What does the prologue to the Wife of Bath's Tale indicate the story will be about?

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sjfisher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Wife of Bath’s prologue initially hints at, and then tells her companions the purpose of her tale. She opens by asserting her authority in marriage, saying that because she has had five husbands, she has the experience to maintain command over the topic (Chaucer, lines 1-6). Once she has asserted her mastery of the subject, the Wife hints at the subject of her tale: “. . . whan that I have told thee forth my tale / Of tribulacioun in marriage . . .” (178-9). At this point, the reader can assume the coming tale will center on some form of trouble within a marriage. The Wife’s insistence that she is an authority on the subject and her mention of marital tribulation make that much clear.

Later in the prologue, the Wife explains the type of power women have over men in marriages. She alludes to withholding sex and other comforts of a partner. Here she gives purpose to her coming tale, following her examples of women’s power with the statement “And therefore every man this tale I telle,” (419). With this line, she has shown readers that her tale will be a tool to instruct men on the power of women in a marriage. At this point in the reading, one can assume the Wife’s tale will include a troubled marriage that involves a woman’s power over man.

Near the end of the prologue, readers get a final hint of what is to come. The Wife is detailing her relationship with one of her husbands. After describing the troubles in the marriage and how she gained control over him, she declares “And whan that I had geten unto me / By maistry all the sovereignetee, / . . . After that day we hadden never debat!” (823-4, 828). Here she is claiming that once she retained total control, or mastery, over her husband and the relationship, there were no more conflicts. From this, readers can assume the Wife’s ‘instructional’ tale will emphasize women’s power and the peaceful solution such power will create when a wife’s total authority is granted.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath’s Prologue. New York: Penguin Signet Classics, 1968. Book.  

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The Canterbury Tales

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