"The Wife of Bath's Tale" and the story of Dame Ragnell are virtually
identical in plot. The specifics might differ but both stories deal with the sovereignty
of women. The major differences lie in the characterizations of the knight in each of the
tales. Whereas the knight in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" is flawed and commits a
crime at the very beginning of the story, Sir Gawain is introduced as the perfect knight
in every respect and remains so throughout the story.
In both tales, there is little to no description of the physical characteristics or dress of the knight or Sir Gawain. Most details of appearance are reserved for the hags. Chaucer and the anonymous author seem to take relish in describing the loathliness of the hags. Therefore, the reader has to depend on the words and actions of the characters to get an idea of the kind of people they are. The actions of the knight in the Wife's tale, are motivated entirely on his baser urges. He never displays any hint of chivalry or valor until the very end when he seems to change personalities altogether. Near the conclusion, the knight answers his wife's question in a loving and accommodating manner, a marked difference to the harshness he has displayed towards her on previous occasions.
In contrast, there is no fluctuation in Gawain's character in the story of Dame Ragnell. Gawain never falters from his courteous and chivalrous manner even in the face of fulfilling his husbandly duties to the repulsive Dame Ragnell. "Sir Gawen said, 'I wolle do more / Then for to kisse, and God before!'" when Ragnell asks for a kiss only. The knight in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" hides from his future wife until the wedding night when he very reluctantly retires to his marriage bed. Instead of performing his duties as a husband, the knight complains bitterly about the hag's poverty, homeliness, and low social status.
Both women in the two stories want sovereignty and power over their husbands and offer a question to their spouse to accomplish this. The hag in the Wife's tale adds the further element of fidelity in her question: "To han me foul and old til that I deye / And be to you a trewe humble wif, / And nevere you displeses in al my lif, / Or elles ye wol han me yong and fair, / And take youre aventure of the repair / That shal be to your hous by cause of me-"(143). Eventually, their husbands leave this question to the discretion of their wives thus deferring power on them. In the end, however, a balance of power is achieved in the marriage of the knight and hag, "And she obeyed him in every thing, " and the marriage of Gawain and Ragnell who "In her life she grevid him nevere"(347).
At first reading, the Wife's tale might seem identical to Dame Ragnell's story, which is true in certain respects. However, if the plot is set aside for a moment, the characters, especially those of the knights, are truly disparate. Even the wives in the two stories differ in some ways. The hag's character in the Wife's tale is developed more thoroughly than Dame Ragnell. Her lecture given to her husband at the end allows the reader to see her views on social status and what it means to be noble. In contrast, we do not see this depth in characterization in Dame Ragnell.