Pilgrim’s Prize (Pt.7): The Wife of Bath’s Tale (Chaucer Journal)


Undoubtedly the most famous of Chaucer’s tales, The Wife of Bath’s tale is one for any lover of literature. Critics still fiercely debate its feminist qualities and why is apparent. Told by a tale-teller who has had no less than five husbands since the age of twelve, the ensuing story is one of gender-role, womanly independence, and what it means to have a healthy relationship.

                The tale begins by inverting the Arthurian narrative. Here we see a knight who rapes a lady. As punishment, instead of being executed, he is sent off for a year in search of answering a single question—what is it that women want most in life? Through his travels, he encounters many answers. Eventually, though, and fortunately for him, he encounters the lady who claims to know the true answer. Returning to court, he utters his response: what women want most in life is to oversee their man (more or less). Correct! The knight’s life is spared but in return, the old woman who told him of the correct answer demands that the knight marry her; so, it is done but the knight is displeased. His new elderly wife so posits before him the following: the knight may have her young and beautiful but unfaithful or he can have her old and ugly but faithful. The knight knows not which answer and responds that she should be the one to choose. Of course, this is another test and in allowing the woman to choose—i.e., what woman want most in life—the knight is blessed with restored wife who is young and beautiful but also faithful. The end. They lived happily ever after.

                Clearly, this story is cut above any of the previous tales. It’s subject matter is weighty, it is not afraid to invert the standard, and it tackles gender and gender-roles, not to mention the gritty reality of knighting, head-on. This is to say that this is not your daddy’s Arthurian fable.

                I will spare you the back and forth on the theory, scholarship, and interpretations on this tale. Now is hardly the place. What is relevant to our investigation is that this is one of Chaucer’s best-known pieces and the turf where the ‘serious’ are separated from the ‘casual’ when it comes to Chaucerian studies. So, because of this, any modern re-telling would need to really pull out the big guns to impress.

                The modern tale-teller does fine. It is nothing over-the-top but I feel they hit their mark well.

                Choosing to use the username “Wife of Bath” instead of identifying themselves in any ostentatious manner, the contemporary tale-teller uses the device of a woman’s magazine advice column. She pretends to receive a letter from a woman frustrated that her husband can never take her hints about what she desires and then proceeds to relate to the fictional woman a story about a playboy—the Knight from Chaucer’s tale—who must figure out what woman want most in life prior to regaining his job after being suspended for sexual harassment.

                This tale is told plainly. There are no images, no GIFs, no videos, no audio. It is just good old-fashioned text. But, this work to its advantage. If we must suspend our disbelief and pretend that the tale is an advice column for woman, then this suits the subject matter; after all, does not Chaucer’s story essentially function as a woman-to-woman real talk session? Sure, the magical quality is retained and the ‘beautiful ideal’ is swapped for a ‘supermodel’, but as a recontextualization, the tale works wonderfully; there is no confusion, the logical threads are clearly perceived in relation to the original tale, and most importantly, the story feels correct.

                Yeah, the tale lacks flair but that is fine. I am happy with it as is and give it a 7.5/10.