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"The Wife of Bath's Tale" is a uniquely clever and bafflingly well-constructed tale that eludes any easy answers to its many questions.
According to the General Prologue, the Wife is excellent at cloth-making and is covered in a huge amount of cloth (weighing, according to the Narrator, almost ten pounds). The Latin verb to weave, 'textere', was the basis for a verbal connection between writing texts and weaving cloth. So the Wife of Bath being wrapped in cloth metaphorically means that she's wrapped in text.
How are we to read that? Perhaps that this woman, who argues so forcefully for women's rights and the right of women to have a voice, is being written (and so, almost ventriloquised) by a man, Geoffrey Chaucer. Underneath all the cloth/text, is there a real woman? Or is it just Chaucer in drag?
The sources for the Wife are all real texts, many of them quoted in Jankyn's book of Wikked Wyves. So when the Wife throws Jankyn's book in the fire, she is a text destroying her sources - somewhat like a voice destroying its words. At what point does the Wife - as a character, as a voice, or as a text - have any reality that we can rely on?
To relate this text/cloth point back to the tale itself, notice that at the end of the tale, the lothly lady asks the knight to "Cast up the curtyn" - pull aside the cloth - to see her revealed as a beautiful young woman. But by now, you'll have realised that it's hard to know where the cloth/text stops.
Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale" is unique in several ways. One, it was not normal for women in this time period to travel freely and speak their minds as openly as the Wife does. She has had five wealthy husbands who have passed leaving her powerful in that she has money and social status.
The tale is also intriguing in that there is a quest involved where supernatural elements come into play...the old woman in the tale is magical and has the ability to make or break the knight. The knight rapes a young virgin and instead of being put immediately to death, he is sent on the quest to find the answer the queen poses to him. In the end, he finds a woman to give him the correct answer only to be forced to marry her as old and ugly as she is.
Another reason this tale has such intrigue is it seeks to answer the question "What do women really want?" This question is still relevant today since men still seem stumped. Her answer, of course, is that women want to be treated as equals to men. This is illustrated in her own life as she has perhaps done away with the husbands who did not treat her equally (one hit her, one cheated on her, etc), and now she is possibly seeking husband number six on this pilgrimmage. However, the money those husbands left behind leave her with the power to behave as men do in society...she has more freedom and power than other women in her time.
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