The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Tale
by Geoffrey Chaucer
Tools of Characterization
The direct characterization we get in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" is minimal. It's so minimal, in fact, that we thought we'd mention the two instances of it, just for fun. The first is in the description we get of the knight; the narrator calls him a "lusty bacheler," which his very first action confirms. The second instance of direct characterization occurs when the knight sees the loathly lady sitting alone in a field. About her, the narrator tells us, "A fouler wight ther may no man devyse" (1005). And that's it. No, really, that's it.
This is a big one in "The Wife of Bath's Tale," because the only other means of characterization we get is direct characterization, of which there are only two instances (see above). We have to depend on characters' actions for everything else we know about them. So what can we learn from what these characters do? Well, first of all, take the knight; he rapes a woman, then acts all put out ("sorwefully he siketh") when, instead of getting his head chopped off, he has to traipse around the countryside in search of what women most desire. Then he tries to back out on his promise to the loathly lady. Oh, and then he tells his new bride to her face that she's ugly, old, and low-class.
So what do we know? Well, first of all, he's not a very good knight, since knights are supposed to protect women (nope), do their duty uncomplainingly (wrong), and keep their promises faithfully (wrong again). We also get the sense that he's not very sensitive to women. In fact, he's kind of cold toward them.
That's where the queen and the loathly lady come in; both of these women are strategic and smart, the queen devising a punishment designed to make the knight more sensitive to women's desires, the loathly lady putting him to a test that confirms he's learned his lesson. The loathly lady doesn't balk at demanding her rights in front of the queen's court, so we know she's bold and assertive. The queen makes it very clear to the knight that she's not letting him off easy, so we know she's no pushover either.
The one question mark remaining in all of these actions is the loathly-lady-turned-beautiful-damsel yielding sovereignty back to her husband after he's granted it to her. Three things we might say about this: 1) Does this really count as the same character, seeing as she was an old and ugly hag and now she's a beautiful damsel? 2) Maybe the lady desires devotion or love more than sovereignty, or 3) We just don't know. Our money's on #3.