How does Chaucer use satire in "The Wife of Bath's Tale"?

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acn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Chaucer uses satire throughout the Wife of Bath's tale, but his reason for using it is highly controversial. Some believe that he was trying to be misogynistic and that all of the satire is an attack on women. Others believe that he was being feminist and progressive by attacking the church and social norms. In the prologue, he could be making fun of amoral women by showing the lengths they would go to in order to explain themselves while pretending they don't care about the opinions of others. Or he could be making fun of the church by showing how easy it is to use their doctrines to support anything. Some argue that the main satire in the tale itself is that we know the Wife from the prologue is the one telling it—that after we've seen that she's amoral herself, her comments on men are supposed to seem hypocritical. Others point to the many clear (non-satirical) signs of support for women in the story, including the idea that men should listen to their wives. They also point to the way Chaucer uses satire to poke fun at the church again, by claiming friars are impotent rapists, which suggests that his real target in the prologue was the church. So, the question does not have a simple answer; Chaucer could have been using satire for either of these reasons.

M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The way that Chaucer uses satire in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" is by characterizing the woman using paradoxical traits that in no way represent a woman who would be considered as a man's object of desire.

Gap-toothed was she, it is no lie to say.
Upon an ambler easily she sat,
Well wimpled, aye, and over all a hat
As broad as is a buckler or a targe,

For once, the wife has been married five times, and is currently looking for a new man. Second, the woman is directly characterized as "broad" and "elderly", meaning that she has no redeeming qualities. However, she is the most liberated character, discussing her sexuality and need for it with no qualms.

Often, a woman looking for a husband would be characterized as a damsel in distress; as a feeble female who waits for a knight in a shining armor. After all, these are precisely the times when the themes of chivalry and the concept of the damsel were most used. Hence Chaucer deviates from the norm and presents to us a rough-looking, abrasive and far from the damsel construct of its time. This is how the satire comes through in the tale.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Wife of Bath satirizes women and marriage.  Though she is “ugly, elderly, and poor,” she has been married five times and is looking for a sixth.  She uses marriages to get power over men, because women do not have power otherwise.  They use sex and marriage to control their men.  Her story describes both the abusive nature of men (the knight rapes the maiden) and the romantic (the tale ends with a happy marriage). It contains a warning.

"Gentility, you then should realize,

Is not akin to things like property;

For people act with much variety,

Not like the fire that always is the same.

God knows that men may often find, for shame,             

A lord's son who's involved in villainy…”

She uses her sexuality to get what she wants, and so does the woman in her story.  The old woman becomes a beautiful young one, thus poking fun at social conventions and granting the Wife of Bath power. 

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