“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” from “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer is a robust, playful satire written in the 14th century. This humorous story picks out the bawdy and inappropriate behavior of the time-period and uses a story inside a story inside a story to poke at the hypocrisy inherent in topics that might never have been allowed to be questioned otherwise. The complications of using this intricate style of storytelling are immeasurable, but Chaucer is able to succeed, creating a tale that has surpassed centuries of criticism and potential book banning.
We barely meet the Wife of Bath in this excerpt, aside from the prologue where she sits at a bar with the Summoner, Friar and Host, engaging in witty repartee and ultimately a story telling competition. In this short little section, Chaucer already introduces his feeling towards religion of the time by making the Friar out to be “meddling” and “spoiling all our fun,” as per the Summoner. The Friar seems smug and condescending, giving the Wife “license” to begin her story.
The tale itself begins in the time of King Arthur and fairy-folk, hence allowing Chaucer to insinuate anything he wants into this section because it is, obviously, fictional. Hundreds of years ago, the grass was green and the fairies and elves danced, but now, according to the Wife’s story, no one sees the fairies – in other words, the magic in the world – because of the friars. “For now the saintly charity and prayer/Of holy friars seem to have purged the air…” She goes on in detail here of how the friars bless the rooms in the buildings, the outside stalls and barns, everything possible, and have chased away the fairy magic to make everyone safer.
However, she then inserts the sarcastic lines: “Women can now go safely up and down/ By every bush or under every tree;/There is no other incubus but her/So there is really no one else to hurt you/And he will do more than take your virtue.” This clearly states that women no longer have to fear the magic of an incubus physically assaulting them; now the only things out there that will harass or rape them and take their virginity are the friars themselves. Had Chaucer specifically accused a religious leader of rape at the time, he would have been shamed and his book would have been burned or banned, never to last all of these centuries. Yet by inserting in as a satirical section in a fictional story, he was able to get his point across and reach millions of readers.
Another topic Chaucer ventured into that was highly controversial was the issue of rape. The way he nonchalantly portrayed the knight as a “lusty liver,” as though that were to be taken at face value because they all were that way, and then when he “saw a maiden walking all forlorn,” and proceeded to take her virginity by force, makes it seem as though it were simply all in a day’s work. However, by the very nature of the unconcerned tone he uses, he makes the act stand out all the more. Was it really such a daily act of living for friars and knights to walk around raping virgins, the reader begins to wonder.
Then Chaucer takes us into the meat of the story – where the knight’s punishment is determined. In order to prove he has rehabilitated himself and save his life, he is ordered by the queen to go forth for a year and find “the thing that women most desire.” The sarcasm here is plainly seen – who truly knows what a woman most desires? Probably not even the woman herself. With that dramatic irony leading the way, the reader follows the knight through towns and villages and forests to learn that no woman has the same answer. However, the answers given portray women in a different tone than women of that century were assumed to behave.
These women wanted “Jollity and pleasure,” and “To be oft widowed and remarried.” The resounding themes themselves were selfish, and more in line of what men were assumed to want out of life at the time. These women said they’d rather be desired than be “good and wise,” but…they also wanted to be thought of as “wise and void of sin.” This juxtaposition between what a woman wants to be considered physically versus soulfully is a confusing topic that Chaucer picks fun at with his tale, thus saying that women want to be considered sexual creatures, but not be accused of being a sexual creature. Rather, they want to be talked about as just and kind and good, but craved as sexual and allowed the freedom to do as they pleased. With this line of answers, the knight begins to doubt he’ll ever be able to keep his life.
Finally, Chaucer leads the knight to the one woman who can save his life, a wrinkled old woman who promises him the answer with the return favor of anything she wishes. A good reader can already infer what is going to happen here, and Chaucer doesn’t disappoint. Here he tackles the issue of physical lust versus love, when the old woman tells the knight that for repayment of saving his life, he must marry her. Oh, how the knight moans and complains and pouts when he is forced into this marriage. He dreads the honeymoon night, and can’t believe he is stuck with this bad luck. The woman tries to appease him, asking him what she did to him besides save his life. He can only respond that she is old and ugly.
Chaucer follows this with a monologue by the woman about the harsh topics of gentility and how being born a nobleman does not make one noble, rather it’s the actions that do. Here we have the noble knight, who is being punished for his crime of rape, thinking he is better than the wise old woman, who has done nothing but save his life. Chaucer satirizes this form of societal thinking with this relationship.
Throughout the story, there are many, many controversial topics Geoffrey Chaucer intersperses as minor details or simply factual telling. This blend of nonchalance coupled with the storyline itself make this a tale that is easily relatable to any time-period and the hypocrisy of society. Human nature itself does not change, which is most likely why this story is still so popular hundreds of years later.
About: Geoffrey Chaucer is known as the Father of English literature, is widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages and was the first poet to be buried in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. While he achieved fame during his lifetime as an author, philosopher, and astronomer, composing a scientific treatise on the astrolabe for his ten-year-old son Lewis, Chaucer also maintained an active career in the civil service as a bureaucrat, courtier and diplomat. Among his many works are The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, The Legend of Good Women and Troilus and Criseyde. He is best known today for The Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer’s work was crucial in legitimizing the literary use of the Middle English vernacular at a time when the dominant literary languages in England were French and Latin. Hope you enjoyed going through the analysis of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” by Geoffrey Chaucer.
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