The Wife of Bath's Tale as Romance

Establishing expectations 

The opening of a text is very important. It often signifies genre, the kind of literary work to expect e.g. comedy, satire, tragedy, thriller, romantic fiction. If the Wife's tale began, ‘When Detective Geoffrey questioned the young woman about the events of the afternoon of the rape ...' we would have very different expectations about the kind of story that we were about to read than the one that Chaucer gives us. Different genres follow different conventions and set up different narrative expectations. 

Is the Wife's Tale a Romance?

Romance, though not an exact term, does indicate a literary genre. Sometimes the Wife's tale is referred to as a ‘Romance' and the question is raised about whether or not this kind of tale is appropriate to the earthy (and in the modern sense of the word ‘unromantic') Wife. 

Romance in Chaucer's period refers to popular courtly stories in verse which dealt with legends of knights and heroes, e.g. stories about King Arthur. 

Conventional Romance elements

The Wife's reference to the time of King Arthur sets the story back to the fifth or sixth century. She uses the word ‘Britons' by which she means folk from the Breton area of northern France where Arthurian tales and fairy tales were popular. The tale conforms to many features of the genre – verbal contracts are made and honoured, a quest is undergone, and magical intervention provides the resolution. There is little description and the characters are types rather than individuals. They do not have names.

Unconventional aspects

Far from being a noble swain, the Wife's Arthurian knight just turns out to be a man behaving badly. The Knight is riding ‘fro river', from the riverbank, a favourite place for the courtly occupations of hunting and hawking, but despite his courtly context he turns out to be a rapist, taking advantage of a young woman who is on foot. Any chivalric ideas we might have about the Knight crash at this point. 

The knight though undergoes a rather unusual male adventure. He does not fight dragons or fearsome foes but is sent out in peril of his life to discover what women really want. It is an educative process for the Knight, but not one which requires any great valour. His most valiant deed turns out to be that he honours his promise to the Old Woman and surrenders his power.

See also Literary context > Romance and courtly love.

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