12: The Wife of Bath's Tale Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1820

Summary
The Wife of Bath tells the travelers that she has buried five husbands and has lived in the married state since she was 12 years old. Furthermore, she is now looking for her sixth husband. For these reasons, she considers herself an expert on the subject of matrimony.

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Before telling her story, the Wife feels compelled to defend her numerous marriages. In a lengthy monologue, she counters the religious arguments against multiple marriages. For instance, she says, although God and St. Paul recommend chastity as a perfect state, neither of them expressly forbid marriage. Since she is not perfect and has no desire to be, she personally prefers being married as she has an enormous appetite for sexual activity. In any case, she says, God calls people to Him in many ways: He calls her to marriage.

Continuing the argument, the Wife adds that God would not have given men and women sexual organs if He did not intend for them to be used. The good Wife has learned to use her sexual organs to their best advantage, which is, in her opinion, as instruments with which to control her husbands.

The Pardoner interrupts to say that he was about to marry, but now that he has listened to the Wife of Bath, he is not so sure he wants to volunteer to be controlled in the way she is describing. The Wife tells him to keep listening.

Next, this lively narrator launches into her personal philosophy of marriage. It is, in a nutshell, that the wife must control the husband if the marriage is to succeed. She details how the woman acquires and keeps control. The Wife knows this because three of her husbands were rich, old, and easy to control, which constitute the perfect characteristics for husbands in her opinion. She is sure her management of them made all of these men happy.

Specifically, she tells the travelers, she always made it a practice to accuse the men constantly of infidelity, deception, and criticism. The husbands, therefore, were continually occupied defending themselves and proving the Wife mistaken by giving her their attention, their devotion, and many, many gifts. Their fortunes she had wisely secured before even marrying them.

While the men she married were thus absorbed in proving their devotion, the Wife of Bath could, and did, dally with whomever she pleased. If the Wife's gadding about at night and keeping company with a handsome young attendant became a subject for comment by the husband, she would merely turn the tables on him. She would declare that spying on the husband as he went "wenching" at night necessitated her absences and her bodyguard.

The merry Wife admits that she has grown fond of drinking as she has aged, finding it a stimulus to her sexual nature and making her less able to resist the advances of men. She mourns the loss of her youth but is still determined to be happy.

Next in this extremely long prologue, she tells about her fourth husband who was a reveller and had a mistress, which made her very jealous. She repaid him by making him aware of how attractive she was to other men. This, in turn, made him constantly jealous of her. Yet, the Wife also confides that all the while she was married to the fourth husband, she was flirting with Jenkin, a young former cleric who had been a scholar at Oxford. According to the Wife, she convinced Jenkin that he had enchanted her and that if she were free, she would marry him.

Jenkin evidently believed the lady, for when they buried the fourth husband, he walked behind the bier and made eyes at the Wife. The good widow did not weep too much realizing that she had already cemented her fifth marriage. This though Jenkin was 20 and she was 40.

In the fifth marriage, however, the Wife admits she made the terrible mistake of giving Jenkin control, including all the lands and properties she had inherited from the previous husbands. As a consequence, Jenkin would not do anything she wanted. Furthermore, and what was worse, Jenkin actually tried to control her. He forbade her to go visiting and preached at her constantly, quoting from segments about bad wives from learned books.

Finally, one night when he was reading to her about the troubles famous men had had with their wives, the Wife of Bath grew so exasperated with Jenkin that she tore three pages from the book and punched him in the cheek. He retaliated by hitting her so hard that she fell back, apparently unconscious. Terrified that he had killed her, and overwhelmed with relief when her mock unconsciousness disappeared, Jenkin gave the Wife back control of their marriage and they lived happily until he died.

The Friar is greatly amused by this narration, but he comments that it was certainly a very long introduction to her story. Jumping to the Wife's defense, the Summoner insults the Friar, the Friar retaliates. The Host quiets the feuding clergymen and the Wife of Bath finally tells her story.

In the days of King Arthur, a young knight rides out from the court one day, and when he spies a beautiful and solitary maiden, he ravishes her. The girl's outraged family appeals to Arthur for justice, and Arthur condemns the youth to death.

However, the Queen and her ladies take pity on the tragic young knight and persuade Arthur to leave the youth to their judgment. The Queen commands the youth to spend a year traveling all across the country interviewing women. At the end of the year, he is to return to court and be able to tell the Queen what it is that women most desire. If he cannot provide the correct response, he will forfeit his life.

After a year of searching for this knowledge, the young knight has received so many different answers that he despairs of surviving his trial. As he sadly and reluctantly begins his journey back to the court, he happens upon an exceedingly ugly old woman. When he tells her of his sad state, the old woman promises to give him the answer he is seeking if he will swear to grant her anything she wishes. The young knight eagerly gives his word in exchange for which the hag confides to him the proper answer to the question proposed by the Queen.

The old woman accompanies the youth back to the court. When they are ushered into the presence of the Queen, she asks if he has learned what it is that women most desire. He gives her the answer supplied by the ancient woman; that women wish to have complete control of their husbands, their love affairs, and to be the master of their men.

When this turns out to be the correct response, the old hag claims her wish. She wants the handsome young knight to marry her. Horrified, he begs her to change her mind, but she refuses.

Sad and appalled at what he is doing, the young man marries the old woman; but when he lies with her on the wedding night, he can feel no passion. When she asks him why he is such a reluctant lover, he tells her it is because she is so poor, old, and ugly.

Getting his attention immediately, the old hag says she can change her form in three days time. However, she lectures eloquently about the mistakenness of judging people by their appearance. She tells him to decide, after reflecting on the wisdom of all she has said, whether he wants her to remain ugly and old, yet a humble and faithful wife; or whether he would have her become young and lovely, but probably an unreliable and troublesome wife.

The young husband ruefully chooses to have the old woman remain as she is, whereupon she rewards him by remaining humble and faithful, at the same time becoming young and beautiful. Thus, the knight's good judgment is rewarded and the two then live happily together from that moment on.

Interjecting herself again, the Wife of Bath closes her tale with a prayer that Jesus send women handsome and virile husbands together with the strength to outlive them. She curses men who will not be ruled by their wives and says Amen.

Discussion and Analysis
In her lengthy introduction, the Wife of Bath reveals a great deal about herself. She is unquestionably a feminist: mercenary, amorous, and aggressive in the bargain. Chaucer has made her intelligent as well, quite adept at argumentation.

The Wife's policy in marriage is to completely rule her husbands by exhausting them sexually. Prior to the weddings with old men, she has already secured control of the joint property, so once she rules the bed, all mastery is hers. Any woe is then the husband's while she remains free to do as she pleases, even if what she pleases involves infidelity.

In her arguments in favor of matrimony as opposed to celibacy, the Wife of Bath is particularly virulent in her opposition to the anti-feminism she seems to have frequently encountered with the medieval clergy. If she is to be believed, her fifth husband was a former cleric who read aloud to her from anti-feminist books written by what she feels were impotent old priests who knew nothing of life or of women. She finds their attitudes infuriating.

Ironically, this strong character does not see that she is exactly the type of woman the clerics preached against. Furthermore, she seems oblivious to the way matters have changed in her own marriages as she has grown older. Because she is now less attractive and less energetic, now an older woman, her younger husbands placed her in the position her first husbands were with her. The fourth husband and Jenkin start marriage in the ascendency; however, the formidable Wife of Bath ultimately gains the upper hand in these relationships as well.

The story told by the Wife is somewhere between a folktale and a romance. The fairies, elves, and the old hag with magic power characterize folktales, while the Arthurian court, the noble central characters, and the old woman's sermon on the true nature of gentility are characteristic of the romance. Chaucer's sources appear, in this instance, to have been solely English, derived from old tales of Sir Gawaine and from Gower's tale of Florent. Again, though, Chaucer's particular genius is evident in the combining and altering of elements from all three sources to make a tale entirely new.

Because the story is about an old woman who desires a younger man and ultimately proves wise enough to win his love and sexual attentions, it is entirely fitting that the Wife of Bath should be the narrator. The theme is obvious: the man must give the woman the upper hand in marriage if he wishes to be happy.

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