Analysis of Wife of Bath from The Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is a prominent work of medieval literature. It is extensively studied as the source of a numerous realistic portraits. The story is written in the fourteenth century, but most of the types of characters can still be clearly recognized in our modern society. Even such characters as the Nun and the Monk, who are not seen nowadays in our secular society, can still represent the stereotype of hypocrisy. One of the main and most interesting characters of The Canterbury Tales is the Wife of Bath who sets out on the pilgrimage in search of her sixth husband.

The description of the Wife of Bath in the "General Prologue" is rather short, but quite expressive. The first thing we find out about her is that she is somewhat deaf. This unusual detail gives the Wife of Bath a somewhat negative impression that stays with her throughout the description. The Wife of Bath is rich, middle-aged and impressive. She dresses nicely, and she is very lively: "Bold was hir face and fair and reed of hewe." [Norton, 460]

However, the most important details come in the middle of the description: "She was a worthy womman al hir life: Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde five, Withouten other compaignye in youthe..." [Norton, 461-463] It is hard to miss irony in that phrase. The woman definitely likes the company of men. She also likes to travel which is suspicious for a woman in the Middle Ages. The fact that the Wife of Bath has been on so many pilgrimages may be indicative of her piety, and yet, the reader senses Chaucer's irony in the geographical description of the places the Wife has been to: Boulogne, Cologne, St. James of Compostella. Instead of traveling on foot, the Wife of Bath sits easily on a horse, a pilgrimage in comfort. One other thing gets clear toward the end of the description: the lady is sexually overcharged and she really knows her "stuff": "In felaweshipe wel coude she laughe and carpe: Of remedies of love she knew parchaunce, For she coude of that art the olde daunce." [Norton, 476-478]

"The Wife of Bath's Prologue" is the best source for analysis of her behavior. Since she considers her greatest experience to be in marriage, she speaks about matrimony and her amorous adventures. She spends time defending her behavior by misquoting and misinterpreting the Bible. It seems that in the Middle Ages the Wife of Bath's behavior is not the norm, so she tries to redeem herself by insisting that God wants her to be married many times. After all, "God bad us for to wexe and multiplye" -- and, therefore, she has to marry as often as she can. The Wife of Bath has had five husbands. Her first husbands were rich and old; her last husbands were young and handsome. That clearly shows her plan: first get the money, then have fun. It is very hard to respect her, for the only things she longs for are money and sex, although one does admire her practicality.

There is one important quality that cannot be missed when looking at the Wife of Bath. She is independent and values her independence. She is not passive and takes action. When her fourth husband cheats on her, she gets revenge by flirting with other men and making her husband extremely jealous. Her fifth husband treats her badly; he beats and humiliates her. However she is not keeping quiet also, even though she is not as active as before. Her fifth husband has the greatest body, so she is ready to forgive him to some degree. But when once he hits her, she pretends to be dead. This scares her husband so much that after this accident she gets sovereignty in their relationship.

The importance of sovereignty for her can be seen in her tale. The tale of the Wife of Bath is an ironic parody of the classic fairy-tale of knighthood. There is a knight, a hag, and a magical transformation, but the knight is not really honorable and the hag does not look that good, either. The Wife does include a long lecture on the origins of nobility that consequently leads to discussion on sovereignty. "The Wife of Bath's Tale" shows her values -- that as long as she has sovereignty over her sixth husband they will live happily, making love every day (since it is hard to imagine that the Wife of Bath would want a man for anything besides that).

The analysis of the Wife of Bath seems to be about analyzing how many husbands and lovers a woman can have, and what status that gives her in society. In the Middle Ages, an independent woman with five dead husbands who seeks sovereignty over men is an unusual character. One cannot really judge the Wife of Bath. The Scales of Morality are loaded against her, but the woman is obviously successful both financially and in marriage. She is not bad -- it is just that she is very practical and devoid of illusions about romantic love. Her love is very physical, and is associated with physical pleasures.