- Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, The
- by Geoffrey Chaucer(ca. 1394)CHAUCER’s Wife of Bath, Alisoun, is perhaps his most original and memorable creation. Her prologue and tale form a pivotal point in the CANTERBURY TALES, inspiring responses in The CLERK’S TALE and The MERCHANT’S TALE, and imitation in The PARDONER’S TALE. That the character and her tale were well known in the circle of Chaucer’s immediate audience is clear from the passing reference to the Wife in Chaucer’s lyric “Envoy to Bukton” (1396). In the Wife of Bath, Chaucer creates an outspoken and independent woman who embodies all of the antifeminist stereotypes of medieval theologians even as she attempts to refute them through her powerful rhetoric. In the prologue, Chaucer has combined a variety of sources, most important, St. JEROME’s argument for virginity in Adversus Jovinianum, which Alisoun opposes vigorously and JEAN DE MEUN’s section of the ROMAN DE LA ROSE, particularly the section in which La Vieille, the old woman, describes her life and the wiles of women, which seems to have been the model for Alisoun’s confession. The Wife’s prologue is a spirited vindication of her way of life—that is, of marriage and sexuality, in the face of the misogynist commonplaces of medieval clerics. She presents her defense somewhat in the form of a scholastic argument that might occur among clerics, citing experience and authority to support her defense of her own life.Alisoun reveals that she has had five husbands, the first when she was only 12 years old. She also makes it clear that she would welcome a sixth. From authority she argues that Christ never specified how many times a woman could marry, and that while St. Paul preferred virginity he did not condemn marriage. Paul also said that the husband and wife owed one another the “marriage debt” (that is, sexual pleasure), and Alisoun makes it clear that she is more than willing to both pay and collect that debt. For her argument from experience, Alisoun describes her marriages. She claims that three of her husbands were good and two were bad. The “good” husbands were her first three—all old men whom she lumps together without distinction. They were “good” because she could easily manipulate them, and could control and ultimately inherit their wealth. Her fourth husband, however, was younger and not so easily controlled, and had a mistress as well.Alisoun claims to have made him jealous by feigning unfaithfulness. In any case she was already interested in a young clerk named Jankyn before her fourth husband died, and she mentions how during the funeral, she couldn’t keep her eyes off Jankyn’s attractive legs as he acted as pallbearer for husband number four. Alisoun married Jankyn for love, and admits that even though he beat her, she still loved him best. She describes how he would read to her daily from a “Book ofWicked Wives” until she could no longer stand it and tore a page from the book. In response Jankyn gave her a blow on the side of the head from which she is still deaf in one ear. She pretended to be dying until Jankyn begged her forgiveness and gave over to her the “sovereignty” in the marriage. After that, Alisoun claims, the marriage was happy and the two were true and faithful to one another.Alisoun moves into her tale, which is a short Arthurian romance concerning a young knight and an old hag. Its source seems to be in the folklore motif of the “loathly lady.” Analogues of the tale may be found in John GOWER’s “Tale of Florent” from his CONFESSIO AMANTIS, and in the later 15th-century romance The WEDDYNG OF SYR GAWEN. But Chaucer shapes the tale to serve as a kind of psychological wish-fulfillment for Alisoun. In the tale a young Knight of Arthur’s court rapes a maiden, and is condemned to death by the King. The Queen intervenes and convinces the King that the ladies of the court should judge the Knight. She gives the Knight a reprieve and imposes a quest on him: He must return to court in a year and a day with an answer to the question,“What do women most desire?” If he fails to answer the question satisfactorily, he will die. The Knight wanders about, finding no definitive answer until, on his way back to court, he meets an old hag who says she will give him the answer if he will grant her whatever she asks. The Knight agrees, and returns to court with the hag. He answers the Queen that what women desire most is sovereignty in marriage. The ladies of the court all agree that the Knight has saved his life, and the old hag demands her reward. In return for saving his life, she demands that she become the young Knight’s bride. Reluctantly the Knight marries her.When he turns from her in disgust on their wedding night, the hag asks him what is bothering him.He replies that she is old and ugly, and of low birth. She takes each of these points and refutes it by rational argument. She then offers the Knight a choice: He can have her old and ugly but be assured of her virtue and faithfulness, or he can have her young and beautiful and take his chances on her chastity. Unable to choose between her two means of making him miserable, the Knight leaves the choice up to the hag.When she asks whether this means he has granted her sovereignty, he answers in the affirmative. In response she turns into the most beautiful woman he has ever seen, and promises she will be faithful as well, and the two live in marital bliss from that moment on.Thus the tale is, for the Wife, a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which she not only gains mastery over a young husband, but also regains her own youth and beauty. The tale illustrates what Alisoun believes is the chief point of her prologue: that a happy marriage is one in which the woman has “sovereignty.” But a careful reader might notice that, in fact, both Alisoun’s prologue and tale illustrate that a happy marriage actually occurs when there is mutual love, respect, and kindness. The Wife of Bath has been the subject of more critical commentary than any other figure in the Chaucer canon. Much attention has been paid to the character of Alisoun—whether she is sympathetic or monstrous, whether she is a character at all in the modern sense. Feminist critics have looked closely at her and at Chaucer and speculated about whether she provides a truly female perspective and about Chaucer’s own attitude toward women. Others have seen her tale as beginning a “marriage debate” that includes the tales of the Merchant, Clerk, and FRANKLIN. Most would agree that in The Wife of Bath’s Tale, Chaucer most clearly finds a perfect fit between tale and teller.Bibliography■ Beidler, Peter G., ed. Geoffrey Chaucer: “The Wife of Bath”: Complete Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Boston: Bedford-St.Martin’s, 1996.■ Beidler, Peter G., and Elizabeth M. Biebel, eds. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale: An Annotated Bibliography, 1900 to 1995. 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