The Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the fourteenth century, have been read with admiration in most periods between the fifteenth century and the present. In this poetic satire, Chaucer uses "a fictitious pilgrimage as a framing device for a number of stories" (Norton, 79). Chaucer himself becomes a character, and at the same time, the narrator in this masterpiece, and along with twenty-nine other people, he sets out on the quest to Canterbury. In "The General Prologue," Chaucer presents short descriptions of each of the pilgrims. Throughout the poem, Chaucer the narrator depicts the pilgrims one by one, without criticizing or telling the reader his own opinion about the characters: he leaves that up to the readers to perceive on their own.
Pilgrimages were very common in fourteenth-century England, and they were well depicted in the Middle English literature. On the literal level, the pilgrimage was a journey to the shrine of a saint to pray and receive remission for the sins, and while on the pilgrimage, one would meet different people and listen to their interesting stories. On the allegorical level, the pilgrimage represents people's journey through life. In The Canterbury Tales, after setting themselves to leave from the courtyard of the Tabard Inn, the pilgrims agree to tell the stories: two on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. Such a development of the plot gives Chaucer a chance to portray each of the pilgrims through his or her own lips.
Chaucer's pilgrims represent all the social levels of the hierarchical order of medieval society. Most of the pilgrims are men. There are only a few women, and one of them is the Wife of Bath. She is depicted by Chaucer in "The General Prologue" as a "somewhat deaf," red-faced and "gap-toothed" woman who has her own business as a weaver of cloth. To show everyone in the town that she is well off, when she goes to church on Sundays, the Wife of Bath -- Dame Alisoun - overdresses: she wears a skirt and red stockings, wuth ten pounds of "coverchiefs" and tight-laced supple shoes: "Her wearing of such garments stamps her as the most prosperous woman of business, and naturally she takes pleasure 'to se, and eek for to be seye' as she later tells us" (Parker).
The Wife of Bath makes it a point to be the first one to give her offerings at church and refuses to give them if anyone else does it before her. Today's reader might not consider this little detail seriously, but Chaucer's contemporaries would have certainly understood such a desire to be noticed. David Parker says about the Wife: "… the fact that the Dame Alisoun is so wrathful that she is 'out of alle charitee' when someone usurps what she considers to be her rightful place is an indication, not of conceit, but of the frank pride in achievement."
The Wife of Bath is presented to readers in "The General Prologue" as a devoted pilgrim...