Desire and The Wife of Bath's Tale

A wish-fulfilment fairy tale

One way of assessing the Tale is to think of it as a kind of fairy tale about desire, in which longings are ultimately fulfilled trough magical transformation. The idea of a land of fairies / magic is introduced l.3, and l.991-1004 and is followed by a number of key moments in the narrative.

The Knight

  • The knight succumbs to his desire, his lust, for the young virgin and rapes her l.882-88
  • The Knight's natural desire to preserve his own life commits him to embarking on his quest
  • The focus of the quest is to answer to a question about what ‘wommen most desyren' l.905
  • The Knight's answer, that women desire to have control over their husbands and lovers l. 1038-40, is one he gradually comes to comprehend
  • The Knight's desire to escape his marital duty to his wife l.10150, l.1073 - 1113
  • The resolution of each of the couple's desires by the magical transformation which gives the Knight a fair, young bride, l.1250-6 and produces a consensual marriage (see Social / political context > Marriage in England in the fourteenth century).

The Old Woman

  • The Old Woman desires to be allied to the young Knight l. 1009 (she gains his pledge to the, as yet unrevealed, promise that he will marry her)
  • The answer the Old Woman supplies for the Knight's quest is that women desire to have control over their husbands and lovers l. 1038-40
  • The Old Woman's physical desire for a ‘proper' husband
  • The Old Woman's desire for virtuous living to be recognised as the essence of ‘gentilesse'
  • The Old Woman's desire for ‘maistyre' (mastery), satisfied by the Knight's submission, from l.1230
  • The resolution of both her and the Knight's desires by the magical transformation which allows the Old Woman to be a fair, young bride with a virile husband, l.1250-6 and produces a consensual marriage in which she is not denigrated (see Social / political context > Marriage in England in the fourteenth century).

The Wife's desire

The final lines are not essential to the tale but they re-establish our awareness of the Wife as narrator. Her desire for power has a thematic link with the tale. 

Investigating the theme of desire

  • Consider the effect of the Wife's final lines on your experience of the end of tale
    • Do they diminish its ‘magic'?
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