Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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,...

(The entire section is 755 words.)