Tale and teller in The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale

The fitness of the narration to its narrator 

The Wife tells a tale in which women's views are sought. Discovering what they most desire will save the Knight's life. And it turns out that what they most desire is ‘sovereyntee', l.1038, an answer of which the Wife would certainly approve.

There are other aspects of the Wife's Tale which seem inappropriate to its narrator. For example:

  • The bourgeois wealthy Wife has to relate the Old Woman's defence of poverty
  • The setting of the tale wouldn't seem to be one that would immediately have captured the interest of the earthy Wife.

However, Chaucer can be seen to have ‘customised' this tale to the Wife. 

A continuing narrative thread

The Wife's very long Prologue has been a story in itself, the story of her marriages. She has also delivered a sustained piece of ironically misdirected self-advertisement. First person pronouns were used frequently. In the opening of The Tale this highly subjective first-person narrator gives way to the voice of third person story-telling. But in her tale the Wife continues to reveal her anti-clericalism, materialism, and her sexual appetite through her interjections (see Synopses and commentary > Part eighteen; Part nineteen; Part twenty-five).

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

The Wife

We encounter the Wife speaking in her own voice, in first person narration, when she interjects her views about: 

  • Clerics – e.g. lines 862-881 (her anti-clerical attack on friars, who become the only danger now to women in places that were traditionally haunted by evil fairies)
  • Women – l.931-950 (women can be well limed through attentiveness, like not to be criticized and don't care a rake handle for discretion, she claims)
  • Husbands – l.1257–1264 (e.g. her desire for husbands young and fresh in bed, and generous with their money)
  • Her story – In l.1074 and 1077 she reflects on her own handling of the tale, explaining why she hasn't spoken of the celebrations on the wedding day. 

However, the bawdiness, so evident in The Wife of Bath's Prologue is not a significant feature of her Tale

The Old Woman

Here, the Wife has the opportunity to deliver a different female view, as well as cite authority for her arguments, recounting a tale in which women have power over a man. In the Old Woman's dialogue with the Knight, she 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). 

Investigating the tale and its narrator

  • Make a list on a large sheet of paper of the basic plot of the Wife's Tale. Leave ample space between each event.
    • Annotate your list to show how Chaucer's narrative makes the tale appropriate to the Wife's character and concerns
    • Are there any aspects of the tale which you don't find appropriate to the Wife?
      • E.g. Her ‘maistrye' in marriage has been firmly based on financial control. Is her concern for the control of money and possessions reflected in the tale?

Investigating the thematic connections between The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale

  • Make a list of themes that you think are common to both texts
    • Take each one as the topic on a sheet of paper and mind map how the theme is outworked in both parts of the text.
  • Are there particular themes or significant ideas which you think relate to one of the texts but not to the other?
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