The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Tale
What’s Up With the Ending?
The ending to "The Wife of Bath's Tale," in which a convicted rapist is seemingly rewarded with a beautiful young wife, is deeply concerning to many a modern feminist. The seeming lack of justice in this ending is even more shocking given the fact that it's administered by a court of ladies, whom we would think would take seriously the rape of one of their own. It's easy to read the ending as coming from a misogynist tradition that fails to take rape seriously, despite the tale's claim to be concerned with and growing out of women's desires and motivations.
On the other hand, the ending to "The Wife of Bath's Tale" could be describing the medieval version of rehabilitative justice, or the idea that punishments for crimes ought to educate and reform the criminal. Consider: the knight's punishment for a rape, in which he brutally disregarded a woman's desires, is that he has to travel the countryside paying attention to women's desires. The outcome of his quest is that he must subordinate his desire (for a young, hot wife) to the loathly lady's desire to marry him. This could be seen as a reversal of the moment of rape, in which he let his desires dominate all others. We might read the knight's verbal relinquishment of 'maistrye' to his wife as a sign that he is truly and fully reformed; now it's OK for him to be rewarded with the wife he really wants.
But on the other hand, some question the sincerity of the knight's reform, saying that perhaps he's just learned to say all the right things, rather than truly believing them. This interpretation gains support from a line that says that after her transformation, the knight's wife "obeyed him in every thyng" (1261), suggesting that, indeed, the knight's embrace of his wife's sovereignty, and her request for it, was only so much lip service to the notion. The knight's shallow all-on-the-surface yielding of 'maistrye' is met with a wife who's beautiful on the surface, the implication being that she's beautiful nowhere else.