An Analysis Of Chaucer's "The Wife Of Bath's Tale"

962 words - 4 pages

In reading Geoffrey Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales,' I foundthat of the Wife of Bath, including her prologue, to be the mostthought-provoking. The pilgrim who narrates this tale, Alison, isa gap-toothed, partially deaf seamstress and widow who has beenmarried five times. She claims to have great experience in theways of the heart, having a remedy for whatever might ail it.Throughout her story, I was shocked, yet pleased to encounterdetails which were rather uncharacteristic of the women ofChaucer's time. It is these peculiarities of Alison's tale whichI will examine, looking not only at the chivalric and religiousinfluences of this medieval period, but also at how she wouldhave been viewed in the context of this society and by Chaucerhimself.During the period in which Chaucer wrote, there was a dualconcept of chivalry, one facet being based in reality and theother existing mainly in the imagination only. On the one hand,there was the medieval notion we are most familiar with today inwhich the knight was the consummate righteous man, willing tosacrifice self for the worthy cause of the afflicted and weak; onthe other, we have the sad truth that the human knight rarelylived up to this ideal(Patterson 170). In a work by MurielBowden, Associate Professor of English at Hunter College, sheexplains that the knights of the Middle Ages were 'merely mountedsoldiers, . . . notorious' for their utter cruelty(18). The taleBath's Wife weaves exposes that Chaucer was aware of both formsof the medieval soldier. Where as his knowledge that knightswere often far from perfect is evidenced in the beginning ofAlison's tale where the 'lusty' soldier rapes a young maiden;King Arthur, whom the ladies of the country beseech to spare thelife of the guilty horse soldier, offers us the typicalconception of knighthood.In addition to acknowledging this dichotomy of ideas aboutchivalry, Chaucer also brings into question the religious viewsof his time through this tale. The loquacious Alison spends agood deal of the prologue espousing her views regarding marriageand virginity, using her knowledge of the scriptures to addstrength to her arguments. For instance, she argues that thereis nothing wrong with her having had five husbands, pointing outthat Solomon had hundreds of wives. In another debate, she arguesthat despite the teaching of the Church that virginity is 'agreater good than the most virtuous of marriages,' there is nobiblical comment opposing marriage(Bowden 77). Even though theseideas may not seem so radical to today's reader, they would havebeen considered blasphemy to people of Chaucer's time (Howard143).The tale itself raises another religious discussion of thetime: Who should have the upper hand within a marriage? KingArthur gives the task of sentencing the nefarious knight to hiswife, who proposes that his life will be spared if he can findthe answer to the question: 'What thing is it that wommen mostdesiren?' Following a fruitless search for the answer, theknight...

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