Debatable Decisions by the Wife of Bath Essay

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Questionable Decisions by the Wife of Bath

In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer creates a wonderfully complex character in the Wife of Bath. She exhibits many traits easily identifiable as virtuous--honesty, cheerfulness, and the desire to follow the teachings of the Bible. At other times she reveals traits easily perceived as negative--greed, cruelty, and promiscuity. By the end of her tale to the other pilgrims, more light is shed on her character when it becomes apparent that her tale parallels certain aspects of her own life. Understanding the Wife of Bath’s motivations for her actions through the tale provides an explanation, and, from a sympathetic point of view, an excuse for her negative behavior. Through the voice of the
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The knight must choose between a “loyal, true, and humble wife”, albeit “old and ugly”, or a “young and pretty” wife that carries the chance of unfaithfulness and falseness (291). The Wife of Bath would have been on the opposite side of this quandary, having to choose which type of wife she would become. She shows a basic understanding of the teachings of the Bible on marriage, when referring to Paul

the Apostle:

No sooner than one husband’s dead and gone

Some other Christian man shall take me on,

For then, so says the Apostle, I am free

To wed, o’ God’s name, where it pleases me. (259)

Her statements are very close to what is actually said by Paul: “A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (Cor. Book 1, 7:39). Although she often mixes her biblical quotes with irony and humor, or sometimes twists them to her own means, this knowledge should be reflected in her decision-making and behavior.

Ironically, the Wife of Bath repeatedly chooses to be the less-than-humble wife and to carry on with questionable behavior, despite her religious knowledge. This shows a failure of her morality, certainly. In the context of the Middle Ages, her actions might have been shocking. But Chaucer, being ahead of his time, understands the difficulty of achieving social and economic advancement for a common woman. The other women in “The Prologue” to
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