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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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THE WIFE OF BATH'S TALE

PLOT

Unique in the Canterbury Tales, the introduction to The Wife of Bath's Tale is longer than the tale itself. She describes her views on marriage in great detail, starting with the grief she's given all five of her husbands (and which she had a great time dishing out).

Her purpose in marriage has been to gain the upper hand. Her first three husbands were old, rich, and willing to do what she said. She used harangues to get them on the defensive when they got suspicious of her stepping out, accusing them of looking at other women.

Her fourth husband had a mistress, but Dame Alice (the Wife) made him fry in his own grease. She had him believe she was sleeping with another man (she wasn't) so he'd be jealous. But even before he died Alice started making eyes at a clerk, Jankin, while Husband #4 was in London during Lent. When the fourth husband died, Alice married the good-looking Jankin, twenty years her junior: the only one she married for love and the only one who treated her like dirt.

He used to read to her from a book that told how women can't be trusted. She got so furious that she ripped the pages out, and he hit her so hard she went partially deaf. Thinking (or at least making him think) she was about to die, she made him swear to obey her every word. After that, they had a perfect marriage.

Before the Wife begins her tale, the Friar butts in and the Summoner yells at him. (They are natural enemies because they both try to get money from people.) Because he has interrupted, the Wife starts her story with an attack on friars' lechery.


Her tale, not surprisingly, exemplifies the same theme. A knight is sentenced to death for raping a woman, but the queen will allow him to live if he can answer one question: what do women want? He finds no two people who agree, until an old woman tells him women want mastery in marriage. Because she gives him the right answer, he must grant her request, which is that he marry her.

He's horrified but has no choice. On their wedding night, she offers to stay ugly and faithful, or turn young and beautiful and perhaps unfaithful. Wisely, he leaves the choice up to her and promises her domination over him. So she becomes beautiful and faithful and they live happily. The Wife ends by praying God to send every woman a young, sexy, and obedient husband!

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