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An Analysis of Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Tale"

Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Tale"
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

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Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale," a short excerpt from his longer work The Canterbury Tales, resembles the other stories in many ways. It is preceded by a prologue, in which the storyteller -- in this case a widow from the city of Bath -- is given the opportunity to introduce herself and her story. The tale itself is an example of one of the many storytelling genres common in Chaucer's time -- others being the fabliau, the romance, or the moralistic parable.
 
But in other ways, the "Wife of Bath's Tale" stands alone. Chaucer uses both the book's General Prologue and the prologue to the Wife's tale to give us much more insight into her personality than is the case with any other pilgrim. This is her third pilgrimage; she's had five husbands; and in her own tale she explains how much reproach she has endured for having been married so many times. The remainder of her prologue is devoted to her carefully-structured argument extolling the virtues of wedded bliss, culminating in the assertion that if men would just submit to their wives in marriage, peace on earth would ensue, and everyone would live happily ever after.
 
The prologue alone does not paint the portrait of a deeply romantic woman; yet the tale she proceeds to tell is unabashedly romantic. She relates the story of a knight given the task of finding out what "wommen moost desiren" (women most desire). Her tale shows that women want their husband's love, not his obedience. Admittedly, the Wife's summation of the moral of the tale says the exact opposite, but the tale itself belies it: once the knight in the tale gives the old hag her way in one matter, she returns control to him and becomes young and beautiful so he will really desire her rather than merely being bound to her out of duty.
 
Regardless of what women really want, it is clear that what the Wife wants is love. From her prologue we learn that in her own life she was not happy with weak, dithering husbands who crumbled under her rough touch; she loved the young Jankyn who fought her like a tiger but loved her just as recklessly. Her story purports to show what "wommen most desiren", but it really shows what the Wife of Bath wants: to be loved for herself.

This story can be found in "The Canterbury Tales."

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