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THE TALES: SUMMARIES AND NOTES
The Wife of Bathís Tale: Prologue
The Wife of Bathís Prologue is more important than her tale for thematic considerations. It virtually amounts to a defense of her marrying more than once. Her Prologue is a confession of all the techniques through which she gained control and supremacy over her five husbands. She is a parody of the conventional oppressed wife. The Wife of Bath may be seen as one of the earliest feminist characters.
The Wife of Bath presents a strong case for the liberation of women. She refutes the stereotype that women ought to be meek and submissive and asserts that she would never refuse to have sex with her husband if he wished to do so. Her argument is that the sexual organs were made for both procreation as well as pleasure. She candidly acknowledges that virginity is superior but adds that it is only viable for those who wish to lead a perfect life. She slyly accepts that men are more reasonable than women are and thus are more patient and accept womenís domination to avoid quarrel and disharmony.
The Wife of Bath logically argues in favor of marriage. In the Middle Ages virginity was highly prized and marriage was seen as an inferior state. The Wife of Bath uses Scripture to prove her point. She points out that the scriptures do not officially condemn marrying more than once and cites instances of great men who took more than one wife. She cannot understand Christís rebuff to the woman at the well who had also married five times and rather prefers the biblical command to increase and multiply. She quotes St. Paul who said that it was better to marry than to burn. Virginity was only an ideal to be aimed at by the select few who wanted to become perfect Christians. Besides, she argues if everybody were to remain celibates then there would be no more virgins. Moreover after mankindís fall from Paradise one could not realistically expect to lead perfect lives.
The Wife of Bath is frank enough to confess that she married her first three husbands for their wealth and all of them died while trying to satiate her sexual appetite. She has had an eventful life. Her fourth husband was a ladies man and she reveals how she made him fry in his own stew. Her fifth husband was the most troublesome. This is strange since this time she married for love. He ill-treated her and hit her so hard that she became quite deaf. She reveals that her fifth husband used to read out anti-feminist tales from a book that tried her utmost patience. This is obviously the Book of Wicked Wives. When she couldnít bear it any longer she tore out a few pages and as a result received the heavy blow on her head that made her quite deaf in one ear. Ultimately however she attained dominance over her husband and she remained faithful to him forever.