The Wife of Bath and the Ideal Woman
The Wife of Bath is one of Chaucer's most memorable characters. In the "General Prologue," she is described as a somewhat deaf, voluptuous, married woman. She is a clothing maker, has a gap tooth, the sign of a lust nature, and she wears brilliant red stockings. Her fantastic description alone sparks interest, a spark that is later fanned into fire when her prologue is read. The Wife's outlandish description of her marriages makes her unique and memorable among the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales, most of which are identified by conventional occupation. Chaucer has deliberately made the Wife a notable character by giving her life many unconventional twists. Her marriages are contradictory, and her personality is at odds with the medieval view of women Chaucer creates her in order to show that this woman, however rare and unique she is, cannot openly struggle for equality and independence. Her prologue gives the reader the notion that, when Alison is talking about herself, "It's a bit like an anti-confession, with her saying this is what I'm like, there's no way I'm going to change (Beer 8). This is her initial portrayal, but at the end of her prologue, the Wife of Bath succumbs to the pressure of society, conforms and becomes the ideal medieval wife.
The Wife's marriages, when viewed in order, show her struggle for power and her surrender to authority. In the first few lines the reader learns that Alison was married five times. Her five husbands represent the progression of a woman from a power-hungry girl to a submissive spouse. Her five husbands can be divided into two groups, the first group consisting of the Wife's first three husbands. Of this first group she says, "The thre were goode men, and riche, and olde" (WBP 197). Robin Bott, in her essay "The Wife of Bath and the Revelour: Power Struggles and Failure in a Marriage of Peers," describes these men as indistinguishable, almost like a collective body (154).
These men are significantly older than she when they marry her. The Wife of Bath herself is only twelve when she marries her first husband (WBP 5-7). What compels this young woman to marry older men, men who may not be able to give her children? Alison explains it plainly enough in her prologue when she says, "They had me yeven hir lond and hir tresoor" (WBP 204). These men have relinquished property to the Wife of Bath, giving her a great advantage over them. The age of the men also gives her leverage because her youth will keep them at home. This grasp of power does not, however, fully transcend to the other group of husbands.
This other group includes her last two husbands, the unnamed fourth husband and the clerk Jankyn, her fifth husband. In contrast to her first three husbands, both are younger than Alison when they marry her. Jankyn is her junior by approximately twenty years. She recalls vividly her fifth husband, explaining how they met and what...