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The Wife of Bath’s tale is appropriate to her character, and perfectly complements the description of the Wife in the General Prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer’s late 1300s literary masterpiece The Canterbury Tales. The Wife of Bath creates a heroine through whom it is possible to live vicariously. In the character of the “old woman,” readers find the epitome of a female who gains power through weaving the threads of youth, beauty and desire. In the tale, the boundaries of reality and deceit do not exist. The woman is her own creation. The Wife of Bath, within her mortal limitations, has elevated her own societal position through the same techniques that are exemplified, to such a hyperbolized degree, through the character in her tale. The story’s protagonist, the knight, falls victim to the old woman and cannot evade the trap she has set for him. The knight, then, typifies the nave men of status who are the objects of the Wife’s insatiable desire. The old woman and the knight thus people a story attributed to the most appropriate pilgrim on the journey, the Wife of Bath.
In the General Prologue, Chaucer describes the Wife’s “kerchiefs…of finely woven ground” and her “hose…of the finest scarlet red.” The “gartered tight” hose and “soft and new” shoes revealing ankles combine to create an image of wealth and attractiveness. Clearly the Wife knows how to transform her aging figure into something to be desired. While Chaucer depicts the Wife only in her costumed state, the fact that she has had five husbands reveals that this is not a young woman. However, what nature takes in time the Wife compensates for with flamboyant clothing tactically placed on her body. This woman, with her red hue and massive, bulgingly costumed figure, connotes the tempting apple of Eden, luring in wealthy, nave men. She has reversed the curse of the Original Sin. It is men who fall victim to temptation. The Wife of Bath has the experience of the past “from” company in youth’, the solution for the consequences in the future with “the remedies for love’s mischances,” and therefore her present is occupied with obtaining a sixth husband. What a powerful faade she finds in wealth, and the clothing and accessories it brings her. Like her own tale’s fictitious heroine, the Wife of Bath is her own creator.
Similarly, the old woman in the Wife of Bath’s tale is cognizant of the power of deception. While “a fouler-looking creature…could scarcely be imagined,” when readers are introduced to the woman along with the tale’s protagonist, the creature transforms herself into a beautiful woman after she has obtained dominancy over her husband. Interestingly, the woman chooses not to assume a state of youth and beauty from the start. While the capability for eternal exquisiteness is within the power of this creature, she reserves assuming this desirable state until after she was won the “sovereignty” which she seeks. Should the woman have introduced herself to the knight as a young, fair woman, her fate might have resembled that of the raped maiden. Instead, the creature manipulates the knight into a position of submission. Only then, after she has “won the mastery,” can the couple “live ever after to the end / In perfect bliss.” Both this character and the Wife possess a wit and ingenuity that allow them to manipulate and dominate, supporting the Wife’s previous assertion that “lies, tears and spinning are the things God gives / By nature to a woman, while she lives.” Because the enchantress possesses the ideal powers that coincide with the Wife’s life philosophy, the tale is appropriately paired with this particular pilgrim.
The “knight who was a lusty liver” is another appropriate character who peoples the Wife of Bath’s tale. Here readers find a man forced to wander in search of the answer to the question, “What is the thing that women most desire” as punishment for raping a young maiden. Ironically, the end result of this punishment for forced dominance is submission to the dominance of a woman. The reversal of status parallels not only the Wife’s reversal of the Original Sin curse, but also embodies the core of her feminist philosophy.
The Wife, like the knight, is on a journey with a clear purpose. The imagery utilized to depict the Wife in the second half of the passage describing her in the General Prologue is very masculine. She sits “easily on an ambling horse;” her head is covered with “a hat / As broad as is a buckler or a shield;” under large hips “her heels spurred sharply.” When combined, the descriptions conjure the image of a knight ready for a battle or an important quest. While the Wife is “skilled in wandering by the way” on her own knightly quest for nave, wealthy men, the knight (whose character trait of lust ironically is also a dominant trait of the Wife) finds at the end of his wandering a woman to whom he will be forced to submit. The Wife creates a male victim who demonstrates the victorious outcome for females who insist upon superiority.
In final analysis, Chaucer pairs the vivacious Wife of Bath with a tale that perfectly suites both her character and the feminist philosophy by which she lives her life. The tale’s characters of the enchantress and the knight, as well as their interaction and the concluding status of each in their marriage, embody the outcome of the Wife’s philosophy when taken to the extreme. The enchantress’s ability to transform herself according to necessity, and the knight’s wandering that leads to a trap, would not have suited any other pilgrim’s tale as well as, or better than, the animated “woman from beside Bath city.”
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