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The Wife of Bath's Tale

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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How does Chaucer use satire in "The Wife of Bath's Tale"?

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In Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Tale" from The Canterbury Tales, there are several ways men and women are satirized. It may be that Chaucer is poking fun at the behavior of men and knights in particular, and of women, especially wives. The Knight who is at the center of the tale, is supposed to be noble, honorable, and protective of the helpless and weak—including women and children. This man comes across a woman alone in the countryside and rapes her — this may be Chaucer's way of ridiculing the medieval idea of the chivalric knight...that knights were the ideal, but not necessarily the norm.

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Satire pokes fun at human weaknesses or social issues. Focusing on the tale itself, we could pick out two social issues it pokes fun at and undermines: the first is male intellectual superiority; the second is the assumption that the male should be in charge of the household.

The tale begins with a knight raping a woman. Though he is condemned to death, Queen Guinevere stands up for him, and as result, he is given a year and a day to find the answer to the following question: what do women most desire?

Although men are supposed to be more intelligent than women, the knight can't come with the answer. He asks women far and wide and gets so many different answers that a year later he is still confused. He doesn't seem to have the critical thinking skills to discern what underlying thread holds the answers together. Finally, on the last day, he desperately promises to give a wise old woman whatever she wants in return for the answer.

She tells him that what women most want is to rule over their husbands. This is the right answer and the knight's life is spared—but the old woman insists he marry her. In the end, he lets her decide whether to be beautiful by night or day—and because he has allowed her to rule on this issue, she rewards him by becoming beautiful all the time.

The poem satirizes or pokes fun at the idea that men should be heads of household because they are smarter than women. It shows that women should be in charge and that men would be happier that way—ideas the Wife of Bath very much favors.

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Chaucer uses satire throughout the Wife of Bath's tale, but his reason for using it is highly controversial. Some believe that he was trying to be misogynistic and that all of the satire is an attack on women. Others believe that he was being feminist and progressive by attacking the church and social norms. In the prologue, he could be making fun of amoral women by showing the lengths they would go to in order to explain themselves while pretending they don't care about the opinions of others. Or he could be making fun of the church by showing how easy it is to use their doctrines to support anything. Some argue that the main satire in the tale itself is that we know the Wife from the prologue is the one telling it—that after we've seen that she's amoral herself, her comments on men are supposed to seem hypocritical. Others point to the many clear (non-satirical) signs of support for women in the story, including the idea that men should listen to their wives. They also point to the way Chaucer uses satire to poke fun at the church again, by claiming friars are impotent rapists, which suggests that his real target in the prologue was the church. So, the question does not have a simple answer; Chaucer could have been using satire for either of these reasons.

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The way that Chaucer uses satire in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" is by characterizing the woman using paradoxical traits that in no way represent a woman who would be considered as a man's object of desire.

Gap-toothed was she, it is no lie to say.
Upon an ambler easily she sat,
Well wimpled, aye, and over all a hat
As broad as is a buckler or a targe,

For once, the wife has been married five times, and is currently looking for a new man. Second, the woman is directly characterized as "broad" and "elderly", meaning that she has no redeeming qualities. However, she is the most liberated character, discussing her sexuality and need for it with no qualms.

Often, a woman looking for a husband would be characterized as a damsel in distress; as a feeble female who waits for a knight in a shining armor. After all, these are precisely the times when the themes of chivalry and the concept of the damsel were most used. Hence Chaucer deviates from the norm and presents to us a rough-looking, abrasive and far from the damsel construct of its time. This is how the satire comes through in the tale.

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The Wife of Bath satirizes women and marriage.  Though she is “ugly, elderly, and poor,” she has been married five times and is looking for a sixth.  She uses marriages to get power over men, because women do not have power otherwise.  They use sex and marriage to control their men.  Her story describes both the abusive nature of men (the knight rapes the maiden) and the romantic (the tale ends with a happy marriage). It contains a warning.

"Gentility, you then should realize,

Is not akin to things like property;

For people act with much variety,

Not like the fire that always is the same.

God knows that men may often find, for shame,             

A lord's son who's involved in villainy…”

She uses her sexuality to get what she wants, and so does the woman in her story.  The old woman becomes a beautiful young one, thus poking fun at social conventions and granting the Wife of Bath power. 

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In "The Wife of Bath's Tale," (in The Canterbury Tales), how does Chaucer satirize men and women in their behavior and relationships?

In Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Tale" from The Canterbury Tales, there are several ways men and women are satirized.

In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement.

In this case, it would seem that Chaucer is poking fun at the behavior of men and knights in particular, and of women, especially wives.

The Knight who is at the center of the tale, is supposed to be noble, honorable, and protective of the helpless and weak—including women and children. This man comes across a woman alone in the countryside and rapes her—this may be Chaucer's way of ridiculing the medieval idea of the chivalric knight...that knights were the ideal, but not necessarily the norm. The Knight is forced to answer a question put to him by Queen Guenevere in order that his life be spared. (There may be some satire here, too, in that Guenevere is able to convince her husband to give her her way regarding the punishment of the Knight: Arthur rather than being presented as a King may be portrayed as a hen-pecked husband.)

The Knight must answer the question, "What does every woman want?" He has a year to find the answer, and on the last day before he faces execution, he meets an old crone who promises to help, if he will grant her a wish. The Knight agrees, she gives him the answer, and he is pardoned. The crone's wish is that the Knight marry her. He must do so, but hates it because she is so ugly. (This seems a stereotype, another strike against Chaucer's not-so-chivalrous Knight.) However, when he witnesses her magical change into a stunning woman, he starts to see things "differently" (—also the stereotype: beauty is everything to a shallow man). When the Knight gives his new wife everything she wants, he is rewarded. (Here is another hen-pecked husband it seems.)

This leads us into the satire of the women. Guenevere and all her woman are in an uproar regarding the Knight's treatment of the woman who has been raped. Guenevere knows her way around King Arthur and she gets what she wants: to impose judgment on the Knight. Here may be the satirical view of women pushing to get their way, even in facing down a King (or a husband, who "outranks the wife??). The answer to the riddle, "What is it that every woman wants?" is basically, her way in all things, or control over her husband. This would seem to poke fun as well; we can almost hear Chaucer saying, "Of course that is what every woman wants. Duh." (It is possible, too, that he is making fun of the Knight again, in that it takes him a year to find the answer.) This may also be satirical regarding women: the Knight spends a year asking every woman he meets what every woman wants, and no one can give him the answer. Is the author, then, saying that women have no idea, in general, what they want?

Finally, the "crone" rewards her husband when he gives her his way. Chaucer may be indicating that the only way a man can ever be happy is to give his wife her own way. He may also be poking fun that a woman may seem to be one way before she marries and something else after the wedding, though in this case, it is to the Knight's advantage.

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