The struggle for power in The Wife of Bath's Prologue

There are three main areas in which a struggle for power is central to the text.

Clerical authority versus personal experience

In the opening lines the Wife announces that her experience of five marriages is ‘right ynough for me'. She thinks that it gives her sufficient authority to speak about marriage. She opposes this authoritative experience to her view of written ‘auctoritee', the ‘truths' she will have heard expressed through clerical interpretations of the Bible, e.g. of Genesis and 1 Corinthians

The Wife challenges male ‘authority' on, for example:

  • Sex and marriage
  • The validity of her five marriages
  • Chastity. 

Chaucer creates a text in which the active power of speech, the tongue, is powerful and persuasive against the passive ‘received wisdom' of Jankin's book which is packed with both biblical and classical examples of wicked wives.

The struggle for ‘maistrie' (mastery) within marriage

There are a number of ways in which the struggle for dominance is fought through the Wife's many marriages. Issues under debate include:

  • Control of money and property
  • Control of the body
  • Restraint and licence
  • Truth and deception
  • Dispute and resolution. 

Notice how the struggle is ‘gendered'. It is not so much a struggle between two different people, as a struggle between a man and a woman. The location of control also has a bearing. The indoor space, in which her husbands debate with the Wife, is more controlled than the outdoor spaces, where the Wife is free to gossip. It is in the fields that the Wife makes a new connection (with Jankin) whilst her husband is in London.

The struggle against the power of time

In the Wife of Bath's Prologue dominance and attraction lies with the young. Youth triumphs over age, but time eventually triumphs over the Wife herself as she becomes aware of her own ageing.

  • The triumph of youth and energy – In her youth the Wife has time and the power of attraction on her side, but she lacks control over the wealth within marriage. From l.193 the Wife begins the narrative of her marriages and demonstrates how she takes control of husbands one, two and three, their treasure and their talk.
  • The triumph of time – Chaucer works with three time periods in a few lines: the time of the Wife's youth, the time when she married her fourth husband, and the present. From l.453 the Wife introduces the account of her marriage to her fourth husband with the comment that he had a lover. At that time, she claims, she was still young and passionate and enjoyed dancing, singing and drinking. This leads her to reflect on her youth, with the recognition that it has gone. The drama of her battle with the husbands is suspended briefly as she poignantly remembers her youth and acknowledges her ageing. Her memories help readers / listeners become more aware of the Wife as a person.
  • Compensating for the loss of youth - from l. 575 the (undaunted) forty year old Wife sees the young Jankin and realises that this time she has to use more than sexual attraction to gain him. Well schooled by her mother in the craft of female trickery, she lets him believe that she is enchanted by him, and lies to him that she had dreamed about him in a dream which prophesied gold. She is subtly offering wealth to the impoverished clerk.
  • Offering assurances that time has not impaired her sexual capacity - In the event of widowhood, the Wife moves fast. She reminds us, from l. 600, that she has a great deal to recommend her in the marriage stakes – ‘a coltes tooth' (a young appetite), proven credentials as a sexual partner, and a pair of star signs which promise both lecherousness and ‘hardinesse'.
  • The value of youth in the tale - In The Wife of Bath's Tale age and wisdom in the form of the Old Woman seem to triumph over the inexperience of the young Knight, but age is not ultimately held to be valuable. The Knight's reward is to get a young bride through the magical transformation of the Old Woman. The desire for youth is present in The Tale as it is in the Wife's Prologue.

Investigating tensions and oppositions in the Prologue

  • Examine how the theme of struggle is portrayed in terms of binary oppositions in the text, e.g. between
    • Youth and age
    • Restraint and licence
    • Script and tongue
  • Think about other thematic tensions that you see in the text, e.g., between discretion and confession
  • Draw a diagram to express your idea of these o


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