Form and structure in The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale

The form of The Wife of Bath's Prologue

In The Wife of Bath's Prologue Chaucer creates an apparently rambling, conversational piece in which a strongly identifiable narrative voice is evident. Its conversational tone and apparent freedom tends to belie the skill with which the text has been created and sustained within the constraint of the rhyming couplet and the iambic pentameter. (See Literary context > Chaucer's metre: Iambic pentameter.)

In fact when you examine the form closely you can see how the metrical stresses, rhyme and other sound devices construct this persuasive and energetic voice. 

The structure of The Wife of Bath's Prologue

In spite of its many digressions, the structure of The Wife of Bath's Prologue is very straightforward because it is mainly chronological. The Wife moves:

  1. From the discussion of the issue of the validity of her serial marriages
  2. To an account of her victories over the first three husbands (treated as a group)
  3. To her fourth marriage
  4. Then to her fifth marriage to Jankin the clerk. 


Pace is an aspect of narrative. It concerns the space and time given in the text to the movement of the plot and to different aspects of the narrative:

  • Description slows the pace, for example, and so does lengthy dialogue
  • An episode may be covered briefly, e.g. the rape of the young girl in The Wife of Bath's Tale
  • One aspect may be given a large proportion of the text, e.g. the Old Woman's argument on the nature of ‘gentilesse' in The Wife of Bath's Tale.

Think about the effects of these variations of pace on you as reader, or on listeners to the story.

Investigating ways of charting the structure of The Wife of Bath's Prologue

  • Think about how you could make a chart to reflect the way in which you see the structure of The Wife of Bath's Prologue. For example, you could draw:
    • A long line with patches in different colours to indicate, for example
      • The Wife's arguments with church teaching
      • Her arguments with her husbands
      • Moments of reflection
      • Moments of reconciliation
      • Awareness of her pilgrim audience
      • The Pardoner's interruption.
    • A temperature chart to indicate the moments in the tale when tensions / emotions are raised.
    • A spiral to indicate the escalation of violence: for example, by the time she battles with her fifth husband the Wife is engaged in what the police would now call a ‘domestic'!
    • Your ideas?

The form of The Wife of Bath's Tale

Like her Prologue, the Wife's Tale is written in iambic pentameters in rhyming couplets. Chaucer can use and vary this pattern to great effect to ensure that the listeners readily understand the movement of the tale and the choices and conflicts generated within it. For example, read from l. 1219 ‘Chese now ...' to line 1235 ‘Cheseth …' :

  • Notice how the iambic metre emphasises the terms of the choice – ‘foul', ‘old', ‘true', ‘wyf', and ‘elles' (else), ‘yong', ‘fair', ‘cause,' ‘me'
  • It also emphasises the degree of the Knight's submission to the Old Woman as he is brought to term her – ‘lady', ‘love', ‘wyf', ‘dere'.

This short section ends as it began with the invocation to make a choice, ‘Cheseth'. But this time it is the Old woman who is granted choice. In this line, Chaucer alerts the reader to the drama of the moment, by changing the established metric pattern and beginning the line with a trochee.

The structure of The Wife of Bath's Tale

Think about ways in which you could chart the structure of The Wife of Bath's Tale.

Investigating the strucutre if The Wife of Bath's Tale

  • Make a diagram of the main people and events in the Tale
    • What does your diagram reveal about who is rewarded, and for what, at the end of the tale?
    • Which character, important to the plot at the beginning, has been omitted at the end?
      • How do you regard this omission?
  • It might be helpful to think of The Wife of Bath's Tale as having two narrative voices:
    • One is the voice of tale-telling that the Wife adopts to deliver the narrative
    • The other is the characteristic first person voice of the Wife. The Wife's narrative voice, and in some instances the dominance of particular themes, ‘customise' the tale to the Wife as narrator.
    • Make a chart in which you identify the blocks of text where the Wife is giving her views and the blocks where the tale is moving forward without evidence of her comments
      • Think about how you will chart the embedded story of Midas (lines 951-982)
      • What conclusions do you draw from your chart about the presence of the Wife as a narrator in The Wife of Bath's Tale?
  • Make a chart which enables you to explore the events of the tale in terms of conflict and resolution
    • How many conflicts are there? e.g.
      • Between the Knight and the law
      • Between the Knight and the old Woman
    • How satisfactorily are these conflicts resolved?
    • How important are verbal contracts in the tale?
  • The Wife of Bath's Tale as fairy tale
    • Make a chart or diagram in which you show where there are references to fairies and magical transformation in the tale
      • What does your chart reveal about the significance of these elements in the tale?
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