The Wife of Bath is undoubtedly one of the most interesting characters in the entire collection of Canterbury Tales. She is interesting not only to the readers, but also to the writer himself, Geoffrey Chaucer. The Wife of Bath is the only character to have a prologue longer than their tale. The wife of bath begins by saying that what she is about to say is all meant for entertainment and that no one should take offence. Throughout her tale, she consistently and repeatedly reveals that she is a sly and crafty liar. The reader may question the authenticity of her tale or her personality. Her rhetoric seems to be defensive and self-delusory. She rationalizes her actions, thoughts, beliefs and opinions, sometimes interpreting scholarly works and the Bible to fit her purpose.
The wife of Bath, whose name is Alyson, presents herself as incredibly luscious and experienced in matters of sexuality and marriage. She has been married five times and has held considerable wealth in her lifetime, which has afforded her the freedom to be sexually adventurous. She seeks to dominate her husbands, treating them cruelly and psychologically manipulating them to submission with her sexual prowess. However, her attempts to dominate her fifth husband are not successful; she attributes this to her ageing and diminishing beauty and sexual energy. Interestingly, she married her fifth husband out of love. Her fifth husband, Jankyn, mocked her, beat her and gave her a taste of her treatment of her other husband. Alyson is proud of her life and thinks she is justified to live that way. Alyson seems to advocate sexual liberty and freedom. Her tale seems shows that she seeks to show what it is that women want, as well as her biography.
The frame of the Canterbury tales is the meeting of a group of pilgrims who travel together to Canterbury. Each traveler is to tell his or her own story, which are then presented as stories within a story.
The Miller’s Tale is the story of an ignorant old carpenter named John, his young and attractive wife Alisoun. Two other men lust for Alison, Nicholas, who is an Oxford student, and Absolon, who is a parish clerk. Nicholas and Alisoun begin flirting, amid fears that John will find out. Meanwhile, Nicholas begins making unwelcome advances to Alisoun. His advances are summarily dismissed as Alisoun is already sleeping with Nicholas. However, Absolom is not discouraged. Nicholas and Alisoun hatch a plan in order for them to sleep together for an entire night. They deceive John that the second great flood is coming and that he should fix three tubs to the roof of the barn. Once the flood comes, they would cut their tubs lose and float till the flood subsides. Each person is to sleep in their tub. However, Alisoun and Nicholas climbdown and spend the time together. Absolon comes along to Alisoun’s window and asks for a kiss. Alisoun refuses but Absolon persists. He is then presented with Alisoun’s naked back, which he kisses. Alisoun and Nicholas burst out laughing, at which point Absolon realizes he has been tricked. He is furious and goes to the town blacksmith, where he obtains a red-hot prodding rod. When he next asks for a kiss at Alisoun’s window, Nicholas presents his bare buttocks and farts in his face. Absolon burns Nicholas with the hot rod and Absolon shouts in pain, asking for water. John thinks that the flood has come and cuts his tub loose, falling to the ground and breaking an arm. All this commotion wakes the townspeople up. John tries to explain the situation, but the two young men dismiss him as mad.
In the Miller’s Tale, Nicholas is presented as experienced and a skilled musician. That he studies astrology should attest to his intelligence; it may also indicate a wealthy or noble upbringing. John is naïve and cherishes his young wife, to the extent that he believes Nicholas’ story, although he may just be gullible. John is also very possessive of his young wife. He at first shows contempt for astrology but is later impressed as Nicholas shows reverence and awe for the heavens and reveals that he had a vision. He does not seem to be learned. Absolom is merry and presents an image of noble and gentlemanly romance: he sings for his object of desire, buys her gifts and waits for her approval. Nicholas, on the other hand, simply grabs her.
The setting of the Miller’s Tale is a carpenter’s house in Oxford, where there would likely be a lot more men than women, and women would be lusted after by a large group of studious men, as in the Miller’s Tale. That the story is set in Oxford also puts the carpenter under much contrast with the rest of the academic and intellectual population.
The theme of the Miller’s Tale appears to be a social commentary on social class and religion. In the prologue, we see social tension as the Miller insists on telling his tale next after the Knight and before the monk, upsetting the host’s carefully crafted plan to tell tales from the highest social class to the lowest. One could interpret in many different ways what the commentary on religion was; whether it was a critique of the Catholic Church or religion at large. Fundamentally, it seeks to show that religion can be subservient to personal motives.
The Wife of Bath’s tale is about a knight who disgraces himself by raping a fair young maiden during King Arthur’s time. He is captured and is to be executed for his atrocity, but the Queen intercedes and has his life spared, on the condition that exactly one year later he would come back with answer to a question given by her. The disgraced Knight is to seek what it is that women desire most. He roams far and wide looking for an answer but finds no two people who agree on a definitive answer. Dejected, he turns to go back home. On his way back, he notices a group of young women dancing near the edge of the forest. When he draws near, however, he finds nothing but an old foul hag. The old woman asks him what it is he seeks, at which point the Knight tells her his woes. She promises to tell him the answer to the question if he will in turn promise to do anything she asks of him if it is within his power. She tells him that women want to dominate their husbands. The old woman then asks for the Knight’s hand in marriage, to the Knight’s dismay. She however turns into a young and fair, beautiful maiden when he concedes that she is now his wife, and should make the best decisions for both of them.
The main characters in the Wife of Bath’s tale include the Knight himself, the Queen and the old woman. The Knight is young and lusty while the old woman is wise, mysterious and repulsive. The Queen is merciful, noble and wise. Chaucer managed to bring in diverse characters by using pilgrimage as the framing device.
Each traveler was supposed to tell four tales, but the work was not completed, with some travelers not even telling the first tale.
The setting of the Wife of Bath’s tale is during King Arthur’s rule, when nobility and virtues were held up. Hence, there is an outcry of outrage when the Knight ravishes the young fair maiden. The land is also “full of fairies”, perhaps to facilitate the story’s supernatural overtones, such as the powers of the old woman to cause visions and transform at will.
The theme of the Wife of Bath’s tale is the relationship between men and women, especially in marriage and carnal relationships. The Knight is punished for imposing his will on the unwilling maiden. On the other hand, domination of men by women is endorsed.