Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales covers a number of topics and voices across the various tales. By comparing two of them it is possible to see a pattern emerge in prominence of issues of the day. In the Miller’s tale and the Wife of Bath’s the stories revolve around marriage and faithfulness to one’s spouse. Though they discuss the same topic, they take different approaches to get to the heart of their topic.

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Both stories revolve around the anxieties of marriage. The main issue being faithfulness. In the Miller’s story the husband is most worried about his wife being young and beautiful and how this makes it more likely that she will cheat on him. The Wife of Bath’s story is similar. Her story does not feature marriage until near the end, but the issue is the same; if the wife is beautiful she is more likely to cheat on him. The similarity between these to stories shows that this was a common concern at the time it was written. It is easy to think that because life was less technologically advanced as it is now that everything, including marriage, was simple. These two stories show the contrary. Marriage has always been complex and the idea that a beautiful wife is ideal, but also a liability is far from new.

The way women are portrayed is similar between the stories, as well. In the Miller’s tale the wife is shown to be more clever than her husband and other male characters. She is able to carry on an affair without her husband’s knowledge inside of their home. She just as easily takes care of the unwanted advances of Absolon and makes him look like a fool. At the end of the story she is the one laughing, not the one being laughed at. The Wife of Bath is herself a singular representation of women for the time. Her lengthy preamble to her story is all about how she finds nothing wrong with having been married several times and that if God didn’t want people to get married and have sex, he would not have made them with sexual organs.

Where the Miller is chided for how smutty his speech is, no one says anything about the Wife’s speech. In her tale the female characters again are shown to be more intelligent and wiser than their male counterparts. It is the queen who proposes the riddle for the knight as a chance for him to win his freedom, but it is a very clever riddle that she knows will be difficult for a man to solve. The old woman who gives him the answer is shown to be clever as well in how she gets him to promise to marry her, despite her age and appearance. The knight is rewarded at the end of the story for letting his wife choose for herself rather than telling her what to do. This reenforces the idea that women are the more commanding sex.

The tone between the two stories is very different. The Miller’s tale is told in a bawdy manner, while the Wife of Bath’s is told more in the form of a parable. The Miller is actively scolded for telling his story. First, he is telling his out of turn. He is acknowledged to be drunk and unable to command himself any better. His story is called smut by one of the other characters because of how sexual the story is. His story has a wife clearly cheating on her husband and shows her as happy and her husband as a fool. In fact, she makes more than one man look foolish by the end of the story. This is certainly not in line with the supposedly pious nature of the company, as they are all on a pilgrimage.

The Wife’s prologue is certainly more similar to the Miller’s speech, with her overt references to sexual organs and how pleasurable their use is, but her actual tale is more reverent. Her story shows a knight being punished for acting immorally and the queen showing mercy on him. This is all very much in line with the strict religious views of the time. She then gives him a question to answer that proves to be more like a riddle. This gives the story a tone more closely resembling a parable or a fable. The audience is meant to learn something from her story.

This is unlike the Miller’s tale where he is telling the story purely for entertainment. A lesson is learned in the end of her tale. The knight, now turned husband, is given the choice to have an ugly and faithful wife or a beautiful wife who may attract other men. He is again being tested as he was by the queen. This time he has the answer and gives his wife the choice to make for herself. The audience is meant to learn that women should have the power to choose for themselves what to do in life, but also that if a husband treats his wife properly, she will be faithful. These are much more religious lessons than anything learned from the Miller’s tale.

Though both stories are told in verse, as the entire work is, they feel different in the reading. The Miller’s tale feels less formal and stilted with its language choices such as “arse” (199) and “snappy” (189). It is the kind of language one would expect to hear in a story being told in a bar. The Wife of Bath’s tale has a more formal poetic feel to it. This enhances the parable quality that the story has. The language used in her tale, and even the preamble, is more delicate. She doesn’t use rude words like arse to describe body parts, but alludes to them instead. This makes her story seem more formal and more religious than the Miller’s.

The two tales fit seamlessly into the overall narrative of The Canterbury Tales, but two separate messages are given by the stories. While marriage is clearly a strong issue for concern, the outcomes for various actions are inconsistent. The Miller’s tale leaves the audience favoring a woman flaunting her affair to, practically, the whole town. The Wife of Bath’s tale is more instructive and more sombre in its telling and leaves the audience with the clear message that women should be given free reign over themselves and in this way they will be good wives.