Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer|
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The Wife of Bath recalls that her fifth husband whom she had married for love
and not for money treated her the worst of all and beat her so hard that
her bones ache even today. He was an Oxford scholar named Jankin and they
had met through her best friend. She made him think that she had fallen
in love with him. At her 4th husbands funeral she saw the scholar Jankin
again and although she was twice his age she decided to marry him. By
the monthís end they got married and she relinquished all her property
to him. But she was soon sorry for doing so because Jankin was very authoritarian
and hit her so hard on the ear for simply tearing a page from his book
that she became quite deaf. He would constantly lecture her about what
was permissible behavior and read out stories from Roman history about
the sad fate of disobedient wives. The Wife of Bath then reveals why she
tore a page out of his book. One night Jankin started reading out tales
about treacherous women from his book. He disparaged Eve as the cause
of the ruin of mankind and went on to cite a steady list of traitoresses
of antiquity. He spoke at length about the modern day wives who killed
their unsuspecting husbands in bed. When the Wife of Bath realized that
Jankin intended to continue reading the infernal book all night long,
she tore three pages out of it and hit him so hard on the cheek that he
fell back into the fire. He then jumped up and furiously hit her on the
head. She pretended to swoon and fell to the ground and claimed that she
was dying. She railed at him for having murdered her for her property.
He was filled with remorse and promised to let her do as she pleased.
She thus obtained complete mastery over him. She made him burn the wretched
book and remained faithful to him. She announces the she will now tell
The Wife of Bathís Prologue is more important than her tale for thematic considerations. It virtually amounts to a defense of her marrying more than once. Her Prologue is a confession of all the techniques through which she gained control and supremacy over her five husbands. She is a parody of the conventional oppressed wife. The Wife of Bath may be seen as one of the earliest feminist characters.
The Wife of Bath presents a strong case for the liberation of women. She refutes the stereotype that women ought to be meek and submissive and asserts that she would never refuse to have sex with her husband if he wished to do so. Her argument is that the sexual organs were made for both procreation as well as pleasure. She candidly acknowledges that virginity is superior but adds that it is only viable for those who wish to lead a perfect life. She slyly accepts that men are more reasonable than women are and thus are more patient and accept womenís domination to avoid quarrel and disharmony.
The Wife of Bath logically argues in favor of marriage. In the Middle Ages virginity was highly prized and marriage was seen as an inferior state. The Wife of Bath uses Scripture to prove her point. She points out that the scriptures do not officially condemn marrying more than once and cites instances of great men who took more than one wife. She cannot understand Christís rebuff to the woman at the well who had also married five times and rather prefers the biblical command to increase and multiply. She quotes St. Paul who said that it was better to marry than to burn. Virginity was only an ideal to be aimed at by the select few who wanted to become perfect Christians. Besides, she argues if everybody were to remain celibates then there would be no more virgins. Moreover after mankindís fall from Paradise one could not realistically expect to lead perfect lives.
The Wife of Bath is frank enough to confess that she married her first three
husbands for their wealth and all of them died while trying to satiate
her sexual appetite. She has had an eventful life. Her fourth husband
was a ladies man and she reveals how she made him fry in his own stew.
Her fifth husband was the most troublesome. This is strange since this
time she married for love. He ill-treated her and hit her so hard that
she became quite deaf. She reveals that her fifth husband used to read
out anti-feminist tales from a book that tried her utmost patience. This
is obviously the Book of Wicked Wives. When she couldnít bear it any longer
she tore out a few pages and as a result received the heavy blow on her
head that made her quite deaf in one ear. Ultimately however she attained
dominance over her husband and she remained faithful to him forever.
After the Wife of Bathís Prologue had ended the Friar laughed and said that
it was a very long preamble to a tale. The Summoner cut in and said that
the Friar was a fine one to talk of perambulation since he himself is
always falling into other peopleís affairs. The Friar got angry and vowed
to tell a story exposing a Summoner. The Summoner retaliated by remarking
that even he had a couple of stories about Friars. The Host ordered both
of them to shut up and asks the Wife of Bath to tell her story.
The squabble between the Summoner and the Friar is an indication of their
retaliatory tales that immediately follow the Wife of Bathís tale.
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