The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Tale
by Geoffrey Chaucer
Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
For the most part, the tone of "The Wife of Bath's Tale" is straightforward, narrating the incidents it relates with little embellishment or emotion. When the knight rapes a young maiden, causing the people of the land to clamor for his punishment, this tone results in lines like "Dampned was this knight for to be deed / By cours of lawe, and sholde han lost his heed – / Paraventure swich was the statut tho" (897-899). This is basically the Middle English way of saying, "this guy was sentenced to die, because that's the law." Period, end of story, no hand-wringing or hysterics.
Only two things really seem to get the Wife exercised enough to break her fiction of being an impartial narrator. The first is the knight's audacity in sighing deeply upon being tasked with discovering what thing women most desire; at this, the Wife remarks, "But what! he may nat do al as him lyketh" (920). The other incident that prompts an outburst (of sorts) is some women's desire to be "holden secree," or perceived as able to keep a secret. This error prompts her to break into the narrative to comment "that tale is nat worth a rake-stele," or rake handle. But even this outburst is tame compared with those of which we know the Wife is capable.