The Wife of Bath’s Tale Analysis
“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is a tale written by Geoffrey Chaucer taking place in Britain in the days of King Arthur. In this story, a knight rapes a young maiden; the people of the court find out and want him beheaded. However, the queen gives him a second chance by sending him on a quest with the time of a year and day to find the answer to the question: what do women want the most? He travels receiving different answers, but the night upon arriving back, he comes across an ugly old woman who promises to help him if he helps her. He agrees and the answer is woman want control. He is correct and lives, but has to marry the old woman. After expressing his feelings to her, she gives him two choices: she could be ugly and loyal or pretty and disloyal. Not being able to answer this question, he allows her to choose. In return, she becomes both, pretty and loyal. The central idea is virtue is the highest of all goods. To understand “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” one must know what makes this piece medieval, how the definition of a hero has changed since “Beowulf,” and the development of the characters.
To read “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” the readers must understand what makes this piece medieval. This piece is medieval because of the introduction and explanation of the social classes. Chaucer introduces two out of the three social classes, the peasants and the aristocracy. In the story, the old woman represents the peasants while the knight represents the aristocracy. When the married couple are in their bedroom, the knight refrains himself from her and refuses to have sex. In confusion, the old woman asks the knight why he is acting the way he is. He responds by telling her she is so loathsome, old, and “[descends] from such low born lineage” (Benson 1101). After hearing this, the old woman explains the differences between the riches and the poor. She says the riches speak of nobility which they gain from their ancestors and not from God himself. She continues to speak on behalf of the peasants. She says poverty is a “hateful good” (Benson 1195) and something that makes a peasant realize God and the innerself. The readers get an insight to the major differences between the peasants and the aristocracy. The aristocracy are of higher rank and people of the court/government that are followed due to their nobility. On the other hand, peasants are of a much lower class and are people who know their worth and learn to appreciate the smallest goods.
The definition of a hero differs between “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and “Beowulf.” In “Beowulf,” a hero contains traits such as being selfless and loyal. In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” the knight is the opposite of a hero. He does not take care of his people as he should. He rapes a maiden “by utter force, [taking] away her maidenhead” (Benson 888). A hero like Beowulf has respect for all people, old or young. However, the knight is not very respectable of his elders. For example, after he marries the old woman, he tells her straight to her face that he does not like her because she is old and ugly. Beowulf is the perfect example of how a hero should be, but the knight having different characteristics from Beowulf shows us that he should not be classified as one.
In this story the development of the characters varies. The two main characters, the knight and the old woman, are both developed in their own ways. The knight is a more stereotypical character while the old woman is more complex. In the beginning of the story, the knight is an example of a bad knight. He shows that he does not care for his nobility by forcing himself upon a maiden, being disrespectful, and rude about the differences within each class. Towards the end of the story, the knight proves himself as a stereotype of a good knight. He learns his lesson and learns to respect the boundaries of women. The old woman is an example of a complex character because she is there for a purpose, to teach a lesson. When confronted by the knight about the displeasure she brings to him, she gives him two options, in which he simply says, “I do not care which of the two, for as it pleases you, is enough for me” (Benson 1234-1235). Pleased with the answer, the old woman grants the best of both choices. Chaucer has made the old woman a complex character and the knight a stereotypical one to show the different aspects of each character, where they come from, and the lesson to be taught. If the old woman was a stereotypical character as well, then there would have been no lesson taught to the knight about respecting and protecting a woman’s desires.
Knowing what makes a piece medieval, the difference of a hero in “Beowulf” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” and how a character is formed need to be understood when reading this piece. Different social classes and understanding them allows the readers to know more about the characters. Once the social classes and characters have been established, readers will better understand “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.”