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The Canterbury Tales Summary and Analysis

by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Wife of Bath's Tale

Prologue to the Wife of Bath's Tale

“Experience”, even if no written authorities existed in the world, “is right ynogh for me”. Thus begins the voice of the Wife of Bath. She has certainly had “experience”, and is keen to justify it against biblical authority. She has had five husbands and justifies it in scripture: Christ never taught that people should only be married once, the Bible says “go forth and multiply”, and Solomon had more than one wife. The Wife’s husbands, picked out by their “chestes” and “nether purs”, have all been good men, and she is looking forward to the sixth. She also points out that Jesus never lays down a law about virginity, and essentially states that we have the parts for sex and should use them as such: “they were nat maad for noght”.

Scripture, the Wife points out, can be interpreted “bothe up and doun” – you can argue that genitals are for purgation of urine, or to tell the female from the male, and for nothing else. The Wife then states again that she will “use myn instrument” whenever her husband decides he wants to “paye his dette”. Her husband, the Wife continues, shall be both her “dettour and my thral” (debtor and slave) and that she would mark it on his flesh.

At this point, the Pardoner interrupts, claiming he was about to marry a wife and that the Wife has put him off – and she advises him to listen to her tale before making a judgement, and looks like beginning it, before going off on another tangent, silencing the Pardoner altogether.

Three of the Wife’s husbands were good, and two were bad: the three were good, rich and old (and impotent!) and they gave the Wife all their land, which resulted in her withholding sex from them in order to get exactly what she wanted. Women, the Wife continues, can lie and steal better than any man. She reveals her tactic for manipulating her husbands – deliberately attacking her husband with a whole fistful of complaints and several biblical glossing (for justification) and starting an argument, with the result of her getting what she wants. By accusing her husband of infidelity, the Wife disguised her own adultery – even calling her maid and Jankin in false witness to back her up.

The Wife also got money out of her husbands by claiming that, if she were to sell her “bele chose” (sexual favours), she would make more money than they lavished on her. Thus the Wife treated her first three husbands, the three, good, old, rich men. The Wife’s fourth husband was a reveler and had a mistress as well as a wife. He was a match for the Wife of Bath, sharing some of her qualities, but he soon died.

The fifth husband was the most cruel to her: kind in bed but otherwise violent, beating her viciously. He could “glose” (gloss – persuade – flatter) her extremely well when he wanted to have sex, and she loved him best, because he played hard to get with her. He had been a student at Oxford, and came to be a boarder at the home of the Wife's best friend, Alison, while she was still married to husband number four. Soon after he died, she married Jankin (number five) who was, at twenty, exactly half the Wife's age.

Very regularly, Jankin read his book of “wikked wyves”, a compilation volume of anti-feminist literature, containing works from Valerius and Theophrastus, St. Jerome, Tertullian, Solomon, and many others. The Wife interrupts herself to express her anger at the anti-feminist portrayals of women in books written by male clerks – and wishes that women “hadde written stories” like clerks have, in order to redress balance. Then, her story continues: Jankin was reading aloud from his book by the fire, and the Wife, fed up that he would never finish reading his “cursed book al nyght”, tore out three pages, punching him in the face so that he fell backward into the fire. Jankin got up fast and hit her on the head with his fist, knocking her to the floor, where she lay as if dead. “Hastow slayn me, false theef?” the Wife bellow when she awoke, “and for my land thus hastow mordred me?” (Have you killed me, false thief? And have you murdered me to get my land?”). Jankin, of course, then begged her forgiveness; and the Wife made him burn his book right there.

Having gained for herself all of the “maistrie” (mastery, control, dominance), Jankin then begged her to keep all of her own land, and – after that day – they never argued again. The Wife was true to him, and he to her, and she was extremely generous to him. At this point, the Wife announces again that she is to tell her tale.

The words between the Summoner and the Friar

The Friar laughs to hear everything that the Wife has said, commenting that it is a “long preamble of a tale” (a long prologue to a tale) – and when the Summoner hears the Friar’s voice, he attacks him, commenting that friars are notorious for their long-windedness, telling him to “go sit doun!”. The Friar promises, in revenge, to tell a tale about a summoner to make everyone laugh. The Host quiets them down, and encourages the Wife to tell her tale.

The Wife of Bath's Tale

The Wife of Bath's Tale tells a story from a distant time, when King Arthur ruled the nation and when elves used to run around impregnating women. However, the Wife immediately digresses: now friars have taken the place of elves - they are now the copulating, evil spirits.

King Arthur had a knight who, when riding home one day from hawking, found a maiden walking alone and raped her. This crime usually held the penalty of death, but, in court, the queen intervened and begged her husband to spare the knight, promising the knight that she would grant his life if he could answer the question "What do women most desire?" She gave him one year to find the answer.

The knight went on a journey but could find no satisfactory answer; some said wealth, others jollity, some status, others a good lover in bed. Despondent that he might not find his answer, the knight was mournful, when, riding beside a forest on his way back to his home, he saw a dance of twenty-four ladies. Approaching them, they vanished, and in their place, the knight found a hideous old woman, the “lothly lady”, to whom he put his question. She agreed to give the answer and assured him that it was the right one, but would only tell him the answer if he would do the next thing that she required of him. When the knight agreed, she whispered in his ear.

When they arrived at court, the knight faced the queen again, and told him that women desired to have sovereignty and “to been in maistrie” (to be in mastery) above their husbands. The lothly lady then spoke up before the court, announcing the knight’s pledge, and asking him to take her for his wife. The knight, although now pardoned, was miserable that he had to marry such an old crone, but there was no way for him to get out of it.

Privately, the knight wedded the lothly lady the next day, and the two of them lay in bed. She realized his unhappiness, and confronted him about it. He criticized her for not only being old and ugly, but low-born. She scoffed at his snobbery as a definition and defended her poverty as irrelevant to God. She then gave him a choice, making him see both sides of the argument. Either he could have her as an old and ugly wife who would be entirely faithful to him; or he could have her as a young and fair wife, who would probably cuckold him.

The knight sighed sorely, and thought, but finally told his wife to choose herself whichever option would bring most honor to the two of them. “Thanne have I gete of yow maistrie” (In that case, I’ve got mastery over you) she said – and the knight agreed that she had. The lothly lady asked him to kiss her and “cast up the curtyn” (lift up the curtain) to look on her face – she had transformed into a young and beautiful woman. They lived happily ever after: and, the Wife concludes, let Christ grant all women submissive husbands who sexually satisfy their wives, and let Christ kill all men who will not be governed by their wives.

Analysis

The Wife of Bath is one of Chaucer’s most enduring characters, and rightly, one of the most famous of any of the Canterbury pilgrims. Her voice is extremely distinctive – loud, self-promoting, extremely aggressive – and her lengthy prologue silences the Pardoner and the Friar (who is then parodied at the start of the Tale) for daring to interrupt her. One of the key issues for interpreting the Wife’s tale historically has been the relationship between prologue and tale: some critics have found in the Wife’s fairy-tale ending a wistful, saddened dreaminess from an elderly woman whose hopes for a sixth husband might turn out to be futile. Other critics have treated the tale as a matter of “maistrie” and control, arguing that the Wife’s tale, starting as it does with a rape (a man physically dominating a woman), is deeply ambiguous at its close about precisely whose desire is being fulfilled. Surely there is little point in the woman having the maistrie if all she is to do with it is to please her husband?

Yet it seems to me that the Wife’s tale and prologue can be treated as one lengthy monologue, and it is the voice we attribute that monologue too which proves impossible to precisely define. The Wife’s tale inherits the issue of the woman as literary text (Constance, in the Man of Law’s tale, was “pale”, like paper waiting to be written on, and used as an exchangeable currency by the merchants and – perhaps – by the Man of Law) and develops it.

Text, and the interpretation of text is absolutely central to the Wife of Bath’s Tale. The General Prologue describes her as being swathed in textile, and, of course, “textere”, the Latin verb meaning “to weave” is the key to a close relationship between “cloth” and “text” in the Middle Ages. For the Wife, as well as being excellent at spinning a tale, is also excellent at spinning cloth – and is surrounded, problematically in text in just the way the Prologue has her covered in cloth. When, at the very end of her tale, the lothly lady implores her husband to “cast up the curtyn” and see her as she really is, she highlights one of the key problems in the tale: it is very difficult to ascertain precisely where fiction stops and reality begins.

The Wife claims to represent female voices – and her tale consists of a set of women representing each other. The raped maiden is represented by the queen, who in turn is represented by the lothly lady, who in turn becomes a beautiful lady: the image which precedes her appearance is, appropriately, twenty four ladies apparently vanishing into one. The Wife speaks on behalf of women everywhere: and against the male clerks who have written the antifeminist literature that Jankin reads in his book of wikked wyves.

It is odd then, that the Wife, who claims to stand for “experience”, spends much of her prologue dealing with written “authority”, glossing the Bible in precisely the manner she criticizes the clerks for doing. The Wife is against text, but expert in text; against clerks, but particularly clerical; and, of course, venomous about anti-feminist literature, but also made up of anti-feminist literature. When the Wife throws Jankin’s book in the fire, she is in fact burning her own sources (Jerome, Theophrastus et. al) which constitutes a bizarre act of literary self-orphanage. It is as if she burns her own birth certificate.

When you notice too that the Wife (whose name is Alison) has as her only confidant another woman called Alison, there is an unusual sense that she might be talking only to herself. Add to that her almost uninterrupted monologue of tale and prologue – and the almost-uninterrupted monologues of Jankin (reading from the book of wives) and the lothly lady’s lengthy monologue on poverty and gentilesse – and you see that, in fact, the voice of the Wife does indeed take the “maistrie” in the tale itself. It entirely dominates the tale.

The Wife, then, is a far more complicated figure than simply a proto-feminist. She asks the key question herself: “Who peynted the leon, tel me who?”, referring to the old myth that, a lion, seeing the picture of a man triumphing over a lion, asked the rhetorical question which pointed out that the portrayal was biased as it had been painted by a man, not a lion. If the Wife’s tale is a depiction of a woman triumphing over a man (and even that is not easy to decide) can it be similarly dismissed?

Perhaps. But of course, for all the Wife decries the clerical tradition and the clerks who leave out the good deeds of woman, she herself as a text is another example of a lecherous, lying, manipulative woman. She falls into the anti-feminist tradition she represents. This is even before you mention that the Wife is being written, at the very least ventriloquised, by Geoffrey Chaucer, a clerk and a man. Is this Chaucer’s opinion of proto-feminism and a disavowal of the anti-feminist tradition? Or is Chaucer endorsing the anti-feminist tradition by giving it a mouthpiece which, in arguing against it, demonstrates all of its stereotypical arguments as fact?

Who painted the lion? Whose voice is the Wife’s? Is she worthy of – as she does – speaking for women everywhere?

These are all huge, open, fascinating questions that demonstrate why the tale itself is so complex, and interesting to interpret. The key fact not to forget is that you can’t have a Wife without a Husband. Whether married to Chaucer, whether Chaucer in drag, or whether a feminist persona all of her own, it’s important to view the apparently proto-feminist Wife of Bath from a point of view which understands her strong links to the men in her fictional – and literary – lives.

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