The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Tale Introduction
In A Nutshell
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There are a lot of hazards facing the pilgrims' purses on the road to Canterbury. Bandits. Peddlers. Wayside taverns tempting you to drown your sorrows in a flagon of ale and part with your silver in a game of dice.
But if we had the ear of the male pilgrims on this journey, we'd advise them to beware of a money pit a lot closer to them. In fact, she's traveling in their very midst. She's Alisoun, the Wife of Bath, and she's what some might call a gold digger.
The Wife of Bath is in the business of marriage. And what a business it is. In the course of five marriages, Alisoun has secured a comfortable income for herself. She's not shy about giving us all the dirty details of her operation, either: She lures men with the promise of sex—and she delivers. Though she enjoys doing the deed, she's convinced that you can love a rich man as well as a poor one.
With the Wife of Bath, Chaucer has taken every single medieval antifeminist stereotype you can imagine and rolled them into one outrageous, larger-than-life character.
Medieval antifeminism (which is just what we call it now, not what they called it back then) was a type of estates satire that characterized women as lustful, greedy parasites on men. According to this tradition, a man was better off without a wife because a wife would spend all your money, spill all your deepest secrets to the local gossip, and distract you from your job.
Alisoun confirms all of these stereotypes in the prologue to her story. In fact, she even seems eager to fess up to her shortcomings, leading some literary folks to include her prologue as part of the confessional genre. Confessional literature occurs when a character—often a metaphorical representation of a vice—spills the beans on what makes him so morally reprehensible.
But in the course of her Prologue, Alisoun begins to give us a peek at more than her vices. She also lets us in on the emotional life behind them. She fesses up to actually loving Husband #5, a scholar who beat her and emotionally abused her by forcing her to read horrible things about women in an antifeminist book of his. Despite her worldly ways, Alisoun was as vulnerable to love and pain as the next woman. When we learn this, she begins to seem like a real person rather than a combination of awful stereotypes about women.
The Wife of Bath's Tale itself is way more than just a tale. It's also a lesson about what women want. That lesson is delivered by a loathly lady. Some people think that she might be a stand-in, or alter ego, for the Wife of Bath herself.
Intrigued? Good. Because you can call the Wife of Bath a lot of things—chatterbox, gold digger, maneater—but you certainly can't call her boring.
Why Should I Care?
What is the goal of justice? Should people be punished for their crimes in a manner proportional with their gravity, and as a way of discouraging others from committing the same crimes? Or should justice's goal be to re-educate and re-integrate the criminal back into society? Our society generally seems to agree that justice should include some element of both, but what we don't agree on is the correct proportions. Concerning "rehabilitative" justice (the re-educate, re-integrate kind), people ask to what extent criminals can be re-educated. Are we just beating our heads against a brick wall trying to convince criminals to follow the rules of society?
"The Wife of Bath's Tale" is the story of a knight who is spared from the completely punitive justice represented by the king, only to face the queen's rehabilitative justice. Just as our society is divided on the proper form of criminal justice, readers of "The Wife of Bath's Tale" disagree about how effective the queen's justice actually is. Thus, despite being set in the land of 'fayerye,' "The Wife of Bath's Tale" explores issues we are still debating to this day.