Common Sense, Ethics, and Dogma in The Wife of Bath
In his Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer assembles a band of pilgrims who, at the behest of their host, engage in a story-telling contest along their route. The stories told along the way serve a number of purposes, among them to entertain, to instruct, and to enlighten. In addition to the intrinsic value of the tales taken individually, the tales in their telling reveal much about the tellers. The pitting of tales one against another provides a third level of complexity, revealing the interpersonal dynamics of the societal microcosm comprising the diverse group of pilgrims.
Within the larger context, the tales can be divided into groups. These ‘fragments’ are each cohesive, not in the least because of their treatment of a single overarching question or issue, as is examined in detail by structuralist critic Jerome Mandel, in Building the Fragments of the Canterbury Tales. Using Mandel’s premise as a beginning, one can further conjecture a structural similarity between the fragments; for the immediate purposes, a similarity between Fragments I (beginning with the Knight’s Tale) and III (beginning with the Wife’s Tale) is worth noting, in which an opening tale poses a serious question and partially addresses it, and a pair of lighter tales follows, each playing off the other to further examine the question. As the fragments progress, moreover, the questions as they arise encompass the previous question. Thus, the Wife of Bath’s Tale serves an important didactic purpose in encompassing the Knight’s, and heightening the level of the dialogue as Alice, the Wife of Bath, exams the validity of the question the knight poses in its entirety.
In the Knight’s Tale, the question is posed, “Which is worse, to be in full view of one’s desire, yet it be unattainable, or never to be able to view the object of one’s desire?” The pain of either choice has as its basic assumption the existence of covetousness. Both the young knights in the tale possess that most basic characteristic of courtly romance, that of hopeless covetousness – desiring that which is seemingly unattainable. Alice of Bath gives us an exercise in critical thinking by taking issue with this basic premise of courtly love, to be felt towards lovers, but not towards wives.
In introducing his modern English translation of the Canterbury Tales, Nevill Coghill gives us a primer in courtly love, thus:
It was not in fashion to write poems to one’s wife. It could even be debated whether love could ever have a place in marriage; the typical situation in which a ‘courtly lover’ found himself was to be plunged in a secret, an illicit, and even an adulterous passion for some seemingly unattainable and pedestalized lady… the most beautiful of absolute disasters, an agony as much desired as bemoaned … This was not in theory the attitude of a husband to his wife. It was for a husband to command, for a wife to obey (12).
With both the...