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The Wife of Bath's Tale

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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In The Canterbury Tales, what is the Wife of Bath's opinion of marriage (including her five), and how does she control her husbands? 

The Wife of Bath's opinion of marriage in The Canterbury Tales is that it is a very good thing, provided that the wife gets to stay in control. And she herself has exercised control throughout all five of her marriages, primarily by keeping hold of the purse-strings.

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The Wife of Bath holds a favorable view of marriage. She considers herself an authority on the subject, since she was first married at age twelve and has had five husbands since then. Her views of marriage—particularly remarriage—are slightly unorthodox for the period: she sees nothing wrong with remarriage or enjoying sex. She even defends such positions by quoting the Book of Genesis's passage about God commanding all of creation to be fruitful and multiply.

Most controversially for her culture, the Wife of Bath believes the best marriages are the ones in which the wife is in control. The Wife of Bath kept most of her husbands under her thumb through money, guilt-tripping, and sex. She would withhold sex or accuse her spouse of the time of cheating in order to manipulate him, and this usually worked.

She also tended to control the purse strings in the marriage. Her last two husbands were anomalies. The fourth husband took a lover, so the Wife made him believe she was cheating on him to make him excessively jealous, putting him back under her control. And while her fifth husband, Jankyn, was the hardest to dominate, she managed to wrest some control from him through guilt after he beat her during a quarrel.

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The Wife of Bath has been married no fewer than five times, which makes her something of an expert on the subject of marriage. Unusually for a woman in medieval Europe, she's the one who wears the pants in her marriages. Primarily, she exercises control through holding the purse-strings. As long as she remains in control of the family finances, she can keep her husband in check. And thanks to the meekness of her first four husbands, that's precisely what she was able to do.

However, the Wife of Bath dropped the ball a little when it came to husband number five, Jankyn. By marrying a poor man, she effectively gave up financial control, which initially caused Jankyn to lose respect for her. For the first time in her married life, the Wife of Bath no longer had the whip-hand in her marriage and was subject to constant nagging and criticism from her husband.

But eventually, she was able to regain control, although only after Jankyn physically assaulted her with a book about wicked women. Jankyn feels guilty after attacking his wife, and the Wife of Bath uses his guilt to her advantage and subsequently reestablishes control, knowing as she does that she can now get Jankyn to do whatever she wants.

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The Wife of Bath expresses her opinion of marriage simply with the moral in her tale:  Women want to be considered the equal or better of their men.  She is in control of her five marriages, and the woman in her tale is in control of the knight.

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The Wife of Bath feels that all control in a marriage should be given to the woman, both financially and sexually speaking. Her constant accusations of unfaithfulness and...

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lying as well as ceaseless criticism of their every action kept the husbands of her first three marriages very busy trying to please her with attention and material wealth. While she does not give up her love for other men, they do not have the time for it. Her practice of obtaining all their worldly possessions before marriage has worked well for her.

The fourth husband does not comply as meekly as the other three before him.He has a wandering eye, and does not easily give over control to her. Therefore, they enter into a mutual game of causing the other jealousy. She enrages him with her taunting of Jenkin's desire for her.

When she marries Jenkin, she makes a mistake. She gives up her practice of maintaining control, and he has all her wealth from her previous husbands, as well as her emotional assets. She is constantly berated for her actions, just as she used to use this ploy on her previous husbands. She, to this point, has been unable to gain back the control in her marriage.

Finally, after a physical fight in which Jenkin thought he killed her, she regains the control and they live very happily until his death.

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The Wife of Bath sees marriage as a means for her to have sex and she has a strong sexual appetite.  She feels that God gave women sexual desires and that it can't be wrong to give in to those desires because they are God-given.  Furthermore, she says that she knows men also have strong sexual desires so she uses sex, or the lack of it, to control her husbands.  She uses her tale as a way of explaining that the most important quality a woman wants from a marriage is to be able to control the man.  She fondly recalls each of her marriages because she was able to find ways to control each husband.  Sometimes, besides sex, she would use other techniques to control her husband such as jealousy and deception.  One trick she used was to accuse her husband of being unfaithful, even though she knew he hadn't been unfaithful, so that he would go out of his way to assure her that he was not straying.

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