The Analysis of The Wife of Bath’s Tale

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-load, 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 “maestri” 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 maestri 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, “texture”, 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 Curtin” 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 Jankyn reads in his book of wicked wives.

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 Jankyn’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.

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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 Jankyn (reading from the book of wives) and the lothly lady’s lengthy monologue on poverty and gentiles – and you see that, in fact, the voice of the Wife does indeed take the “maestri” 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 vho?”, 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 antifeminist tradition she represents. This is even before you mention that the Wife is being written, at the very least ventriloquized, 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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