Characterisation within The Tale

The Wife of Bath within her Tale 

The Wife of Bath's Tale is mainly written with the economy of a fairy tale (with little description, brief dialogue, characters as types rather than realised as individuals) except where two significant female speakers dominate the narrative.

The Wife interjecting her views in her own voice 

  • l.862-81 - her anti-clerical attack on friars, who become the only danger now to women in places that were traditionally haunted by evil fairies
  • l. 931-50 - her claim that women can be ensnared through attentiveness, like not to be criticized and don't care a rake handle for discretion
  • l.1257–64 - her desire for husbands young and fresh in bed, and generous with their money.

However, the bawdiness, so evident in the Prologue is not a significant feature of her Tale.

Notice how the Wife (l.1074 and 1077) reflects on her own handling of the tale – she explains why she hasn't spoken of the celebrations on the wedding day. 

The Old Woman

In her dialogue with the Knight, the Old Woman engages in a lengthy account of the concept of ‘gentilesse', and refers to Dante, Valerius, Boethius and Seneca. Learned references are not the stuff of fairy tale. 

The depiction of other characters

The characters in the tale are all types – the Knight, the Old Woman, the Young girl, the Queen. None of them have names. In this aspect they conform to the fairy-tale and folk-tale genre in which individuality is less important than a character's function in the plot.

These figures are not internalised, but described from the outside. When the Knight is under sentence of death for his misdeed, we know that he sighed woefully because he could no longer do what he wished but had to set out on a quest imposed by Queen. The reader has limited access to other feelings. Chaucer does not spend many lines on the Knight's awareness of his predicament and we must guess at the response of the raped young girl – instead, Chaucer moves the plot forward.

We know more about the ideas and feelings of the Old Woman than about the internal workings of any other character. However, this is generated through her presentation to the Knight of an argument about the nature of ‘gentilesse'. With its references to ‘authority' such as Dante, Boethius and Seneca, it has the form of a contribution to debate rather than of an expression of emotion.

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