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The Wife of Bath's Tale

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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How do the prologue and tale work together in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”?

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In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath’s prologue establishes her as a marriage expert by suggesting that personal experience overrides authority. Having been married five times, the Wife believes she is a qualified expert on marriage and the desires of husbands and wives. In her prologue, the Wife shares some details of her personal life, particularly anecdotes about her relationships with her husbands and how she gained control over them. She believes that all women wish to have complete control over their spouses, and this notion is supported by her tale.

The Wife’s tale tells the story of a knight who rapes a beautiful woman and, as punishment, is sentenced by the queen to spend a year learning what women want most. An old hag agrees to give him the correct answer, which is control over men, in exchange for marriage. The knight reluctantly marries the hag even though he is disgusted by her.

The hag tells the knight that her ugliness can be considered an advantage because it guarantees her loyalty. She asks him if he would rather have an ugly, faithful wife or a beautiful wife who may not be loyal. The knight leaves the choice up to the hag, who, having successfully gained the upper hand over her husband, transforms into a beautiful young woman.

This tale suggests that women seek to control their husbands—the same notion which is introduced by the Wife in the prologue of her tale.

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