Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 755

A significant theme in Chaucer’s poem is marriage, which is the Wife of Bath’s hobbyhorse. The romance is also about domination in regard to gender roles. The romance begins with the Wife of Bath mocking friars, claiming that they are too dishonest; this satire serves as an act of vengeance...

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A significant theme in Chaucer’s poem is marriage, which is the Wife of Bath’s hobbyhorse. The romance is also about domination in regard to gender roles. The romance begins with the Wife of Bath mocking friars, claiming that they are too dishonest; this satire serves as an act of vengeance because the Friar has previously interrupted her prologue. The Wife’s satire of friars manifests to Chaucer’s readers that the woman hates to be controlled by others (in the second interruption of the prologue, the Friar attempts to terminate the extensive and rambling monologue of the Wife, a chatterbox). Her mockery demonstrates her anger at the Friar for trying to harness her voice, to dominate her verbally. She also claims that women need to be careful of friars, for these supposedly holy men have been known to sexually assault females. Thus, the Wife of Bath, in her quest for revenge, suggests that the Friar is a rapist—“he ne wol doon hem but dishonour”—linking her adversary with the protagonist of her tale, the lecherous knight.

When the knight rapes the maiden, he physically dominates her, controlling her as he shames her. When Arthur transfers his authority to his queen, she then governs the knight’s fate. After dominating a woman, now another woman controls him and can either take or spare his life. He then sets out on a quest—which the queen herself chooses—regarding the question about female desire. If he does not find the answer, he will die, so he finds himself totally at the mercy of the queen and her ladies. The fact that every woman he encounters provides him with a different answer suggests Chaucer’s gentle mocking of women: They cannot reach a consensus. However, the question is open and broad, allowing for many different valid answers.

The knight then finds himself at the mercy of the old woman, who knows the answer and will tell him, provided that he puts himself solely in her authority by granting her desire. When the knight returns, he gives his answer, declaring that women desire sovereignty over their men. He then adds, “This is youre moste desir though ye me kille./ Dooth as you list: I am here at youre wille.” The knight has perhaps learned something from this quest because he puts his life completely at the mercy of the women. He declares that they may kill him if his answer does not satisfy them, allowing them to decide whether his response is worthy of preserving his life.

Although the women declare that he may live, he then is forced to marry the hag, a decision enforced by the queen and her court. The knight begins his marriage as the dominating spouse, informing his elderly bride that she is unworthy of him because of her ugliness and her low social class. Her eloquent but long-winded speech—the hag, like the Wife of Bath, talks incessantly—impresses the knight.

When she provides him with the choice, beautiful and unfaithful or ugly and faithful, he decides not to make a choice. Specifically, he chooses to let her decide, which is actually a decision in itself. By permitting his elderly wife to decide, the knight endows her with power, indicating that she alone will govern her own life without an attempt by him to control her. Instead of making such a significant decision about her physical appearance and her loyalty, he entrusts her with autonomy. His actions suggest that he has learned a great deal through his quest and his wife’s oration. As a reward, she transforms herself into a beautiful and a faithful wife. By allowing her to have control in their marriage, he thus benefits from both aspects of the bargain.

It might be troubling, however, to some readers that this knight rapes a woman and eventually is rewarded with a young, beautiful, and loyal wife. The old hag’s transformation into a gorgeous woman represents the narrator’s (the Wife of Bath’s) wish fulfillment. The Wife was a beautiful woman who became ugly as she grew old; she laments the loss of her beauty and youth in her prologue. Because there is unquestionably a close connection between the narrator and the hag, the readers can perceive this transformation as something the Wife of Bath wants for herself. The old hag marries, which the Wife also wants; perhaps her reason for embarking on the pilgrimage in the first place is her search for husband number six.

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