Alisoun, the Wife of Bath, likes to talk about herself. She hints at affairs and describes marriages, explaining how she came out on top each time. She is old and rich. She is also frightening, a woman who devoured five husbands, one after another.
Yet she is fascinating. Her voice is strong and self-assured. Her wit is coarse but telling. Though readers don't always believe her, they do enjoy her. Chaucer introduces her in the general prologue to the Canterbury Tales, has her tell her life story, and ends with a tale that nearly seems an afterthought. Get the facts on the Wife of Bath.
The General Prologue
Alison is deaf in one ear; her fifth husband struck her there. The gap between her front teeth is meant to indicate sexual energy. Her clothes advertise her wealth, but she is not beautiful. "Boold was hir face and fair and reed of hewe." By fair, Chaucer means pale. His point is that she looks willing rather than demure.
The Wife of Bath's Prologue
She explains her history at length. First she lumps together her first three husbands, who were rich and old. Her fourth husband drank and had a mistress. He was a problem, but she managed him at last. Men took advantage of her drinking too, she hints.
He conveniently died, and she married Jankin. He was 20 and Alisoun 40, but they were equally fresh and vital, she says. The marriage did not go well.
He hit her, for tearing his book about the evils of women. (She says she tore one page, then contradicts herself and says she tore three.) In retaliation, she merely struck him on the cheek and knocked him into the fire.
He leaped up and hit her, and she fell to the floor, feigning death. Seeing he was horrified, she got up, accused him of killing her, and begged a last kiss. He asked forgiveness and bent to kiss her. She hit him again.
After that, she says, she is master. "Myn owene trewe wyf, do as thee lust the terme of al thy lyf." He burns the book, signs over his estate and dies soon after. Her rambling account is wordy and improbable but really funny.
At last Alisoun begins her tale. In it, King Arthur rules and fairies are common. A knight rapes a woman and is condemned to death. Queen Guinevere reprieves him on condition he find out what women really desire.
He asks many women. They tell him they desire wealth, respect or flattery, but each answer seems inadequate. Finally, the knight encounters an old woman who promises to solve his problem if he will do something for her.
He agrees and she whispers the answer in his ear. Back at court, the knight announces that what women really want is sovereignty over their husbands. All present agree, and the knight lives. Then the old woman announces what she wants in return. He must marry her.
He does, but that night she rebukes him for lack of enthusiasm. He replies that she is an ugly old peasant. She defends herself with numerous classical quotations, and then asks him what he would prefer, an ugly but loyal wife or a beautiful but faithless one.
Having learned his lesson, he allows her the sovereignty to choose. Then she magically transforms herself into a woman who is both beautiful and devoted.
The story purports to be about what women want in marriage. However, at its climax a wife asks her husband what he would prefer in a woman, making it plain he cannot have it both ways.
In the Wife of Bath, Chaucer satirizes then current ideas about the character of women. His character Alisoun, though, is above ideologies. She is larger than life, yet pitiable for her ignorant self-deception. She has vices but also the virtues of strength and spirit.