What are the Wife of Bath's weaknesses in The Canterbury Tales?

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emilyknight7 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Wife of Bath comes across as one of the more abrasive characters in The Canterbury Tales, the kind of person it would probably be very tiresome to spend a long journey with. Still, she is also a favorite to modern readers, who generally enjoy her spunk and bawdy wit. 

She definitely has some traits that her fellow travelers and even some modern readers might view as negative. First is her appearance. Despite having married five men (so far!), the Wife of Bath is far from conventional beauty. She has wide hips, a gap tooth, and a red face. She also is very ostentatious with her dress. From her hat the size of a "bokeler" (a small shield) to her scarlet clothes and scarves to her "moiste and newe" shoes, she is clearly a lady looking to show off her wealth as her most marriageable feature. Aside from the general dislike some people have for this look, her physical description also fits the medieval stereotype of someone who is lustful. 

Beneath the surface, her personality certainly seems to fit the "lustful" stereotype as well. She mentions "oother compaignye in youthe" – the men she has slept with before her many husbands. She is also quick to become angry or recognize slights, such as when other women upstage her in the Church offering.

A look at her five marriages also gives readers a sense of her flaws. They all sound unhealthy to abusive to the modern audience, and the Wife herself seems incredibly manipulative, using sneaky arguments, Biblical examples, and sexual favors to get her way. Each marriage seems to be a back and forth of insults and criticisms and phony compliments and praise, with each party trying to gain as much as possible. 

While the Wife is no role model, most readers forgive her these faults, enjoying her brass humor and sassy outspokenness, while empathizing with and respecting her ability to make so much for herself in a world where a woman is worth so little. For many readers, her flaws make her that much more enjoyable as a character.

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The Canterbury Tales

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