How would you compare and contrast the Wife of Bath with the old woman in Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Tale"?

Expert Answers
droxonian eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The old woman in the Wife of Bath's story is one of several examples of the 'loathly lady' archetype in medieval poetry. Readers of the tale would have been broadly familiar with her story: she is ugly, and indeed 'a fouler wight ther may no man devyse' (1005). She is also of low birth and is older than the ideal wife, making her far from the preferred marriage partner for the knight who weds her. The loathly lady knows, however, that despite these considerations, the knight has made a binding promise to her, which she repeats before the court. She achieves her ends through shrewdness and strategy. 

This level of strategy and cunning is one of the reasons many comparisons have been drawn between her and the Wife of Bath herself—she is also skilled in rhetoric, as is made evident in the speech she delivers to her husband on issues such as the advantages offered by old age and poverty, and the true source of gentility. Like the Wife of Bath, she is a woman above marriageable age who marries a younger man and then lectures him severely when he criticizes her for things she cannot change. There are obvious parallels between this behavior and the Wife of Bath's treatment of Jankyn, her younger husband. Much has been written, therefore, on the subject of how far the loathly lady is a stand-in for the Wife of Bath—an avatar in her own tale. 

There are, however, other elements working against this interpretation. In the first instance, although both the Wife and the lady give long and skillful speeches, the topics of their speeches are quite different. We know from the Wife of Bath's prologue that she would never allow herself to be forced into poverty and would also never return power to her husband after it has been given to her, as the loathly lady does. Furthermore, at the end of the tale, the loathly lady transforms into a beautiful young woman, a male-gaze fantasy of obedience and attractiveness. The Wife of Bath, meanwhile, has no intention of changing under pressure from society (men), and she remains the voice of female sovereignty even while the loathly lady loses her own sovereignty.  

Further Reading:
iandavidclark3 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are many comparisons that can be made between the Wife of Bath and the old woman in her tale, and the most important one is that both characters are seeking to establish female sovereignty in a misogynistic world. For example, in her lengthy prologue before the tale, the Wife of Bath expounds on the need for women to gain more independence, especially in their relationships with men, and she uses extensive descriptions of her many marriages to back up her arguments. Likewise, the old woman in the tale argues that women want sovereignty in their romantic relationships, and she ultimately gains said sovereignty by asserting her authority within her marriage to the knight.

Despite the many similarities between the Wife and the old woman, there are a few differences. For instance, the old woman regains her youth by the end of the tale, while the Wife (who yearns to attain the lost beauty of her younger days) remains advanced in years. This disparity highlights an important characteristic of the Wife: by including an aged character who regains her youth in her tale, the Wife reveals how important youth is to her. As such, while the Wife is clearly progressive in many ways, she still seems to abide by the misogynistic belief that women are only powerful/beautiful if they are young.   

kbwriter eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both the Wife of Bath and the old woman in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" are similar thematically, being two women who are knowledgeable through many lived experiences. 

Both are outspoken women, giving lengthy speeches with controversial challenges to cultural norms of their time. However, the main topics each touches upon are different—in her prologue, the Wife of Bath speaks about her own views on conventions of marriage and chastity. Meanwhile, the old woman from the "Tale" speaks on the idea of "gentility." 
The details of their speeches focus on quite different issues—however, they do share a tendency to offer evidence to support their claims from outside sources, most notably the bible. Additionally, in a broader sense, they are again similar in that they choose to address how they see societal norms (negatively) impact interpersonal relationships. There is much effort by both to examine how certain standards of past cultures and generations are still used to regulate the society of (their) present day. 
Further Reading:

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question