Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” Essay (Critical Writing)

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Nov 23rd, 2020

The Wife of Bath’s Tale is about the place of women within the marital institution. However, an analysis of the prologue reveals that the Wife’s attitude is both an imitation and a model of male desire and Chaucer uses her voice to express a masochistic attitude towards women prevalent during the Middle Ages. The Wife of Bath is a figment of a male poet’s imagination with unwitting links to the woman’s voice.

The Wife’s prologue is a reflection of her aggressiveness, which is a reflection of the masculine image (McTaggart 43). The Wife expresses her feministic ideals through her confessions and emphasizes on the necessity of female superiority and control. This is presented both in the prologue and the tale of the Knight. The aggressiveness shown by the Wife in her marriage where she has “been the whip” is simply a mirage of the Knight’s masculine fierceness (Chaucer 113). The depiction of the Wife as a strong-willed, independent, and headstrong character within a fundamentally anti-feminist and misogynistic medieval culture seems very impressive. However, a deeper study of the text shows that Chaucer contradicts many of his feminist assertions to bring forth the patriarchal dominance over the fairer sex.

Sexual freedom is a fairly modern concept of feminism. The Wife constantly talks of her desire for sexual freedom, which is further reinforced in the tale of the knight. However, this sexual freedom professed by the Wife is similar to the violent rape of the maiden by the knight. Thus, sex becomes a tool to assume power. The Wife, in all her five marriages, was happiest when she had to submit to the dominance of her fifth husband. Further, her aggression to her first four husbands and her subsequent submission to her fifth husband seems like a mirror image of the knight’s tale. The knight shows physical aggression when he rapes the maiden but had to submit to the will of his old wife in the end. Thus, both the Wife and the knight’s story follow a violence-compliance pattern.

The Wife of Bath’s tale of the knight, set in Arthurian court, deconstructs the ideal medieval romances and the notion of chivalry. The story begins with the knight raping a maiden and being sentenced to death for his crimes. However, it is the women in the story, and not the men, who save the knight’s life. The knight is saved from the gallows by marrying an old woman who gives him the answer to the Queen’s question. The answer to the question, what women desire most, is skillfully constructed, as “A woman wants the self-same sovereignty” (Chaucer 214). This desire for freedom seems misjudged in the text as the Wife contradicts herself when she says that she thinks women mostly like being “cosseted and flattered” (Chaucer Line 106). This can be dubbed as an anti-feminist remark maligning the very nature of women. When the men think ill of the woman it does not seem anti-feminist but when a female narrator points at the follies of female character that seems to be discoursed by the patriarchal society. The anti-feminine satire emerges more clearly in the Wife’s narration:

Some say the things we most desire are these:

Freedom to do exactly as we please,

With no one to reprove our faults and lies,

Rather have one call us good and wise …

You try it out and you will find so too.

However vicious we may be within

We like to be thought wise and void of sin. (Chaucer 111-120)

These words reinforce the popular discourse of women as the epitome of sins and men as virtuous and right. However, the tale told by the Wife of the knight is a deliberate inversion of the popular discourse of femininity and masculinity. On the one hand, the wife fights the patriarchal world by telling the story of educating a man by a woman but on the other, she is trapped within the popular opinion of women in the Middle Ages. Thus, there lies an inherent contradiction of the depiction of women as narrated by the Wife. At one point she advocates that women most desire their own free will yet, in the above lines she asserts that they are willing to become vicious and aggressive to establish this free will. This almost seems like women imbibe the male characters to project themselves as tough and free, which effectively is a projection of superiority of the masculine nature. The aggressive stand invoked in the last stanza of the Wife’s tale where she prays to Jesus to give women “husbands meek and young and fresh in bed” whom they can “overbid… when we wed” (Chaucer 434-436). The Wife, to hide her fear to accept her submissive self, becomes the male aggressor in the female’s body, thus provoking the popular belief that men are stronger than women. Therefore, the Wife of Bath essentially presents traditional patriarchal views of women in the garb of feminist outcry.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.” The Canterbury Tales, translated by Nevill Coghill, Penguine Classics, 2016, pp. 258-292.

McTaggart, Anne. “What Women Want? Mimesis and Gender in Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Prologue” and “Tale”.” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, vol.19, 2012, pp. 41-67.




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