Chaucer discusses his words to describe the Wife quite distinctly. His descriptions of her facial and bodily features are sexually suggestive. The features that Chaucer pays attention to describing Alison should be noticed. In the “General Prologue,” Chaucer's description involves her physical appearance describing her clothes, legs, feet, hips, and most importantly her gap-tooth, which during that time (according to The Wife), symbolized sensuality and lust. He discusses how she is a talented weaver and devoted Christian who goes on pilgrimages often. This may make the reader believe that she is a religious woman, but the reader later sees that the Wife's reason to go on these pilgrimages is not due to religion. She feels that every place should be seen; this has nothing to due with religion. She may also be dedicated traveller, a medieval tourist who likes to sight see. She is a very self-confident woman who thinks highly of herself and her skills as a cloth maker. The ironic part is when Chaucer adds that she has a gap between her teeth. During the fourteenth century, having a gap between the teeth was symbolic of a sensual nature. She is more interested in love than anything that has do with homemaking. He also emphasizes that she had “Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde five” (Norton 92), which meant that she has been married five times. She is also described as knowing all the " remedies of love" (Norton 92), since she is so experienced with men. One other important element in the portrayal of the Wife is that she is deaf in one ear.
In both “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” and “Tale,” the Wife of Bath discusses marriage, virginity, and most importantly the question of sovereignty. In the “Wife of Bath's Tale,” Alison is suggesting control that women should have. She is a strong-willed and dominant woman who herself gets what she wants when she wants it. She cannot accept defeat no matter what the cost. She feels that this is the way things should be and men should obey her. She should not be controlled or told what to do by others, especially by a man. She displays a very sick and power-thirsty attitude when she says, “In wifhood wol I use myn instrument as freely as my Makere hath it sent. If I be dangerous, God yive me sorwe: myn housbonder shal it han both eve and morwe whan that him list come forth and pay his dette. An housbonde wol I have, I wol nat lette, which shal be bother my dettour and mt thral, and have his tribulacion withal upon his flesh whil that I am his wif” (Norton 120). She is boldly saying that she wants to use her "instrument" or body as a weapon and that she owns her husband, who owes her. Since she is his wife she feels he should bow to her. Even this modern day, Alison’s attitude disgusts me. I, as a woman, no matter how bad men are, would claim that a man should be a woman’s slave.
The Wife of Bath believes that experience is the greatest authority, and since she has been married five times, she certainly considers herself an authority on the. It is ironic to see the even though is not religious but, she uses the Bible as justification to pardon her behavior. The Wife discusses her lives with her five husbands. She also discusses about how she had control over four of her husbands saying “I governed hem so wel after my lawe, (Norton 122) which indicates that she governed them according to her law or her way. Later on, she says “For God it woot, I chidde hem spitously (Norton122). She claims that she is doing this for a God. She is a woman in thirst of attention, not only sexually, but as a person as well. It upsets her when her fifth husband, a clerk, is more interested in books than he was in her.
When she does not establish supremacy over her fifth husband it seems to excite her because she seems to like challenges. While he is reading a collection of stories about how bad women are she snatches the book and rips some pages out. This instantly heats up her husband, and he hits her. This is how she becomes deaf. She pretends to be dead trying to make him feel guilty. Her concern here is not to make him understand what he has dones is wrong, but to use her helplessness as away of achieving power and authority over him, which she ultimatley gains.
Alison is not a woman who cares about changing the world for the benefit of other women who are subordinate to men. She is not a feminist fighting for the rights of all women. She claims to know what pleasures men because she is experienced. She believes in giving men what they desire, which is sexual pleasure from her. This proves that she is not fighting for liberation of women. This is definitely a non-feministic view. She is using sex to manipulate men just as men do to women because she openly is saying that she will give herself to the man. She definatley stands for sexual freedom. Giving in to the man's desire goes against feministic beliefs. Alison has a choice of not giving in to the man, but she decides to let the man attain his sexual pleasure for his desire not hers because she has experienced sex before and she knows how much men enjoy it. This quotation obviously goes against feminist beliefs, confusing the reader. At first the reader might think that she is trying to win women freedom and liberation. She herself says that women are the cause of men's suffering. Her reasons are selfish filled with greed of sex and control on all men. I cannot in any sense relate to a person like her because she is an extremely selfish, power-hungry, and immoral woman. Her whole character focuses on her craving for sex and her urge to give men pleasures through sex. Even in a modern society today, no person will feel her actions are justified.
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. And though the friars rape women, just as the incubi did in the days of the fairies, the friars only cause women dishonor—the incubi always got them pregnant.
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 that 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 sovereynteeThe 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.
As wel over hir housbond as hir love,
And for to been in maistrie hym above.”
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 transformations—the knight’s shallow change in behavior (but not in soul) and the hag’s transformation into the physical object of desires—are 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 shortcoming—a woman’s inability to keep a secret—is 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.