: the anecdotes without the comment might not state the feminist case fully; the opinion without the biography would be far less entertaining.

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3. In the mingling of narrative and comment in the Prologue, Chaucer anticipates in some senses novelistic narrative technique; by creating a character who tells her own story, but interrupts it at various points to express opinions about her experience, Chaucer achieves a convincing verisimilitude. The device might seem obvious and straightforward to the reader of modern-novels, but is remarkable in a mediaeval poem.

As well as comment, the Wife provides her hearers (and Chaucer's readers) with quotation or recitation of her verbal assaults on her husbands. These furnish the Prologue with various kinds of irony: first, we note that the husband is rebuked by the Wife not so much for any genuine failing, as for rebuking her apparently, reproof is to be a one-way traffic; second, and more outrageously ironic, is the fact that the things with which the husbands reproach the Wife (and for which reproach she blames them) are things of which by her own admission elsewhere, she is clearly guilty. What is not made clear to the reader, and this may well be Chaucer's intention, is how far the Wife perceives this irony. It is clear that she prides herself on getting the better of these gullible men, but it is not clear how far she believes her complaints against them to have been fair, and how far she is aware that she has used unjust accusations merely to suit her convenience.

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The expression of personal opinion interrupting the narrative is more frequent in the Prologue than in the Tale, and this is as it should be, for various reasons: first, the autobiographical anecdotes in the Prologue are personal experience, not just a tale heard recited, or read from a book (to recall them inevitably provokes comment). These reminiscences are, in fact, fragmentary, not (as the Tale is) a single sustained narrative, but a series of brief incidents, subjectively linked in the Wife's memory. There is, however, one very substantial digression in the Tale, the fairy wife's comment on "gentilesse". While the knight's offensive comment on his old wife's lowly status (l. 1101) demands some retort, the lecture which follows is improbably long, even more improbably erudite (in quotation, of Dante, and allusion to Seneca and Boethius) and, once more, delays the progress of the Tale, or at least the Wife of Bath's arrival at its surprising dénouement.

To the Wife's hearers, eager for her to come to the point of her story, this interruption might suggest that she lacks skill in storytelling. For Chaucer's readers, though, the interruption is a skilful reminder of the Wife's tendency to digress: the delay in coming to the point of the story, the twist in its ending, affords the same kind of perverse entertainment as one finds in a shaggy-dog story. We note, too, that the Wife does not finish speaking when her Tale ends; she feels constrained.to express her hopes for women in general, and for herself in particular.

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4. Another device used, like this, to show more of the Wife's character, is that of the interruptions of other characters, each of which provokes an illustrative response from the Wife: in each case we see her forcefulness and confidence in her easy handling of those who interrupt. The Pardoner's comment expresses approval of what the Wife has said, but disapproval of women (into whose character she has provided so clear an insight); the Wife promptly silences him and warns him that there is far worse to come, and that he will learn the full horror of marriage before she has done. The interruption of the Friar would pose no great problem for the Wife, were it not for the Summoner's picking a quarrel with him which, eventually, the Host is obliged to end: however, the interruption gives the Wife cause to be annoyed with the Friar, and we learn more of her wit and eloquence in her consequent ridiculing of him. After sarcastically asking his permission to begin her Tale, the Wife tells it, but with some improvised remarks about friars, whom she ironically approves, at the same time as exposing their lasciviousness and bogus sanctity. We see here both the quickness of her wit, and her forcefulness in asserting her mastery.

5. In the Wife's tale there is a very close relationship between the "moral" of the tale and the Wife's own views, a closeness which Chaucer has clearly contrived. While there is always some kind of relationship between the teller and the tale in The Canterbury Tales, it is rarely as obvious and simple as here: the tale is so summarily told that its didactic nature is evident (it has no real characters, nor any names for the chief protagonists). (The Knight's Tale, for instance, also contains a moral, or several: the inexorableness of fate, making "vertu of necessitee" and so on, but these are found within a long and complex tale, in which convincing characters appear, and in which settings are meticulously described.) In this case, Chaucer seems to have so contrived the relationship of tale and teller, to force the reader to consider the Wife's argument.

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6. In the case of the Wife of Bath, there is an obvious imbalance of length between Prologue and Tale - There are other substantial prologues (as the Pardoner's) but nothing approaching the Wife's for length; few of the tales are as brief, and the brevity is all the more conspicuous, the Tale following, as it does, such a long Prologue. This imbalance is intended by Chaucer, and explained by the nature of the Prologue: it is not just an introduction to the Tale but a slice of autobiography, well worth the telling; it proves, so to speak, the moral of the Tale; but equally well it could stand alone, as it is so full of entertaining incident.

7. Finally, one must comment on Chaucer's use of classical references. These are a mark of the poet's own great erudition which he feels no modesty about displaying. In the case of a pilgrim such as the Knight, the use of classical allusions seems perfectly natural. In the Wife's case, it is less convincing, though her frequent attendance of pilgrimages (where she will have heard many learned sermons) and her marriage to the scholarly Jankin (whose learning will have rubbed off somewhat on her) partly account for this. At one point in the Tale, however, either Chaucer (inadvertently) or the Wife of Bath (as Chaucer intends) forgets who is speaking, and the fairy wife quotes improbably Seneca and Boethius, and, impossibly, Dante (whom she predates by several centuries!).

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Specimen Advanced Level examination questions

Essay questions

These examples are traditional essay-style questions from past GCE Advanced level papers.

  • How far do you agree that Chaucer has presented the Wife of Bath's character as a mass of contradictions?
  • What differences of style and tone have you observed between the Wife's Prologue and her Tale?
  • To what extent is the Wife of Bath presented in her Prologue and Tale as an anti-religious and amoral figure?
  • Show with close reference to the text how the Wife reveals her truse character through her descriptions of her marriages.
  • Referring closely to her words, show how Chaucer conveys the vitality of the Wife of Bath.
  • To what extent do you consider that the homily on “gentillesse” is out of place in a tale told by the Wife of Bath.
  • Where in the Prologue and Tale do you find the Wife's liveliness and buoyancy tempered by other qualities?
  • “The Wife uses words both to reveal and obscure.” When and where do you feel she does each of these?
  • Some readers have found it strange that the Wife of Bath tells a stylised Romance after her racy and realistic Prologue. Make clear your own views on this point, referring in detail to both the Wife of Bath's Prologue and her Tale
  • What forms of humour do you find in both the Wife of Bath's Prologue and her Tale, and what effects does Chaucer achieve through them?
  • “The Wife of Bath's Tale forms a romantic contrast with the realism of her Prologue.” Discuss.
  • Is “garrulous but honest” a fair description of the Wife of Bath in her Prologue or do you think that Chaucer shows her revealing more than she intends?

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Open book questions

These are written in the style of AQA (formerly NEAB) "open book" questions.

Either 1:

Re-read the portrait of the Wife from the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales (pp. 33,34, Cambridge edn.) and the section from line 224 ("Now herkneth hou I bar me proprely..."; p. 42) to line 480 ("Now wol I tellen of my fourthe housbonde"; p. 50). How are the character of the Wife of Bath and the general themes of her Prologue and Tale presented here?

or 2:

Re-read the Tale from line 1037 (" 'My lige lady, generally,' quod he"; p. 68, Cambridge Edn). to the end. What attitudes to marriage are presented here and in any relevant parts of the Prologue?

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(Second example)

Either 1:

Re-read the Prologue from line 469 ("But, Lord Crist! whan that it remembreth me..."; p. 49, Cambridge Edn.) to line 626 ("How poore he was, ne eek of what degree..."; p. 54). How, in this part of the Prologue, does Chaucer present the Wife's lively and contradictory character?

or 2:

Re-read the Tale from its opening (line 857; p. 63, Cambridge Edn.) to line 1030 ("And afterward this knight was bode appear..."; p. 68). How far are the subject, theme and method of the Wife's narrative, in this part of the Tale, consistent with Chaucer's presentation of her in the Prologue and in the portrait of the Wife in the General Prologue?

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© Andrew Moore, 2000; Contact me

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