The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Prologue
Women and Femininity Theme
The Wife spends much of her Prologue parroting antifeminist stereotypes about women, whether she's accusing her first three husbands of berating her with these stereotypes, or re-enacting her fifth husband's readings from the Book of Wicked Wives. These stereotypes say that women are shallow, deceitful, lustful, unreasonable, chatterboxes, nags – the list goes on.
Although in the course of her Prologue the Wife conforms to every single stereotype, she refuses to let them go unexamined; in a short passage starting at line 694, she suggests that men, too, would have a bad reputation if women had the opportunity to write about them. This analysis betrays how upset the Wife is at the way she and all women have been portrayed. At the same time, it reveals women as nearly powerless to fight this portrayal. This awareness of women's impotence in medieval learned spheres may be one reason the Wife feels it's important to instruct wise women in how to gain the upper hand in their marriages, perhaps the only sphere in which they might have influence. The fact that the Wife so often counsels women to deceive reflects a cynical assessment of women's station in life and the means of power available to them.
Questions About Women and Femininity
- What are the antifeminist stereotypes of women that the Wife conveys in her Prologue? What methods does she use to do so?
- Does the Wife agree with the antifeminist stereotypes about women? Does she confirm them? Why or why not?
- What is the Wife of Bath's advice to wise women? What does this advice suggest about her perspective on women and their status in medieval society?
- How does the Wife of Bath's character provide an answer to the antifeminist stereotype of women as inherently less reasonable than men? What is it?
Chew on This
By embodying multiple antifeminist stereotypes in one person, the Wife of Bath's character reveals the way in which stereotypes are an inadequate and contradictory way of describing an individual.
The Wife of Bath's advice to wise women reflects her acute awareness of women's relative powerlessness in medieval society, and her cynicism about the possibility of improvement in their status.