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Canterbury Tales: Wife’s Tale

In the magical days when England was ruled by King Arthur, a young Knight was riding home when he saw a beautiful young maiden walking all alone in the woods and raped her.

This outrageous act created a great stir and King Arthur was petitioned for justice. The Knight was condemned to death according to the law and would have been beheaded if the queen  had not mediated on his behalf. After many pleas for mercy King Arthur finally told the queen to decide the Knights fate. The queen then told the Knight to answer the question what women desire the most in order to save his life. She also gave him a time period of one year to find an answer and appear before her.  Seeing no other solution the Knight decided to go in search of the answer. He visited every house and every spot in the country but couldnt find any two people who agreed on the subject.  Some women loved riches and wealth while others loved fine clothes.

There were yet others who claimed that they best loved flattery and attentiveness. There were still others who took great  delight at being considered as dependable and discreet. In short everybody held a different opinion. The one-year granted to the Knight eventually drew to an end but he had still not found an answer. He rode back home with a heavy heart. On his way he happened to catch a glimpse of twenty-four ladies dancing but they miraculously disappeared when he reached the spot. There was nobody in sight except for an extremely ugly old woman. She asked the Knight, what he was looking for, as she might be able to help him since old  women know plenty of things. The Knight explained his  predicament. The old woman said that if he would pledge to do  the first thing that she required of him then she would give him the correct answer before the night. The Knight promised to grant her a wish and they rode for the Court.

The Knight proclaimed that he had found the answer and told the  entire court that women most desire to have mastery over their  husbands and their lovers. None of the women assembled in the  court could contradict the Knight and the queen spared his life. Thereupon the old woman sprang up and told the queen that she had taught the answer to the Knight in exchange for a wish. She now demands, that the Knight marry her and fulfill her wish. The Knight pleads with her to ask for something else but the old hag refuses to reconsider. Ultimately the Knight realizes that he has to marry her.

The Knight married her secretly in the morning. When he went to bed with her he kept tossing and turning while she lay beside him. She reprimanded the Knight and asked him whether this behavior was customary among Knights who marry. The Knight couldnt bear his misery any longer and replied that her
hideousness, low birth and old age were the causes of his unease and distress. The old woman replied that she could rectify these things within three days provided he behaved courteously. She then proceeded to reprimand the Knight for his affectations. Gentility doesnt come with noble birth but with good acts and a
virtuous way of life. Only noble deeds determine gentility. As regards poverty, Christ himself willingly chose a life of poverty. She says that poverty is a hated boon and a great enhancer of wisdom. She then tells him that old age should always be respected. As regarding her loathsome appearance she tells the Knight that now he need not fear about being deceived. Old age and ugliness are in fact the best guards for protecting chastity. She then asks him whether he would prefer her ugly and faithful or beautiful and faithless.

The Knight thinks for a moment and sighs that she may make the choice in their best interests. Delighted that she has gained “maistre” or sovereignty over him, she asks the Knight to kiss her. To the Knights utter joy she becomes young and beautiful. They live in perfect joy and harmony and she remained faithful
to him at all times. The Wife of Baths Tale continues the theme of sovereignty of women that she had dealt with in her Prologue. It also focuses on the issue of what constitutes a proper marital relationship. The
tale is thus rich in meaning. The source of the tale can be traced to Jean de Meuns “Roman de la Rose”.

The protagonist of the tale is a Knight who has raped an innocent country girl. As punishment for his heinous crime he has to find  out the answer to the question: what women desire the most. The Knight roams the entire country in search of the answer in vain.  Suddenly he meets an old hag who gives him the answer: women most enjoy dominating their husbands. The Knight wins his pardon by giving the right answer in court. The old hag claims her share since she has told the Knight the correct answer and
forces him to marry her. The old hag then presents him with the choice of having her old, ugly and faithful or beautiful and disloyal. The Knight allows the hag to make the choice herself. She is delighted to have won maistrie and rewards the Knight by being both beautiful and faithful all the time. The Wife of Baths Tale is thus an appeal for the liberation of women. In the medieval age women were supposed to be subservient and expected to love, honor and obey their husbands. The Wife of Baths assertion that women should have maistrie in marriage amounts to an apostasy..

Chaucer has portrayed a real woman in the Wife of Bath. She is not free from faults. Chaucer satirizes the frailties of women  through her character. While she is a sinner, she does not earn our reprimand. She has had numerous affairs in her youth. She has flirted with Jankin while still married to her fourth husband.
At her fourth husbands funeral, she was less filled with grief and more occupied in taking notice of Jankins fine legs and  resolving to marry him despite the vast gap in their ages. She is guilty of adultery but frankly acknowledges it. Chaucer does not pass any judgements on her and even asks the reader to have
sympathy for her. Whether Chaucer sympathizes with her opinion on marriage and celibacy is not clear. But one thing is apparent that he did not agree with the existing ideas of celibacy of his times.

The Wife of Baths Tale is an exemplum, which is a story told to illustrate a strongly held opinion. It presses home the point that women most desire sovereignty in marriage. The Tale may also be read as a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which an old crone gets transformed into a beautiful lady, acquires a handsome Knight for a husband and leads a happy life. It has all the ingredients of a fairy tale. Some critics suggest that the old hag wasnt literally transformed into a beauty but only acquired beauty of character.

In the days of King Arthur, the Wife of Bath begins, the isle of Britain was full of fairies and elves. Now, those creatures are gone because their spots have been taken by the friars and other mendicants that seem to fill every nook and cranny of the isle. For this reason, the Wife claims, women are safe now from rape.
In Arthur’s court, however, a young, lusty knight comes across a beautiful young maiden one day. Overcome by lust and his sense of his own power, he rapes her. The court is scandalized by the crime and decrees that the knight should be put to death by decapitation. However, Arthur’s queen and other ladies of the court intercede on his behalf and ask the king to give him one chance to save his own life. Arthur, wisely obedient to wifely counsel, grants their request. The queen presents the knight with the following challenge: if, within one year, he can discover what women want most in the world and report his findings back to the court, he will keep his life. If he cannot find the answer to the queen’s question, or if his answer is wrong, he will lose his head.

The knight sets forth in sorrow. He roams throughout the country, posing the question to every woman he meets. To the knight’s dismay, nearly every one of them answers differently. Some claim women love money best, some honor, some jolliness, some looks, some sex, some remarriage, some flattery, and some say that women most want to be free to do as they wish. Finally, says the Wife, some say that women most want to be considered discreet and secretive, although she argues that such an answer is clearly untrue, since no woman can keep a secret. As proof, she retells Ovid’s story of Midas. Midas had two ass’s ears growing under his hair, which he concealed from everybody except his wife, whom he begged not to disclose his secret. She swore she would not, but the secret burned so much inside her that she ran down to a marsh and whispered her husband’s secret to the water.

The Wife then says that if her listeners would like to hear how the tale ends, they should read Ovid.
She returns to her story of the knight. When his day of judgment draws near, the knight sorrowfully heads for home. As he rides near a forest, he sees a large group of women dancing and decides to approach them to ask his question. But as he approaches, the group vanishes, and all he can see is an ugly old woman. The woman asks if she can be of help, and the knight explains his predicament and promises to reward her if she can help him. The woman tells the knight that he must pledge himself to her in return for her help, and the knight, having no options left, gladly consents. She then guarantees that his life will be saved.

The knight and the old woman travel together to the court, where, in front of a large audience, the knight tells the queen the answer with which the old woman supplied him: what women most desire is to be in charge of their husbands and lovers. The women agree resoundingly that this is the answer, and the queen spares the knight’s life. The old hag comes forth and publicly asks the knight to marry her. The knight cries out in horror. He begs her to take his material possessions rather than his body, but she refuses to yield, and in the end he is forced to consent. The two are married in a small, private wedding and go to bed together the same night. Throughout the entire ordeal, the knight remains miserable.

While in bed, the loathsome hag asks the knight why he is so sad. He replies that he could hardly bear the shame of having such an ugly, lowborn wife. She does not take offense at the insult, but calmly asks him whether real “gentillesse,” or noble character, can be hereditary (1109). There have been sons of noble fathers, she argues, who were shameful and villainous, though they shared the same blood. Her family may be poor, but real poverty lies in covetousness, and real riches lie in having little and wanting nothing.

She offers the knight a choice: either he can have her be ugly but loyal and good, or he can have her young and fair but also coquettish and unfaithful. The knight ponders in silence. Finally, he replies that he would rather trust her judgment, and he asks her to choose whatever she thinks best. Because the knight’s answer gave the woman what she most desired, the authority to choose for herself, she becomes both beautiful and good. The two have a long, happy marriage, and the woman becomes completely obedient to her husband. The Wife of Bath concludes with a plea that Jesus Christ send all women husbands who are young, meek, and fresh in bed, and the grace to outlive their husbands.
“Wommen desiren to have sovereynteeAs wel over hir housbond as hir love,And for to been in maistrie hym above.”

The tale the Wife of Bath tells about the transformation of an old hag into a beautiful maid was quite well known in folk legend and poetry. One of Chaucer’s contemporaries, the poet John Gower, wrote a version of the same tale that was very popular in Chaucer’s time. But whereas the moral of the folk tale of the loathsome hag is that true beauty lies within, the Wife of Bath arrives at such a conclusion only incidentally. Her message is that, ugly or fair, women should be obeyed in all things by their husbands.

The old hag might be intended to represent the Wife of Bath herself, at least as she would like others to see her. Though the hag has aged, she is capable of displaying all of the vigor and inner beauty of her youth if the right man comes along, just as the Wife did with her fifth and favorite husband, the youthful Jankyn. Although the old hag becomes a beautiful young woman in response to the young knight’s well-timed response, it is unclear whether he truly had enough respect for the old woman that he allowed her to choose for herself, or whether he had simply learned how to supply her with the correct answer.

If we agree with the former, we may see the Wife as an idealistic character who believes that bad men can change. If we choose the latter, the Wife becomes a much more cynical character, inclined to mistrust all men. In the second interpretation, both transformationsthe knight’s shallow change in behavior (but not in soul) and the hag’s transformation into the physical object of desiresare only skin deep. Perhaps she is giving him exactly what he deserves: superficiality.

The Wife begins her tale by depicting the golden age of King Arthur as one that was both more perilous and more full of opportunity for women. Every time a woman traveled alone, the Wife suggests, she was in danger of encountering an incubus, or an evil spirit who would seduce women (880). But the society is also highly matriarchal. After the knight commits a rape, the king hands him over to Arthur’s queen, who decides to send him on an educational quest. His education comes through women, and the queen’s challenge puts him in a situation where what is traditionally thought of as a shortcominga woman’s inability to keep a secretis the only thing that can save him. The Wife’s digression about King Midas may also be slightly subversive. Instead of finishing the story, she directs the reader to Ovid. In Ovid’s version of the story, the only person who knows about Midas’s ass’s ears is not his wife but his barber. The wife could, therefore, be slyly trying to point out that men, too, are gossips.

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