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What is Chaucer's Tone toward the Wife of Bath in 'The Canterbury Tales'

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In Geoffry Chaucer’s literary piece, The Canterbury Tales, various details the various characteristics and opinions of characters as they make a pilgrimage to Canterbury one spring. Chaucer gives each character the task to recite their own tale which the audience may learn from various morals that are depicted. One particularly interesting character that Chaucer calls upon happens to be “The Wife of Bath,” a five- almost six-time married wife whose opinions on marriage, feminism, and sex are just as progressive as her appearance. In “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale,” she negates the ideas of virginity, marriage, and the dominant to submissive nature of women to their husbands.

The Wife starts her lengthy preface by discussing her various marriages, as having the self-proclaimed experience of being married five times. She at one point goes through a number of claims to defend herself and her choice to marry five different times. A few of these claims utilized biblical scriptures that have been flipped on their sides for the purpose of her cause. The Wife of Bath deciphers scripture her own way, for her own purposes. For instance, the wife looks to the Bible to back her claim, her message being that God wants people to reproduce and by not doing so is going against God (Chaucer 28-29). She goes on to Solomon and his multiple wives as more support (Chaucer 35-43). With her knowledge of various biblical scriptures and texts, the wife has not yet met a man that won’t give her a straight answer about how many husbands a wife is permitted to have. Yet looking back at the scripture from the seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians, where the Apostle Paul states that a man is to have one wife and vice versa.

Moving on with this call of feminism, the wife continues her dialogue of how her marriages have benefited her and her spouse. She expresses that her multiple marriages have been good for her spouses’ because she takes the initiative to educate them (Chaucer 45-49). All of this and she returned the favor with excessive amounts of money and “pleasure” that she gains from all her husbands. Thus where in her preface, the wife’s “feminism” reasonings are unfolded. It is crucial to recognize the discussion the wife brings up about virginity; not only does she asserts that intercourse is acceptable in marriage, but it is not for everyone (Chaucer 111-120.) Her argument is that not everybody should strive to be as idyllic and virtuous as Christ because it’s impossible; ideally, the wife chooses to exercise intercourse in her marriage and use her sexual control that way ( Chaucer 156-165).

Even though the wife advocates for intimate control in marriage and sees no wrongdoing with a woman having more than one husband, both feminist contemplations may take that power too far. She states that marriage in her case that marriage for her is is just like having a slave that gives her intimacy and money whenever she pleases (Chaucer 1-1).

The Wife’s standards are not on a straight path with feminism. It seems as though she puts herself first over her husbands, not for equal status, but in the event, that she craves dominance over her husbands’ which we as the readers can infer from her reply to what women want most. After her preface, however, a few introductions of feminism began to erupt from her tale.

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Specific feminist detail of the Wife’s tale is the nature of the tale itself. The Wife begins the tale by introducing a knight who has committed the crime of raping a virgin, which is clear to readers that this knight does not uphold the traditions of medieval knights who are supposed to be honorable and respectful to women clearly the knight went far beyond those traditions (Chaucer 889-895). An alluring detail of the tale is that the knight was the only male that is mentioned in the actual tale other than King Midas (Chaucer 957-959). When the knight is brought before the authority for punishment, it was Gwenevere who decided on his sentence and sends him on a year-long quest “To learn what thing women love most” (Chaucer 903-927). It seems as though the question of what women want is asked to be enlightened due to the nature of the crime. It’s fascinating that the knight is brought before King Arthur, but then is sentenced by Gwenevere; with sovereignty and feminism being the two main themes of this tale, it seems only right that feminine power is addressed and chosen to decide the knight’s fate.

Unable to seek what women most desire, the knight meets an old hag who offers to tell him the answer if he vows to fulfill her desires. Not knowing what her desire may be, the knight has no other choice but to agree to the hag’s proposal, but this only puts more conflict on his plate by submitting to this unknown woman in order to stay alive. Once both have arrived at court, the knight faces Gwenevere stating that women desire “sovereignty” and “to be in maistrie” above their spouses. The word “sovereignty” and “maistrie” may give women the thought of unfairness not only over their spouses but over other individuals and the ability to command and instruct them. These suppressed women are willing to subject men to the same circumstances that they endured and make the men victims. Instead of proposing equality between spouses, the knight presents the queen with acts of dominance towards others, and, obviously, for this era, the women don’t oppose this change of gender progression: “In all the court ne was there wif, ne made, ne wide that contraried that he seyde” (1044-1045). This reply and the fact that women hold no objection is the idea that depicts women as advocates for gender inequality, acting nearly as dictators. This antifeminist reply proceeds the Tale’s sense of women desiring control, but not accepting or maintaining it.

Furthermore, the knight ends up having to marry the old hag as this being in terms of the desire that the hag wanted to be fulfilled. As the old hag finally gets the control to select the sort of spouse she needs to be, she chooses to if you don’t mind her spouse, subsequently giving the control back to him. This choice proceeds the thought that women serve their spouses in each way in which ladies cannot handle dominance. In spite of the old hag’s clarification as to why her being destitute, old, and revolting makes her a quieter, way better individual, she still chooses to please her spouse (1113-1216). The knight indeed tells her to do what she wishes: “I put me in your shrewd governance/ Cheseth yourself which numerous be most pleasaunce / And most respect to you and me also” (1231-1233).

He gives her the control to select, and to do what would make her the most joyful, however, she deliberately “obeyed him in each thing/ That might doon him pleasance or liking”; she chooses to be “both reasonable and good”, the opposite being most pleasurable to him (1255-1256)(1241). The old hag’s decision proceeds to drive the tale towards an antifeminist moral. In spite of the fact that the Spouse and the ‘loathly lady’ both clearly advocate ‘maistrie’ for ladies, the preface and story are tricky from a women’s activist perspective.

Women within the Wife of Bath’s Story may or may not handle or even maintain dominance, subsequently making the tale seem anti-feminist. Chaucer goes one step further; not as it were can ladies not handle control, but they deliver it back to the men, maybe as an endeavor to demonstrate the authenticity of male amazingness. The tale fortifies common beliefs and states of mind towards women amid the era, and puts women in a negative spotlight, as powerless rivals to their men for dominance. This fortification of anti-feminism in all aspects of life marking this informal work, as well as genuine, would offer assistance to set back feminist developments and gender equality for centuries to come.

The wife (now known as Alusoun)and the old hag can be seen as objectifying women, advertising their bodies as sexual rewards in exchange for control. The Wife’s self-awareness of her claim of socially over-the-top conduct does, in any case, make an impact on her character, leaving it vague as to whether she may be a harsh-tempered contradictor or a mocking character for Chaucer to reveal the struggle between open and private marriages of the bond between men and women.

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What is Chaucer’s Tone toward the Wife of Bath in ‘The Canterbury Tales’. (2023, April 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 22, 2023, from
“What is Chaucer’s Tone toward the Wife of Bath in ‘The Canterbury Tales’.” Edubirdie, 21 Apr. 2023,
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