12: The Wife of Bath's Tale Summary and Analysis
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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,820 words.)