Chaucer's Wife Of Bath Prologue: Analysis Of Characters
Chaucer's Wife of Bath Prologue is perhaps longer than any other portion of the entire work The Canterbury Tales, thus worthy of in depth character analysis. Since the Prologue concentrates its focus primarily on Alisoun, the Wife of Bath, much of the analysis below will focus on Alisoun's character, and her relationship with her four husbands, the other primary characters introduced in this lengthy discourse by Chaucer. Alisoun's character helps shape Canterbury tales and set the basis for exploration into many different themes including women's independence and feminism throughout this bawdy tale.
There are many interpretations of Chaucer's character Alisoun in his work Canterbury tales. This is particularly evident in the prologue, where Alisoun concerns herself with a lengthy and detailed explanation of her life and marriage. It is through this discourse however that one comes to see the character of Alisoun in many different lives.
The Wife is often considered one of the most developed characters in the entire novel. While some have described Alisoun as 'fallen' and representative of women's wickedness, still others have described her as a feminist, aspiring to liberate women during her time. Still others have described The Wife as sensitive and caring, despite her flagrant attempts to prove otherwise. Other characters represented in the Prologue to the Wife of Bath merely serve to highlight character traits of the Wife herself. These ideas and more are explored in greater detail below.
Wife Of Bath
Chaucer's Wife of Bath is not the name of the primary character's wife, but rather "the name of an English town" (Gardner, 2005). Nonetheless for clarity's sake we will refer to her as the "wife" or "wife of bath" or "Alisoun" throughout this analysis. Early in the Prologue Alisoun establishes herself as "an authority on marriage" due in part to her "extensive personal experience with the institution" (Gardner, 2005; Laird, 289; Rigby, 133). The wife suggests that she is someone who adores marriage at times but at other times hates it. This is evidence by the multiple contrary statements she makes throughout the prologue, some in support of marriage and others in clear defiance of the institution.
Alisoun seems throughout the prologue to take pleasure in material objects and in "arguing with anyone who will listen" (Laird, 290). The Wife of Bath has had extensive experiences she claims, going through five husbands during her lifetime (Benson, 1986). According to the Wife of Bath, "god bade us to was fruitful and multiply" hence there was no harm in her having multiple husbands (Gardner, 1). The Wife of Bath considers her gift from god her "sexual power" and she subsequently utilizes this power "as an instrument to control her husbands" (Gardner, 2005).
Chaucer's Wife of Bath supports her claims by quoting scripture among other things, "carelessly" flinging about references "to buttress her argument" even when her testimonies don't really relate to her points (Gardner, 2005). Many would consider the Wife as she presents herself in the prologue as a wicked character, lacking morality and describing pride in her sexual prowess and activities. Others might describe the Wife as a feminist, in fact perhaps one of "the first feminist characters in literature" (Gardner, 1).
Chaucer's Wife is contradictory at best, describing herself as someone who opposes marriage in some cases but also as someone who is "sexually voracious" and would use sex to get money (Gardner, 2005).
There is much support for Alisoun's 'wickedness' as some critics describe her (Knapp, 24). The wicked ways of Alisoun include her voracious sexual expressiveness and complete defiance of authority and tradition of the time (Knapp, 24). However others see this defiance as more a sign of Alisoun's feminism than her wickedness. The wife's wicked or feminist ways depending on how one interprets them, or wanton attitude are expressed when she marries Jankyn, her fifth husband relatively soon after her fourth dies, "And to him I gave all the land and property that ever was given to me before that time." (Chaucer, 630-631; Hallissy, 120). This is an expression of Alisoun's bold feminism. She defies modern traditions and insists on doing thins her way throughout the prologue (Knapp, 24). Upon marrying Jankyn the Wife defies traditional again by endowing him with the riches afforded her from her previous husbands, something not customary during the Middle Ages (Hallissy, 120).
The Wife justifies her claims many ways, suggesting that two of her husbands are bad. Her fourth husband she describes as "a reveler, and had a paramour" (454). She only talks of love when describing her fifth husband whom she claims she fell in love with. When talking of her fifth husband in particular the Wife of Bath begins to show her true colors, which suggest a sensitivity about her age, a deeper sense of psyche and a more real and sympathetic nature than she at first lets on (Gardner, 2005). A softer side of her character is revealed when she discusses her fifth husband. She suggests that she only loved her fifth husband, Jankyn. Jankyn's character is described in greater detail in the next segment.
The Wife of Bath also is complex and interested in arguing with people, which is evident for example when she claims that "church writings breed hostility toward wives" (Chaucer, 690). The Wife suggests that because church writings were crafted toward men they are inherently patriarchal and do a disservice or sorts to women. There is evidence in the text that Chaucer's Wife also lied frequently, and the main character even admits this at one point claiming "and al was false" (Chaucer, 382; Gardner, 2005). These statements suggest that rather than portray a realistic persona the Wife would prefer to offer her listeners a performance of sorts, exaggerating the details of her life story and leaving people wondering what her true nature is (Gardner, 2005).
Hallissy (1995) suggests that finances are a vital detail in understanding the character of the Wife of Bath. The prologue reveals that the Wife has two sources of income, her weaving and her "five husbands at church door" (460; Hallisy, 4). Thus instead of dressing poorly as one might expect of a widow at the time the Wife is dressed in showy costumes, perhaps indicative of her flamboyant personality and an indication of "her defiance of behavioral norms for women" (Hallisy, 42).
The central traits of the Wife as described by Hallisy include "assertiveness, rebelliousness and sexuality" (42). These suggest that Alisoun is both 'wicked' and a strong feminist. In fact one might assert the two terms in medieval times are almost synonymous with one another.
These ideas are also asserted in the novel, where her temperament is revealed through her face, described as "bold and red of hue" (Chaucer,458; Hallisy, 43). The work also reveals the Wife as knowing "much of wandering by the way" (Chaucer, 467; Hallisy, 42) relating to her many pilgrimages, suggesting that she is a traveler rather than her homebody, and she boldly defies the notion that widows should "protect their virtue by staying home" (Hallissy, 45).
Chaucer suggests that the Wife knows all about "remedies of love" and "the art of love" (Chaucer, 475; Hallissy, 43). These details revealed by Chaucer suggest that at the very least the Wife is very sexual in nature.
All of these complexities help define the Wife of Bath as the central character in The Canterbury Tales. While the prologue does make mention of some other minor characters, described below, ultimately the tale rests on the shoulders of the wife. The wife can best be described as a character that is alternately complex, bold, assertive and very feminist in nature. There is evidence however that Alisoun is also a soft woman, capable of feeling love, as her commitment and adoration to her fifth husband reveals. This sentiment is far outweighed however by her need for authority and power over her husband, an idea that much of the prologue expands upon.
The narrator is a small character with respect to the prologue of the Wife of Bath but worth mentioning nonetheless. Also referred to as "Chaucer" throughout the entire work the narrator is a critical contributor especially to the Prologue (Gardner, 1). The narrator presents himself early on in the work as someone who is generous in nature and naive (Gardner, 1), though after reading into the novel some one might conclude the narrator holds many prejudices toward other characters in the work. This is revealed through subtle commentaries throughout the work. The narrator reveals both the wickedness and the feminist or assertive qualities of the Wife of Bath but does so in a manner that suggests he is in support of or at the very least enamored somewhat with this character. It is far less likely that so much time would be spent detailing the primary character of Alisoun if the narrator did not in the least have some affinity for her.