The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Tale
The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Tale Theme of Poverty
When her husband attacks her suitableness as a wife because she is poor, the loathly lady launches into a long speech in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" that includes a meditation on the virtues of poverty. Coming right after her longer consideration of the origins of gentility, the lady's poverty speech sometimes repeats the same technique, attempting to convince the knight that, just as those who aren't gentlemen are still "gentil," those who are poor can still be rich. To do this she points to various things poor men have that rich men lack, including freedom from fear of robbery and (if they covet nothing) a general sense of contentment. These 'possessions,' the lady is saying, actually make the poor man rich. The lady also points to various virtues of poverty-as-poverty, including a knowledge of God, self, and who one's friends and enemies are. The lady's discussion of poverty has nothing to do with the material day-to-day lives of the poor; instead it explores the concept of poverty in an abstract way that draws upon a tradition of writings about poverty by authors like Seneca and Boethius.
Questions About Poverty
- How does the loathly lady support the argument that the poor are actually rich? Is it convincing?
- What beneficial things does the lady claim poverty brings with it?
- What does the lady mean by "glad" poverty?
- How does the loathly lady's attitude toward poverty differ from the Wife of Bath's? What might account for these differences?
Chew on This
The loathly lady mimics the strategy she used in her explanation of gentility – in which she argued that non-gentlemen could be "gentle" – in her defense of poverty.
The loathly lady's defense of poverty is the point at which the Wife of Bath's alter-ego most clearly splits from her.