two-faced woman with one half having dark hair and older features and the other half having blonde hair and younger features

The Wife of Bath's Tale

by Geoffrey Chaucer
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In "The Wife of Bath's Tale," does the knight really change at the end of the tale, or does he simply learn how to supply her with the correct answer?

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The Knight certainly gets the best deal by the end of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” as he keeps his life and gains a beautiful and faithful wife in the process—what some may call an injustice after committing a rape at the beginning of the tale. He does this through learning what women truly want—sovereignty, or mastery over their husbands—and by giving it to his foul-smelling, ugly hag of a wife, who transforms herself upon receipt of the gift. Throughout the story, the knight is genuinely surprised at his luck, genuinely distressed at his forced marriage, and genuinely giving up when he hands over the choice to his hag of a wife.

This is, of course, up to the interpretation of the text, but I believe any distrust on the knight’s part is the result a modern distrust of narrators and primary characters, developed in the 20th century, and not a common literary trope in Chaucer’s time. In fact, Chaucer is quite clear which of the travelers are swindlers and liars, and they’ll even tell their audience themselves what their primary sins are, such as the Pardoner and his avarice. His explicit descriptions of which characters are sarcastic, humorous, chivalrous, and devious are intentional and not meant to be taken subversively. There is a fair amount of sarcasm and irony in many of the tales, but as the Wife of Bath establishes herself in her prologue, she is concerned primarily with the ability of women to gain power over men, and that is what her tale will reflect.

I think we can trust the knight’s reaction when he is overjoyed to see that his decision to give his wife the choice between being beautiful and unfaithful or ugly and true. In doing this, the knight really did learn his lesson to submit. The Wife of Bath ends with a prayer for more men who would do just as this knight has done in lines 1258-1260:

“Jesus Christ us send / Husbands meek, young, and vigorous in bed, / And grace to outlive them whom we wed;”

And the prayer also conveys what she hopes will happen to those men who do not allow their wives sovereignty:

“And also I pray Jesus shorten their lives / That will not be governed by their wives; / And old and angry misers in spending, / God send them soon the very pestilence!” (1261-1264).

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This is a great question to consider! I think, however, we can only see the knight's response to his wife at the end of the tale as demonstrating his heartfelt change and transformation. Let us note the way that he initially responds to the old woman when she insists that he marry her:

"My love?" cried he. "You mean my damnation!

Alas! that ever any of my family

Should undergo such foul degradation!"

What is fascinating about this story is the way that the knight intellectually is able to give the queen the correct answer to her question of what it is that women desire most, and then has to realise the truth of this answer for himself in his own life, not just intellectually, but emotionally and with his heart as well. The knight's response to his wife shows his starting point, and, during the course of his conversation with his wife on their wedding night in their bed, we gradually see him change up until the point when he chooses to give dominion to his own wife and receives what he wants as a result. The force of the narrative would be much diminished if the knight was deliberately playing a game with his wife to give her the right answer. The Wife of Bath's message is cemented by his change of heart and his free relinquishment of mastery in his marriage.

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