The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Prologue
by Geoffrey Chaucer
The Wife of Bath
With her Prologue, the Wife of Bath continues the characterization we've already gotten from her portrait in the General Prologue. There we learned that she was a nicely-dressed, largish woman with gap teeth and a hat as big as a boat. We heard hints that she had numerous lovers before her five husbands and that she was a ton of fun to be around because "in felaweshipe wel koude she laughe and carpe" (General Prologue 476). With the Wife's Prologue, we have the fleshing out of many of these juicy details from her portrait. But our analysis of the Wife's character is complicated by the fact that we've got to rely on the Wife's description of herself for information. And, since the Wife readily admits that deceit is one of women's gifts, and that she would lie frequently to her husbands, we've got to take whatever she says with a grain of salt.
One thing we know for sure is that the Wife loves sex. She declares that she plans to use her "instrument," or genitals, "as frely as my Makere hath it sent," and get busy with her husband "both eve and morwe" (156, 158). We can probably believe her concerning her true devotion to the pleasures of the flesh – witness her genuine delight in thought of Solomon's enjoyment of his hundreds of wives.
However, we need to be more cautious about believing that the Wife intends to have sex indiscriminately, with no objective but pleasure. Sure she claims she simply looking for pleasure, like when she insists she has always followed her appetite, whether the man were "short or long, or blak or whyt," rich or poor (729 – 730). But her own accounts of her past relationships suggest that the Wife actually treats sex as something that's for sale. She admits to withholding sex from a husband "til he had maad his raunson unto me" (414), and berating another husband by asking him if he knows how much money her body could fetch on the open market.
So, while the Wife may indeed be lusty, she's also strategic. We see this talent for strategy in two places: 1) in her account of past relationships, in which she always manages to get the upper hand, and 2) in her rhetorical technique, particularly in her defense of marriage in the first 170 lines of her Prologue. There, she makes her argument using texts, easily-verifiable life experience, and the mechanics of the human body itself. She makes the abstract anti-marriage texts seem irrelevant in the face of all the concrete evidence she marshals against them. She wins her audience over with humor, encouraging them to imagine Solomon on his wedding night, for example. She's self-deprecating, readily admitting to being less than perfect spiritually, but she also sounds authoritative by quoting from well-recognized Biblical and scholarly texts. The Wife of Bath continues to use these techniques throughout her Prologue, and they have the effect of making her really likable, even when she admits to her worst deceptions.
And deceive she does: lying to her husbands about what they said while drunk, lying to Jankyn about a dream she never had, and probably lying to us as well. All of these deceptions are motivated by the Wife's desire for "maistrye" – to hold all the power in her relationships. The Wife claims that she always achieves her goal, governing her husbands "wel after my lawe" (225). She maintains throughout her Prologue that she always manages to be the most powerful person in any relationship.
For this reason, the conclusion of the Wife's Prologue, and what it reveals about her character, is unexpected. In her relationship with her fifth husband, Jankyn, the Wife admits to a surprising amount of vulnerability. It's not just that she "loved him beste" despite the fact that he beat her, but also her heart-wrenching reaction to the horribly antifeminist tales he forces her to listen to every night:
Who wolde wene, or who would suppose
The wo that in myn herte was, and pyne? (792 – 793).
Given the Wife's blustering confidence in the majority of her Prologue, we definitely wouldn't have guessed she was in "pyne." These two lines suggest that the Wife's final stand against negative stereotypes of women is motivated as much by pain and sadness as by a desire for "maistrye." It's interesting that she chooses to conclude her Prologue on such a vulnerable note. This conclusion complicates our understanding of the Wife. It suggests that while she plays into antifeminist stereotypes, and even uses them to achieve her goals, she also chafes against them.