The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Prologue
The Wife of Bath's Prologue begins with a defense of serial marriage. The Wife of Bath, who has been married five times, launches her argument against those who might claim that a once-widowed woman ought to become a nun. The Wife's argument moves on to be a defense of marriage, period. She insists that though those who choose to marry might not be as spiritually perfect as people who remain chaste all their lives, they are still fulfilling God's commandments. The major feature of marriage, for the Wife, is the marriage debt, or sex, which seems to be why she's so strongly in favor of marriage. Another reason she's pro-marriage appears to be the ability to gain property, wealth, and a comfortable living situation through a husband.
Yet interspersed with the Wife's arguments in favor of marriage, we have her imaginative re-enactments of how she browbeat her first three husbands, and her ready admission that she was in those relationships only for money and sex. The Wife seems to be saying that marriage is a great thing for women to do; men, on the other hand, should approach with caution!
Questions About Marriage
- Judging from her arguments, to whom is the Wife of Bath's defense of marriage addressed? What might this audience have to say in response to her arguments?
- What arguments does the Wife make in support of marriage? How do these compare with her personal reasons for marrying?
- According to the Wife of Bath's Prologue, what are a husband's obligations to his wife? A wife's obligations to her husband? According to the Wife, has she fulfilled these obligations in her past marriages? Why or why not?
- What do you learn from the Wife of Bath's Prologue about the arguments against marriage that were circulating during Chaucer's time?
Chew on This
The Wife of Bath's Prologue portrays marriage as a great idea for women and a terrible one for men.
The argumentative strategy of the Wife's defense of marriage is to pit difficult-to-interpret texts against transparent ones and easily-verifiable life experience, in order to make the arguments against marriage seem questionable.