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What does the Wife of Bath really want in The Canterbury Tales?

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hanhphuc | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted November 11, 2010 at 10:38 AM via web

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What does the Wife of Bath really want in The Canterbury Tales?

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hayhay1510 | Student, Grade 9 | (Level 1) eNoter

Posted November 11, 2010 at 10:44 AM (Answer #1)

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Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale," a short excerpt from his longer work The Canterbury Tales, resembles the other stories in many ways. It is preceded by a prologue, in which the storyteller -- in this case a widow from the city of Bath -- is given the opportunity to introduce herself and her story. The tale itself is an example of one of the many storytelling genres common in Chaucer's time -- others being the fabliau, the romance, or the moralistic parable.

But in other ways, the "Wife of Bath's Tale" stands alone. Chaucer uses both the book's General Prologue and the prologue to the Wife's tale to give us much more insight into her personality than is the case with any other pilgrim. This is her third pilgrimage; she's had five husbands; and in her own tale she explains how much reproach she has endured for having been married so many times. The remainder of her prologue is devoted to her carefully-structured argument extolling the virtues of wedded bliss, culminating in the assertion that if men would just submit to their wives in marriage, peace on earth would ensue, and everyone would live happily ever after.

The prologue alone does not paint the portrait of a deeply romantic woman; yet the tale she proceeds to tell is unabashedly romantic. She relates the story of a knight given the task of finding out what "wommen moost desiren" (women most desire). Her tale shows that women want their husband's love, not his obedience. Admittedly, the Wife's summation of the moral of the tale says the exact opposite, but the tale itself belies it: once the knight in the tale gives the old hag her way in one matter, she returns control to him and becomes young and beautiful so he will really desire her rather than merely being bound to her out of duty.

Regardless of what women really want, it is clear that what the Wife wants is love. From her prologue we learn that in her own life she was not happy with weak, dithering husbands who crumbled under her rough touch; she loved the young Jankyn who fought her like a tiger but loved her just as recklessly. Her story purports to show what "wommen most desiren", but it really shows what the Wife of Bath wants: to be loved for herself.

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Michelle Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted November 11, 2010 at 8:03 PM (Answer #2)

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In her story, the Wife of Bath tells of a knight that has to find the correct answer to the question: What do women really want?

After a lot of wondering and looking for the correct answer, the knight finally answer the question: Women want to be in charge of their husbands (sovereigns) of them.

The Wife of Bath, having been married a number of times, mentions in different occasions the joys of marriage, and it all comes down to sex, money, and love.

If we combine her tale with the story of her life, we can conclude that she wants the comforts and joys of marriage down to the basic elements of money, sex, and passion. She is fond of all three equally and she even encourages other women to marry for similar reasons.

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