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The Canterbury Tales | The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale | Summary

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Summary

Before the Wife of Bath tells her story, she explains that she has been married five times. To justify her many marriages, she cites the facts that God instructed humans to multiply and that King Solomon had many wives. She also takes issue with the idea that virginity is a superior state, noting that, if no women ever bore children, there would be a lack of virgins in the world. She suggests that she must use the gifts God has given her, and he did not gift her with celibacy! She uses her "gifts" to hold power over her husbands. At this the Pardoner, who is soon to be married, interrupts with concerns that his wife might have power over him. He says he will not marry after all.

The Wife tells him to wait and hear her story before he makes this decision. She goes on to describe her husbands: two bad ones and three good ones. The good ones, she says, were rich and old and easily controlled. She gives examples of how she controlled them through false accusations and denying them sexual satisfaction. Then she discusses her "bad" husbands. The fourth one was wild and had a mistress, and she constantly tried to make him jealous. The fifth one was only 20 years old and by this time she was 40, but she fell in love with him at her fourth husband's funeral. Their marriage was full of conflict, and they even got into a fistfight one time.

The Friar comments that she is taking too long to get to her story, and so she begins a story set in King Arthur's court:

A young knight rapes a beautiful young woman and is sentenced to death. However, King Arthur's wife asks him to give the knight a second chance. Arthur agrees, and his wife makes a deal with the knight: If he can find out what women really want, he may live. He had one year to find the answer or the execution sentence stands. For a year the knight travels from place to place, asking women what they truly want. Unfortunately, he gets a variety of answers, and, at the end of the allotted time, he goes back to report his failure. On the way he comes upon a group of women and decides to ask them his question. However, as he approaches, all but one woman disappears—an old, ugly crone. She agrees to give him the answer he seeks if he swears to do whatever she asks. At court the knight reveals her answer: "A woman wants the self-same sovereignty/Over her husband as over her lover." She goes on to say that she wants mastery over him rather than the reverse. Then the crone demands that he marry her, and he is forced to consent because her answer was right and saved his life.

Later in bed the old crone asks the knight to explain why he is so down. He tells her that he is ashamed to have such an ugly wife. She does not seem offended but tells him that she can become beautiful if he wishes it—but she will also be unfaithful. Or she can remain ugly and be a good, faithful wife. She gives him this choice, but after some thought he tells her she should choose whatever she thinks is best, saying, "Whatever pleases you suffices me." Because this is exactly what women want—to be in charge—she becomes "both fair and faithful." The knight instantly loves and desires her, and they live happily together.

The Wife of Bath then prays that "Christ Jesus send/Us husbands meek and young and fresh in bed."

Analysis

The Wife of Bath's Prologue makes the Wife one of the best-developed characters in the entire Tales. Readers learn about her personal history, her opinions of God and Scripture, and her ideas about men, women, and marriage. She silences critics of her several marriages by questioning the scriptural and practical basis of their arguments, and her unapologetic dominance of her husbands provides a refreshing contrast with the passively obedient women in stories told so far.

One interesting detail in the Wife's prologue is the reason for the physical fight with her fifth husband, John. She explains that he was always reading old books and then using examples from these books to justify his poor treatment of her. One book in particular was made up of stories of wicked wives, and he would read this for long periods of time and then rant about the wickedness of women. She becomes fed up with this, so she grabs the book and tears three pages out. In her prologue the Wife said experience, not Christian teaching or social custom, is her guide; therefore, her rejection of her husband's old books seems suitable.

Like the Wife herself, the genre of her story is hard to pin down. Set in King Arthur's time, it has elements of a romance, such as a knight and a happy ending. However, its inclusion of an old crone who turns into a young, beautiful woman sounds more like a fairy tale.

The ideas presented in the Wife's prologue and in her tale are tightly intertwined. Her prologue focuses on her own marriages and how she maintained her own dominance in them. Her tale, then, is a story in which a man learns the important lesson that the way to please a woman is to let her be in charge. In the story the knight is punished for rape, an act in which he asserted his dominance. However, he avoids punishment and is well rewarded for letting his wife take the lead in decision making: "she responded in the fullest measure/With all that could delight or give him pleasure."

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