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The Wife of Bath's Tale

by Geoffrey Chaucer
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What is the most important quote in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" and prologue, and what is the significance behind the quote?

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This is largely a matter of subjective opinion, but I would argue that one of the most significant quotations in "The Wife of Bath's Prologue" concerns the appropriate behavior of widows:

But me was told, certeyn, nat longe agon is,
That sith that Crist ne wente nevere but onis
To wedding in the Cane of Galilee,
That by the same ensample taughte he me
That I ne sholde wedded be but onis.

In modern English, what the Wife of Bath is saying here is that, according to traditional Christian teaching, widows should not remarry. The general expectation in Medieval Europe was that widows would spend the rest of their lives in chastity, possibly even going to live in a convent and take the habit of a nun.

Needless to say, the Wife of Bath isn't anything like that. She's very much a woman ahead of her time: wealthy, independent, and with a mind of her own. She knows what she wants out of life and isn't afraid to go for it. That's why the above quotation, which is a pretty accurate statement of the prevailing moral values of the time relating to widowhood, is so extraordinary. It shows us the restrictive cultural background against which the Wife of Bath is asserting her independence as a woman. And that makes her individuality all the more remarkable.

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This question asks for the personal opinion of the reader of "The Wife of Bath's Tale and Prologue" regarding the most important quote in this particular section of The Canterbury Tales. In my opinion, the quote below is the most important for its direct challenge of a patriarchal stereotype of women:

Thou sayest also that it displeases me
Unless thou will praise my beauty,
And unless thou peer always upon my face,
And call me "dear lady" in every place.
And unless thou make a feast on that same day
That I was born, and make me happy and gay;
And unless thou do honor to my nurse,
And to my chambermaid within my bedchamber,
And to my father's folk and his allies—
Thus sayest thou, old barrelful of lies!

Throughout the tale and its prologue, the Wife of Bath makes many a scandalous comment about her sexual appetites and her own comport when it comes to relationships between men and women. Clearly, Chaucer characterizes her as a lusty and strong woman, but in the quote above, Chaucer ensures that she is more than just a woman who refuses to subscribe to the demure ideal of the time. The Wife of Bath seizes an insidious stereotype that suggests that all women are needy and demanding simply by virtue of their sex, and she insists that it is a flawed image. She assures her listener of the error in other stereotypes commonly held about women, explaining that women do not need their vanity satisfied and that it is a lie to assume that she has a particular loyalty to her father just because she is his daughter.

The direct challenge to these stereotypes of women is important because it illustrates that the patriarchy have long held these negative ideas about women—and that for just as long, women have been trying to confront these negative ideas.

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There are of course a number of quotes of significance in both the Tale and the Prologue, and I encourage you in particular to not examine them separately but to see them as partner texts and consider how one casts light on the other and vice versa. However, for me, the central kernel of truth in this amazing text has to come from the Tale itself, when the knight, facing an impossible decision of either having a wife who is beautiful but unfaithful or ugly but faithful, decides to leave the choice up to his wife, giving her the "mastery" that she and all women desire:

My lady and my love, my dear wife too,

I place myself in your wise governance;

Choose for yourself whichever's the most pleasant,

Most honourable to you, and me also.

All's one to me; choose either of the two;

What pleases you is good enough for me.

This of course is the answer to the question that is posed by the Wife of Bath in her Prologue, when she asks what it is that women really desire. The way in which the young knight gets both a beautiful and a faithful wife because he gives his wife mastery over him cements the Wife of Bath's point: a wife's possession of mastery is what is best for both men and women, according to the Wife of Bath.

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