Chaucer presents stories that deal with marriage in all three of the pilgrims' tales in The Canterbury Tales, specifically "The Cleric's Tale," "The Wife of Bath's Tale," "The Franklin's Tale," and "The Merchant's Tale." Besides each story concentrating on marriage, there are other underlying issues that are addressed within the vows of wedlock in each story.
In "The Wife of Bath's Tale," the Wife tells the story of a knight who rapes a young woman of the kingdom. To avoid execution, he must find what it is that every woman wants. An old woman gives him the answer in exchange for a wish; when the time comes, she wishes that he marry her. He agrees, but the woman is old and ugly. However, she reveals to him that he can have her faithful to him at night and ugly by day, or beautiful by day but unfaithful at night. Having learned his lesson that every woman wants her way, he lets her decide, and she is both to him—as a reward. This story promotes the value of giving a wife what she wants.
"The Frankin's Tale" tells the story of a lovely wife, Dorigen, who adores her husband, Arveragus. While he is away, Aurelius begins to pursue Dorigen. To get him to leave her alone, she promises to sleep with him if he can make all the dangerous shoreline rocks (that threaten her husband's return), disappear—believing it impossible. Arveragus and Dorigen are lovingly reunited. Then Aurelius has a magician create an illusion of "missing rocks." To fulfill her promise, Dorigen asks her husband for advice. Arveragus...
...calmly says that in good conscience she must go and keep her promise to Aurelius.
When she tells Aurelius that she is there with her husband's blessing, he releases Dorigen from her promise. Here the wife is faithful, and her loving husband tells her to do the honorable thing; Aurelius is impressed and dismisses her promise.
In "The Cleric's Tale," we hear the story of Walter, The Marquis of Saluzzo, and his bride Griselda. She is a peasant woman he chooses, who he forever "tests" to see if she will honor...
...her agreement to obey him implicitly and never to grumble about his decisions.
Every time they have a child, after some years pass, Walter takes the child away from Griselda. She is broken-hearted, enduring great emotional pain, but she never complains. Over the years, Walter is cruel in his tests, even pretending to prepare to put Griselda aside to marry another. Ultimately—tests all passed—Walter reunites Griselda with her children and they all "live happily ever after." Griselda is a dutiful wife who keeps her word and is rewarded.
In "The Merchant's Tale," an older, lascivious man (January) decides to marry and have an heir. He marries May, who does not marry for love. January is suddenly blinded, and May is approached by Damian. May and Damian decide to have an affair in January's company. The gods, Pluto and Persopina, decide to interfere: January's sight is restored, but May is given the ability to talk her way out of being caught. The idea in this story is that some men have suffered at the hands of their wives.
All four stories have an common theme of marriage. However, in each the relationship differs, and a husband is tested or a wife is tested, with varying results. Something that seems common in each is the study of obedience and/or faithfulness by the wives, and the test of the true character of the husband—and how each man's life is deeply affected by his wife's actions.