How does the Wife of Bath's Tale match her personality in The Canterbury Tales?

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rrteacher's profile pic

rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The Wife of Bath makes no secret of her desire for sex. She has been married five times and is looking for another husband. She claims that God has created people to be good at different things, and that she is good at sex. Because sex outside of marriage is a sin, however, she feels the need to get married again and again. She goes through a lengthy description of he husbands in her prologue, claiming, basically, that women should use sex to maintain control of their husbands.  Her story is in keeping with her personality, and her philosophy of relations between men and women. It is a story of a knight who is assisted in his mission to discover what women want by an old hag, who then persuades him to marry her. She tells the knight that she can change form, and offers the knight a choice between keeping her ugly body, but guaranteeing loyalty, or changing into a beautiful women whose loyalty is questionable. When the knight chooses the former option, he winds up having both. The story, with loyalty, romance, and marital relations at its heart, is very much what one might expect from a woman like the Wife of Bath.

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The Wife of Bath's tale has several parallels to her personality. For, the "worthy woman from Bath" wants to be married and her story is about marriage and conjugal relations. Also, in the Wife of Bath's Tale, the old crone of the tale is loquacious, much like the pilgrim herself.

So, it is not surprising that the Wife of Bath does not begin with her tale, but, instead, talks of herself, then lampoons friars as dishonest and licentious, thus linking the Friar himself--who "dallied with women like boys playing with puppies"--with the lecherous knight of her story. For she holds a grudge against the Friar for criticizing her during what he calls her "long preamble" to her tale.

Further, her tale is about women's desire to be controlling, just as she has "ruled so hard and kept them [her husbands] under her "thumb" (line 219). "No one ever owned me," she declares. Much like the old crone whose young knight finally affords her the choice of the two options she has offered him regarding their marriage, she finally won control of her husband named Jannkin, who constantly read stories to her from a book about domineering women who brought their husbands grief.

One day when she had heard enough, she ripped three pages out of the book. Then her husband struck her so violently that he feared he had killed her. When she became conscious, she told her husband,

'And for my land you've murdered me?
Before I die, bend down and kiss me, please.'
        "He came to me, and knelt himself at my side,
Saying, 'O dearest Alison, my bride,
So help me God! I'll never hit you again. . . 
Forgive me please, I beg you. Forgive me, dear wife' (lines 803-808).

After this, the husband "passed the bridle" (line 813) to her hands, much as the knight agrees to let his old wife be in power in the tale.

In yet another similarity to her tale, the Wife of Bath speaks of her "just-dead husband" (line 593), who was twenty years her younger, much as in her tale a youthful knight marries the old crone. While the Wife of Bath remained older than her young husband, when the knight kisses his wife at the end of the tale, the old woman "had become a beauty" (line 391). This, perhaps, is a wish-fulfillment of the Wife of Bath.

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