Analysis of Wife of Bath

Table of Content

Geoffrey Chaucer faced allegations of rape in approximately 1380 from a woman named Cecily Chaumpaigne. Given Chaucer’s character, it is unlikely that he would have been guilty of such a charge. However, during that time, the term “rape” commonly meant kidnapping rather than sexual assault as it is understood today. In 1380, Cecily Chaumpaigne officially released Chaucer from all charges related to “raptu meo,” a phrase which could be interpreted as “seizing me.” It is conceivable that this rape accusation by Cecily Chaumpaigne is the inspiration behind Chaucer’s Tale of the Wife of Bath.

Despite being a strong and intimidating woman who speaks her mind, the wife of Bath is depicted by Chaucer as toothless and unattractive. However, Chaucer does not view her low social class as something to be ashamed of. Instead, he portrays her as wise and well-spoken. This sympathy towards her can be attributed to Chaucer’s own experience with being seen as low-class. Additionally, the wife of Bath has had multiple marriages and numerous affairs, causing pain to unsuspecting men. Her husbands can be categorized into two groups.

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  • The first category of husbands was: rich, but also old and unable to fulfill her demands, sexually that is.
  • The other husbands were sexually vigorous, but harder to control.
  • The first three were rich, old, and jealous. She tamed them by accusing them of promiscuous behavior, that she herself practiced.
  • Her fourth husband had a mistress, so she “gave him a real cause for jealousy”.
  • Her fifth marriage was unhappy because her husband who is half of her age beats her.

To seek revenge on her fifth husband, the wife of Bath ripped three pages out of his book, resulting in him beating her once more. In an effort to alleviate his guilt, he tossed his entire book into the fire, granting her a position of power over him for the remainder of their lives. The wife of Bath, being a highly envious individual, possesses a longing for only a handful of simple pleasures in life. Through her tales, she crafts mirror images of herself, using them as a means to showcase her true identity. This is exemplified by the various ways she depicts her characters.

The story of The Wife of Bath combines philosophical ideas with exemplum. It depicts women’s yearning for power over men and emphasizes that true kindness should be judged by actions rather than social status. The tale begins with a Knight who commits the heinous act of raping a young woman. He is captured and sentenced to death, following the prevailing customs of that time. However, influenced by the queen’s appeals and in respect for women, the king permits the ladies to pass judgment on the Knight.

The protagonist is told that he can save his life if, after a year and a day, he can guess what women desire most. He spends a long time searching for the answer without success, but as he is about to give up, he encounters an old and extremely unattractive woman. She offers to reveal the answer if he promises to fulfill her next request. Desperate, he agrees and manages to discover that women desire sovereignty over their husbands. The queen and her ladies are astonished and spare his life. However, the old woman then demands that he marry her and refuses to accept any alternative. On their wedding night, he rejects her and she inquires about his dissatisfaction.

In response to his inquiry, the man describes the woman as old, unattractive, and from a lower social class. However, the old woman proves to him that none of these attributes are significant, particularly noble lineage, as true kindness is based on actions rather than birth. She gives him a choice: he can have her as she is – old, unattractive, but loyal – or he can have a young, beautiful woman who may not be faithful. He leaves the choice up to her and grants her sovereignty. As soon as he does this, she transforms into a stunning young woman, and they live together in perfect happiness.

Throughout the story, the word rape is frequently used by the wife. The king, who represents authority in the wife’s tale, would have punished the knight. However, the queen suggests a different punishment – to rape him back, following the principle of “an eye for an eye.” This conclusion highlights the wife’s theme of tyranny. Interestingly, the wife herself plays the role of both the rapist knight and the victim. By creating the knight and emphasizing the theme of rape, she perpetuates her own self-rape. Chaucer subtly incorporates irony into the wife’s tale. Her story reflects an anti-feminist stereotype that suggests all women secretly desire to be raped. Nevertheless, Chaucer presents the Wife of Bath as a feminist character.

In The Wife of Bath, there is a quote spoken by the wife that supports her feminist beliefs. She asserts, “I don’t deny that I will have my husband both my debtor and my slave; and as long as I am his wife he shall suffer in the flesh. I will have command over his body during all his life, not he.” In essence, she declares her intention to exert control over herself, her husband, and their household, specifically emphasizing that her husband will not possess the same privileges as her – he will be like a ‘slave’ and she will be the one giving commands. This statement suggests the Wife of Bath’s inclination towards feminism. However, there are instances where she seems to submit to her husband’s desires. She states, “…since I know your pleasure I’ll satisfy your physical pleasure.” This supports a non-feminist perspective as she is yielding to the man’s desires, which contradicts feminist beliefs. The Wife of Bath has the choice to resist the man’s demands, yet she chooses to prioritize his pleasure over her own because she understands how much men enjoy it when women obey them.

Clearly, this quote contradicts feminist beliefs, creating an unresolved question regarding the Wife of Bath.

The wife’s narrative revolves around power dynamics and the quest for superiority in relationships. It is evident that she takes pleasure in manipulating and dominating her husbands. Similarly, the knight’s pursuit aligns with the inherent desire for power that women possess. The presence of power over another individual implies complete control.

In summary, the wife desires power, which is a common desire for women in relationships. She becomes jealous of the hag because she can relate to her, even though they are both considered ugly. The wife wishes that she could possess the same power as the hag, and hopes that her partner will grant her the ability to make decisions and choices without being deprived of that power.

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