The Prologue and Tale relayed by the Wife of Bath both dictate a single important message, as inaccurate and untruthful as it may be: that a woman’s most prominent desire is to have complete control over their romantic partners. This message is first presented in the Prologue, as the Wife of Bath argues that her multiple marriages do not constitute sin but rather adherence to her understanding of the Biblical commandment to “wexe and multiplye” (Chaucer 28). It is then subsequently solidified through the Tale’s description of the knight’s dilemma in having to discover what women value most in the world, only to find that it was that which the Wife of Bath had been preaching: “Women desiren to have sovereynetee / As wel over hir housbond as hir love, / And for to been in maistrie hym above” (Chaucer 1038-1040). It is clear that the Wife of Bath had chosen this theme for her Tale in order to justify her multiple marriages to those that had believed her to be sinning.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale provides tremendous insight into her character by her focus on themes of scriptural interpretation, spousal control, and male submission. First and foremost, this focus portrays the Wife of Bath as a narcissist, attempting to change social norms and beliefs in order to conform to her misguided view that her own sins are acceptable in the eyes of God. Although she does admittedly stray from this characterization as a narcissist to some degree by recognizing that she is not of the perfection that Jesus was, she continues with that thought by proclaiming her sin as a means of sharing her “individual gift” through marriage. In her own words, “I wol bistowe the flour of al myn age / In the actes and in fruyt of mariage” (Chaucer 113-114). What is particularly of note in regards to the transition from the Prologue to the Tale is the fact that the religious elements upon which the Wife of Bath relies for the entire premise of her argument essentially disappear. Instead, the Tale describes circumstances involving a knight caught committing the far more malicious sin of rape, with King Arthur’s queen the one who grants the sinner a chance at redemption. The very nature of that redemption is however not one to be granted via virtue but instead by finding the answer to a question that affirms the Wife of Bath’s own beliefs regarding the notion of female supremacy. This ultimately demonstrates that the Wife of Bath is a woman of very poor character, attempting to manipulate others using a story of fiction with no other meaningful purpose than to serve her own interests.
The Tale also comes to convey another important distinction from the Prologue, in that upon the knight’s discovery of the “answer” to the queen’s challenge and his marriage to the woman that provides him with it, he finds himself in a marriage of both happiness and submission. Based on the Wife of Bath’s recollection of her own experiences in forcing her husbands into submission, the Prologue would suggest an outcome of great contrast to that supposedly experienced by the knight in the Tale. Within the Prologue, the Wife of Bath boasts of constantly using her dominance over them to cause them grief and take control over everything that they value. As her acts of manipulation take root within her victim, she brags that, “He yaf me al the bridel in myn hond, / To han the governance of hous and lond, / And of his tonge, and of his hond also” (Chaucer 813-815). Yet, the Tale portrays an ending of happiness, without the knight having to face the same grief and misery that the Wife of Bath seemed so proud of inflicting upon her own husbands. This itself seems to communicate another important characteristic within the Wife of Bath: that she viewed her own despicable behavior as something worthy of praise and as a means of providing a twisted sense of happiness.
Through the relaying of the Prologue and the Tale, the Wife of Bath reveals herself as a horrible and narcissistic woman, interested only in serving her own views and interests by attempting to skew those of others in her favor. Although she attempts to use her stories as a means of persuasion and argument against the moral standards regarding marriage and the treatment of others, her attempts at deception are ultimately nothing short of transparent. The true nature of her character is revealed explicitly through her own words, and most notably in her lack of recognition of how wrong she is in her thoughts about her behaviors and views.
- Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Wife of Bath.” The Canterbury Tales.