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The most detailed description we have of the Wife of Bath is found in the Prologue. She is one of the most colorful characters developed by Chaucer, and certainly one of the most interesting. She is described as reasonably affluent, and dressed in garish attire, including red hose and a finely woven kerchief (which she actually made herself, being more skilled at "making cloth" than the weavers of "Ypres and Ghent." Physically, she has a "bold and fair" face, "red of hue," and a gap between her two front teeth. She is also described as having "buttocks large," but being very comfortable riding a horse. She is well-travelled, having been to Jerusalem three times, as well as such locations as Rome, Bologna, and Cologne.
Perhaps her most important, and memorable characteristic is that she has survived five husbands, and indeed, as she says at the beginning of her tale, is in search of a sixth. Yet she is deemed "respectable throughout her life," and she says that her life has made her very knowledgeable about love. Her introduction to her tale is essentially a vindication of her life (particularly her mulitple marriages) and her philosophy of marriage, which is, in a way, a sort of proto-feminist manifesto.
She believes that women ought to use sex as a tool to control their husbands, and she believes that sexual activity has divine sanction. Why else, she argues, would God have given men and women sex organs? She kept her husbands in line by constantly accusing them of infidelity. They, in turn, would shower her with gifts and money, which accounts to some degree for her apparent affluence. The Wife of Bath's Tale is a story of a handsome young knight who is forced to marry an old hag. He discovers that physical beauty is not the only basis for marriage, and is rewarded when she transforms into a beautiful young woman. The most telling description of the Wife of Bath is found at the end of her story, when she prays:
Jesus to us send
Meek husbands, and young ones, fresh in bed,
And good luck to outlive them that we wed.
And I pray Jesus to cut short the lives
Of those who’ll not be governed by their wives...
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