Chaucer's shaping of the prologue genre

The style and purpose of prologues

Prologues have been common in many kinds of writing throughout the centuries. A prologue is an introductory speech which can be used:

  • To interest the reader in the tale
  • To give information about its background or source
  • To introduce the narrator
  • To allow the narrator to make elegant expressions of modesty about his / her competence to deliver the tale
  • To provide a frame for the tale by giving a context in which it is heard
  • To flatter a patron. 

Prologues in The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer, like many other authors in all periods, prefaces many of his tales with prologues. Those he created for his fictional pilgrims vary greatly in length and content:

  • The Knight begins in The General Prologue without a prologue of his own. He draws the short straw to become the first to tell a tale and obediently just gets on with it
  • Some of the prologues might better be described as links between the tales. The focus is more on the interactions between the fictional pilgrims (and sometimes on the previous tale) than it is on the tale to follow:
    • e.g. the ‘prologues' of the Friar, the Summoner, the Merchant, and the Cook
  • Some of the prologues are more about the teller than the tale:
    • e.g. the Wife's, the Pardoner's and the Merchant's
    • The Reeve is reprimanded for his sermonising by the Host and told to begin his tale.
  • The Clerk and the Franklin both give proper introductions to their tales in their prologues, while the drunken Miller can't be prevented from telling his tale, but nonetheless is clear about its subject – cuckoldry
  • The Prioress offers a prayer and modestly expresses her inadequacy. She stands in direct contrast to the Wife whose prologue opening is bold and abrupt.

The Prologue of the Wife of Bath

The prologue attributed to the Wife of Bath is longer than any other in The Canterbury Tales. It is also longer than her tale. It is a kind of prologue Chaucer invented, where a character talks about their own behaviour, revealing in particular their faults, tricks and sins. 


It is not a realistic type of writing: it would have been unwise for a woman seeking a new husband to relate how she disposed of the others! It is, rather, a device constructed by Chaucer to satirise abuses of - and by – women, through exposing them and presenting that exposure as if it is coming from one of the abusers. Though The Wife of Bath's Prologue can't be read as realistic speech by an individual, the first person narrative device (the Wife says, ‘I do this' and ‘I do that') is particularly effective.

Confession and judgement

Apart from that of the Wife, the other lengthy prologue belongs to the Pardoner. Chaucer designs each of these as a sort of confession by a first-person speaker. Chaucer presents them both so that we become aware of the gap between the narrator and the author, Chaucer. 

Chaucer's handling of his narrators is ironic. He makes us aware of how far the Wife actually embodied the anti-feminist satires about women as being disobedient, too talkative, rebellious, lustful and prone to evil. Although she is ostensibly promoting the institution of marriage, her depiction of married life means that her hearers would be more likely to avoid it!

Prologue as ‘tale'

The opening lines of the Wife's Prologue bear no relation to her tale:

  • She claims that she has enough experience not to need any other authority to speak of the woe of marriage
  • However, her tale ends in marriage. It does not continue long enough to reveal woe. 

By lines 169 and 172 the Wife is referring to her ‘prologue' as her ‘tale', and the listeners' understanding about what they are getting has to be readjusted. 

More than an introduction

Thus The Wife of Bath's Prologue is more than an introduction to the tale that she is going to tell or just a framing device: it is also a tale in itself. It serves as:

  • The story of her marriages that she tells from ‘experience'
  • The account of her fight against male ‘auctoritee' (authority) on and over women
  • A demonstration of a female narrator appropriating male authority to counter the teachings that she wants to reveal as inconsistent and illogical.

The Wife's intention

The story of the Wife's marriages has two purposes:

  • It is delivered to entertain the company, her contribution to the story-telling competition initiated by the Host
  • It is also an ironically misdirected attempt to promote her chances of obtaining a sixth husband.

The Friar's comment on her ‘prologue' registers the disturbance of expectation that she has created – he sees it as a long preamble to a tale.

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