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In the varied group of pilgrims assembled by Chaucer, the Wife of Bath most simply represents a woman of the time. Unlike the Prioress and her nun companion, who are the only other women on the pilgrimage and who represent other things, her sole purpose is to just be a woman. Chaucer says of her, “Of cloth-making hadde swich an haunt, She passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt, In al the parissh wif ne was ther noon, That to the offring bifore heir sholde goon.”(Chaucer, pp. 310) This passage described her as being a good cloth making-woman who gives an abundance of gifts to the church. She does not represent women as the typical weak gender but she is a medieval woman at her most eloquent and her most basic (Jones, pp. 1). The Wife of Bath is essentially a conformist and though her behavior at times may seem out of hand, her needs are really quite normal. Put simply, she likes men and does not like sleeping alone. She tries hard to fulfill these needs but as far as Chaucer tells she had remained faithful to each of her five former husbands when they were alive. She flirts and is familiar with men but she nowhere does she actually advocate sex outside marriage. Her prologue starts by boasting of her experience of men, “Experience, though noon auctoritee Were in this world, is right ynogh for me, To speke of wo that is in mariage.” (Chaucer, ll. 1).
Chaucer begins his description of the wife by telling us she is somewhat deaf. By being deaf she can not hear what other say about her. He says this deafness is a pity and this sympathy from Chaucer may be because if she could hear what others might say about her then she might change her ways. He goes on and tells that she is an excellent seamstress and weaver. This implies that she may have had nice, expensive looking clothes and the looks of a true woman of the times (Dalcourt, pp. 1).
Chaucer continues on to say that she makes it a point to be the first to give an offering in church and that she often gives generously. By being first, the wife makes sure that everybody sees her giving that large amounts of money. If she was last to give, then people may have already left or had not been paying attention to her donation. Because she donates a lot each time it implies that she may feel guilty for something or that she has sinned terribly and is now trying to buy her forgiveness. By giving all this money to the church, God may overlook her wrong doings.
In the next line Chaucer hints at the sinful side of the wife. He describes her as wearing scarlet red stockings, even on Sundays. Red is a color that is commonly associated with love, passion and anger. Chaucer also makes it a special point to emphasize that her stockings are not only red, but scarlet red in color.
Chaucer says that the wife has been to the church doors, or married, five times. The act of several marriages of a woman was looked down upon in the time of The Canterbury Tales but was an accomplishment for any man. She is also said to have been in five former pilgrimages. This could imply that she feels guilty about her formers husbands. Each man died before she married another. The former pilgrimages could have been her way to repent the deaths and receive forgiveness.
The wife is also describes as having a gapped tooth. This trait is commonly associated with lust and love. She also rode a horse quite easily. This is a trait not typical of a woman because they were though to be fragile creatures who did not ride horses for pleasure. She readily laughed and joked which also was a non-typical behavior of women who were supposed to be seen, not heard. The last thing Chaucer says of her is that she is an expert in the ways of love. As a third person reporting this Chaucer could not know unless she boasted about it or showed him. Neither of these options were respected traits of women in any time period.
The first part of the Wife of Bath’s tale is supposed to convey her message and her views on marriage and sexual morality and at a point move to a level of teaching. These views are somewhat surprisingly in accordance to the common thoughts on the subject in Chaucer’s time. She also supports her arguments with references to respected sources like the Bible, and folk-commonsense presented in the form of proverbs and axioms (Cigman, pp. 210).
The Wife of Bath is basically an extremely strong women character especially considering the time period in which it was written and the fact that it was written by a man. Chaucer created the Wife of Bath to illustrate both the imperfections of women of the day as well as praise them for beholding them (Magee, pp. 181). Although she considers herself a religious person and draws from the Bible when it can help to justify her beliefs, she also ignores the teachings of the church when it does not serve her purpose. She doesn’t see anything immoral about having five husbands because she is able to reinforce this belief with examples from the Bible. Therefore, in her eyes her beliefs and actions should be acceptable because they could be justified. Chaucer’s characterization of her physical traits soon effects the sincereness of her religious dedication. She is not necessarily a bad person, but ahead of her time as a women and set in her own beliefs
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