The Wife of Bath: Sovereignty and Marriage
Published 08 Jun 2017
Among the best known of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is The Wife of Bath’s Tale. It is about a worldly woman, who referred to herself as Alyson or Alys, and her stories of her marriages. With her every story, the readers can see that she is hardly an idyllic woman and not one to be admired.
The Wife of Bath had been into five marriages. Knowing that it would elicit negative responses from the other pilgrims, to justify entering into multiple marriages, without shame, she exclaimed that she is not perfect, as opposed to Jesus Christ. This kind of argument is only made by such persons who knew that what they were doing was wrong and yet continued doing it. Not being perfect is a state, not an excuse for mistakes.
Ideally, love should be the only prerequisite to marriage. As the Wife of Bath grouped her five husbands into two, good and bad, one may notice her contemptible reasons for marrying the men. The three good men are the old and rich. Only those who say that the “good” people are the old and rich and, in Alyson’s case, marry them are gold diggers. Her extravagant outfit proved how wealthy she has become. Worse, she shamelessly and proudly tell the pilgrims that she controlled these unfortunate men. She has achieved this power through the sexual pleasures that she could give the husbands and the deceitful stories that she tell them.
Ignorant of her self-incriminating stories, she went on telling stories about her fourth husband. With fondness, she tells the pilgrims how she resented and tortured this husband because she felt that he consumed her youth and beauty. He died suspiciously, and after a month, the Wife of Bath married her fifth husband, a man so much younger than she. She recalled how she loved the fifth husband the most, but their marriage was characterized by the struggle of her husband to control her. Alyson was never one to be inferior, and thus, after a physical confrontation, the fifth husband ended giving up his quest for dominance over her, as symbolized by the fifth husband’s returning of her estate.
Through her marriages, the Wife of Bath had always been on the upper hand of the relationships that she had. She married the three old men for their wealth and ruled over them through sexual dominance. While still married with her fourth husband whom she tormented, she already had a next husband lined up. With the last husband, whom she claimed to have married for love, she still imposed her superiority. Despite her complaints on the “woes of marriage,” the readers can see that she brought all of these upon herself. She had firmly believed that a wife’s sovereignty over marriage was the key to a successful married life. With all her unhappy marriages, apparently, she was wrong. It is hard to sympathize with someone who had habitual failed marriages, more so to someone who chose to live in deceitful ways. Being a strong woman is an admirable trait, but a strong woman who is self-centered and has little regard for others is appalling.
The Wife of Bath’s stories were her viewpoint on marriage. With all five of her marriages, she displayed nonconformance of what was expected of her as a wife. Obviously, she was a master of power play, and her idea of superiority of women is overbearing. In her yearning for superiority and mistrust for men, she had become a deceitful, cynical woman.