What does the Wife Of Bath want to accomplish by telling her tale?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There seem to be two goals for the Wife of Bath in her long-winded Prologue and Tale:

  1. She wishes to establish the quest of women for self-definition.
  2. She wishes to make a counter-statement against the prevailing attitude that men are noble and women baser in nature.

1. Quest for Self-Definition

After the errant knight rapes a woman, he is punished by Queen Guenevere, who orders him to learn the true desires of women. On the knights peregrination, he speaks with many women who cannot decide; this indecision suggests that women have not been given a voice and are unsure of themselves when afforded the opportunity. Just as his allotted time to find an answer draws near its end, he happens on an old crone, who agrees to tell him for his pledge that he will grant her wish. The knight agrees, and returns to the queen with this answer:

"My royal lady, " he said, "what women want,
Most usually, is sovereign power in their hands,
Not only over husbands but whatever lovers
They take. They wish to be masters, high above them...." (178-181)

Having returned as he pledged to the old hag, she forces him to marry her. Afterwards, she tells her husband that she can remain old and be always faithful, or she can become young and beautiful, but cannot promise to be faithful. When the knight leaves the decision to her, the old crone becomes a beautiful woman and vows to be faithful and obedient to her husband for having given her the right of decision.

2. A refutation that men are more noble than women

In her vow to be obedient to her husband, the wife of the knight displays much nobility.

"And every man knows this as well as I do:
If nobility were implanted in a certain line
Of descent, separate and apart, Nature
Would make sure that all such men were virtuous,
Unable to practice vice or villainy. (275-279)

Additionally, throughout her tale, the Wife of Bath ridicules the Pardoner who interrupts her tale in retaliation for her having done the same as she accuses friars of being men who love to sexually assault women.

Read the study guide:
The Canterbury Tales

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