The Wife of Bath announces that she is an authority on marriage because of her experience, having had five husbands. She does not follow Jesus’s example of only marrying once, nor does she heed his reproach to the woman at the well with five husbands. Instead, the Wife of Bath interprets Scripture in her own way. She prefers to go forth and multiply, defending her position by pointing to King Solomon, who had many wives, among other Biblical figures who married often.
The Wife of Bath claims authority for her tale from her own experience. She interprets Scripture her own way, reading against the grain to find different meanings in the text than the generally accepted ones. Some literary scholars argue that Chaucer has her misread the Bible, but others argue that Chaucer is actually empowering her, that she deliberately finds new ways to read it.
The Wife of Bath challenges anyone to prove that God commanded virginity: though it is great for some people, she says, it’s not for her. God made sexual organs, she claims, for both function and for pleasure, and she does not envy any maiden her virginity. The Wife of Bath uses her sexual power to control her husbands.
The Wife of Bath is unabashedly lustful and physical. Her Prologue takes the form of a literary confession, in which she openly admits and defends her sins.
The Pardoner interrupts, worried because he is about to be married. The Wife of Bath tells him to shut up and have another drink: when she, the expert in marriage, has told him her tale, he will be able to make his own decision about whether or not he should marry.
In the General Prologue, Chaucer describes the Pardoner as feminine and anxious, which makes sense with his nervousness about being wed to a woman much stronger than himself.
Of her five husbands, the Wife of Bath says, three were good and two were bad. The first three were good because they were rich, old, and obedient to her every whim. Once they had given her their money and land, she no longer had any use for them. She would make her husbands bring her presents and put them through torments.
Women in medieval society could only gain power and money through their husbands. The Wife of Bath both goes against and conforms to stereotypes: though she takes power over her husbands, she also admits to marrying solely for money.
The Wife of Bath tells all the wives to listen to her carefully: Always, she says, be mistress in your own household, for women are twice as good as men at lying and cheating. The Wife of Bath recounts how she used to accuse her husbands of having affairs with the neighbors’ wives. She would launch into a tirade, firing an array of all kinds of accusations.
Though men may have all the tangible power in society, women are better at lying and deceiving than men are: though a man may be the head of the household, the woman, according to the Wife of Bath, is the neck, turning him wherever she likes.
For example, says the Wife of Bath, in such a rant, she would ask why the neighbor’s wife looks so pleased with herself. Some men, she claims, only want women for their looks, some for their money, some for their figure, some for their gentleness. An ugly woman lusts for any man she sees and will jump on him with animal lust. To the man who claims that he does not need to marry, the Wife of Bath cries, may thunder and lightning strike him down!
The Wife of Bath gives a typical rant that she might launch into against one of her husband. She gives a long list of what men want in a woman, which foreshadows the long list of answers to the question of what women want that the knight in her Tale seeks to answer.
The Wife of Bath rants against the old proverb that women only show their vices after they are married. She also argues against the complaint that the husband is expected to flatter and praise his wife in public. It’s also ridiculous, she says, that the husband makes a jealous fuss about the handsome young apprentice boy. The husband should trust the wife to go wherever she likes.
It is useless, says the Wife of Bath, to try and keep jealous tabs on a wife’s activities: either she will love her husband and be faithful, or she will find some way to cuckold him behind his back. Husbands, she argues, must trust their wives. And in so arguing, she argues against the norms society that gives men the right to believe they can and should control their wives.
The wise astrologer Ptolemy, says the Wife of Bath, knew best: Ptolemy advises men to mind their own business. What good is it to spy on her? If she will stay, she will stay; if she will stray, she will stray.
Not only does the Wife of Bath re-interpret the Bible, she also finds her own textual authorities who agree with her ideas about morality.
The Wife of Bath boasts that through her sexual and verbal powers, she kept control over her five husbands. If they ever accused her of anything, she would call them drunk, and she could make them admit to crimes they never committed in their lives.
The Wife of Bath uses both the power of her physical presence and her verbal skills to make her husbands submit to her will.
Women, says the Wife of Bath, are born with the tricks of deceiving, weeping, and spying. She also claims that everything in the world is for sale and that she has endured the lovemaking of old husbands to satisfy her purse, even though she doesn’t like old meat.
Again, the Wife of Bath reiterates how women can take control within their households even though men have all the power in medieval society.
The Wife of Bath tells about her fourth husband, who took a mistress. Back in those days, the Wife of Bath was still a young, lusty maid, and she was so angry that she decided to give the husband a taste of his own medicine and made his life a living hell.
The Wife of Bath ascribes to Hammurabi’s code of an eye for an eye: if her husband makes her jealous, she will make him jealous in return.
The Wife of Bath took her fifth husband, a clerk named Jankyn, not for his money but for his looks and charms. Jankyn boarded at the house of a friend whom the Wife of Bath gossiped with. The Wife of Bath wears her special red robes to the house. When she first meets Jankyn, she is still married to her fourth husband and tells Jankyn that she has had a dream in which the fourth husband has enchanted her; however, this is a pack of lies. A month after her fourth husband’s funeral––during which the Wife of Bath lustily watches Jankyn carry her husband’s casket––the two are married.
As the Wife of Bath tells the story of her fifth husband, she loses her place several times, growing lost in reverie as she reacts to her own story. Rather than just a silly, pompous character who brags about her sexual exploits, the Wife of Bath is revealed to have depths to her character. Red is typically the color of lust. The friendship and gossip that the Wife of Bath and the other woman have show glimpses of what the female sphere of medieval society might have looked like.
The Wife of Bath is upset to learn about Jankyn’s book of wicked wives that he spends his time studying. She tears a leaf out of the book. The book, called “Valerie and Theofraste,” contains tales of all the unfaithful women of history and legend: Eve, Delilah, Clytemnestra, etc. Jankyn reads the tales aloud to the Wife of Bath, who hates these stories passionately.
The Wife of Bath’s hatred of Jankyn’s terrible book is another reminder of the importance of the written word and text to Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales are explicitly written to be read, even though the pilgrims tell the stories to each other orally.
Out of frustration, the Wife of Bath tears three leaves out of the book and punches Jankyn in the face. Jankyn retaliates by smacking her on the head, which causes her to become deaf in one ear. She pretends to be dead so that he will feel guilty and then do anything she wishes.
The Wife of Bath’s violence against the book itself is the equivalent of punching Jankyn in the face: books in medieval society were rare and precious, and even though Jankyn’s book is objectionable, it is still a treasure.
The Friar interrupts the Wife of Bath’s prologue to complain about its length. He and the Summoner begin to quarrel. The Friar starts to tell a nasty tale about summoners, but the Host steps in and lets the Wife of Bath tell her tale.
The interruption of the Friar and Summoner remind the reader that this is a frame narrative, and the other pilgrims are always present in every tale.