Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Wife of Bathís Tale: Prologue


In the Prologue the Wife of Bath gives an account of her colorful marital life. Her experiences give her substantial authority to speak on marital troubles. She has been married five times. She cannot understand Christís rejection of the woman at the well for having married five times. Instead she prefers Godís command in the Bible "to increase and multiply" and that a husband must leave his family and live with his wife. She also notes that the Bible does not state an exact figure for the number of times one might marry. She further augments her argument by citing the example of King Solomon, Abraham and Jacob among other holy men who had more than one wife. Further she points out that St. Paul had said that it is better to marry than to burn with desire. She demands to know where is it written that God had ordained virginity. While St. Paul advises against marriage, his advice isnít a command. The decision has been left to the individualís own judgement. She agrees that virginity is a great excellence but it is meant for those who want to lead perfect lives and she is not perfect. She argues that God created the organs of generation for both function and pleasure. And she intends to make full use of her organs. She will never be difficult or demurely refuse to have sex when her husband wants to. The Pardoner who says that he was planning to get married but has now dropped the idea after hearing her on the subject interrupts the Wife of Bath. The Wife of Bath tells him to decide only after he has heard her tale about the joys of marriage. The Pardoner urges her to continue and to teach her technique to all the young fellows.

The Wife of Bath then relates her marital experiences. Her 1st three husbands were good, very rich and old and she enjoyed absolute power over them. She advises young inexperienced and naïve wives to constantly nag their husbands to keep the upper hand in marriage and provides a long list of examples. For instance, she rebuked her husband when he criticized her extravagant spending. She railed at another husband who curbed her liberty and kept a strict vigilance on her movements. She reprimanded the husband who felt that her character was endangered every time she smiled at another man when her only intention was to be polite and courteous. She nagged the husband who employed a spy to keep track of her doings and instead beat him at his own game by getting the apprentice and her niece to testify her marital faithfulness. Ultimately by force, fraud, strategy or unending grumbling she would always gain the upper hand. She never spared her husbands and paid them back for every word that they said. It was obvious that one of them had to knuckle under and man being a more rational creature than woman, it was always her husbands who surrendered.

She then reveals that her 4th husband was a libertine and kept a mistress. She was a passionate and headstrong young woman at the time and wished to enjoy life. It troubled her that her husband took delight in another woman and decided to make him stew in his own "greece". She pretended that he had been deceived and thus made him suffer with jealousy. However he died when she returned from her pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

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 her tale.


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.

The dispute between the Summoner and the Friar

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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