The most vivid and famous portrait in the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, is perhaps, the Wife of Bath. She is one character in whom, the realistic and the individualistic elements of portraiture outweigh the typical. The character jumps out at us from the pages of The Prologue, as one critic very cogently puts it. She is the most entertaining character in The Prologue. We enjoy her sheer vitality, robustness and earthy essence. Blake found her a pest sent to plague man. The view, however, would not have found agreement with Chaucer, who eyed and presented folly in a tolerantly humorous manner. He accepted folly, vice and immortality as part and parcel of men as well as women. In his presentation of the Wife of Bath, we certainly do have satire, but the satire is not violent or bitter and fierce.
A Vivid Character of Flesh and Blood
The Wife of Bath is the essence of elemental vitality. She is the woman of earthy physical passion, firm boldness and dominating personality. She comes before us vividly. Her red face, bold expressions, huge and voluptuous body attired in a riding coat, the gaps in her teeth, her new shoes, broad wimple adorning her bead, character of flesh and blood. She could not tolerate any other woman of her parish to give the offering before her at church. She was fully insistent on her rights of precedence, as she was a rich and prominent member of her parish. If any confusion about precedence occurred, she would be out of all Charioteer. The Wife of Bath did not suffer from any false modesty. She knew her place in society and laid full claims to it.
Her Forceful Personality and Experience of the World
It is not without significance that she is the finest weaver in the country. Indeed, her cloths surpass them of Pyres and Ghent. She is a prosperous and important member of her community. Naturally, she dresses in accordance with her position in society. Her appearance is neat as well as forceful. She wore the best of clothes, though she was slightly overdressed on Sundays. However she would want to impress upon the world that she is a successful business woman. She wears her bright scarlet stockings neatly and straight. Her kerchiefs are full fyne of ground, i.e., of fine texture. Her choice or suitable dress and mount for the occasion. She wears a mounted on an ambling horse, which has been trained to walk in a manner most comfortable for the rider. She also wears spurs, and hence we can conclude that she rides astride and not side saddle.
The Wife of Bath has a forceful personality, which suits her generous physical attributes. She has a firm mind, which knows its wants clearly. She also knows how to get what she wants. Also, she is jolly, gossipy, and popular woman, fond of men’s company and well versed in the art of love. She is widely travelled. We are told that she had visited Jerusalem thrice, besides other places of pilgrimage.
Her Amorous Adventures
Her physical vitality is best represented by her various amounts adventures. She is much hurried women she has had five husbands and is ready for the sixth. He promoted in getting husbands would not have surprised her fellow pilgrims. In the Middle Ages, a women or considerable wealth would not have been left single eve if she had wanted to remain so. Some man or the other would have cast a covetous eye on her wealth. The Wife of Bath, with her eager willingness to get married would have found husbands with even gerater promptitutde. She is, however, the dominant partner in marriage. Also, she would not allow her husbands to rule the home. She would have firm control over her home as well as her husband. In her Prologue to her tale, she remarks:
I wol bisstowe the flour of al myn age
In the facts and in fruyt of marriage
She is entirely a secular figure, and confesses that she has never aspired to live the perfect life. She has no use of transcendental religion.
The Wife of Bath has experienced not merely marital love, but has had a number of affairs in her youth. Her experience of love is subtly summed up by Chaucer when he says at the end of her portrait:
Of remedies if love a she knew per chance,
For she koude of that art the olde daunce.
Two Striking Features: Gap Teeth and Dearness
The most vivid physical attributes of the wife of Bath are perhaps, that she was ‘some del deer’ and ‘gat-toothed’. Gap Teeth indicated wide travel, amorousness and an envious faithless, irreverent, luxurious, and bold nature. The wife of Bath has all these features. The reason for her getting somewhat deaf is given later. Her fifth husband in an attempt to assert his male superiority bit her across her cars. But beyond the damage to her ears, we may be quite sure that the Wife of Bath would not have allowed her husband to gain any superiority.
Her War against Male Domination
The Wife of Bath is a pure militant as far as women’s liberation is concerned. She is not merely an aggressive uninhibited, vulgar woman dominating the particular men fortunate or unfortunate enough to have been married by her. Also, she is a matriarchal figure who has declared war on all men in general as Trevor Whitlock: puts it. She embodies the eternal female in revolt against a male ordered and male centered civilization. The Middle Ages one should remember had rigid and discriminatory sexual ideals. Women were totally inferior to men, and were often beaten and treated most shabbily by their husbands.
The Church was equally bard on women, who were regarded as tempters of man. Men’s evils and vices were firmly attributed to the temptation signified by women. The Wife of Bath, despite all her vulgarity and boisterous, coarseness, embodies the demand for respectability for women as individuals. She is at once a representative of all that a man dislikes in a women-nagging. Spending, gossiping, scolding etc., and what every woman desires for; which is domination over males.
The Wife of Bath has an awe-inspiring personality, overwhelming in its impact and flamboyance. It is apt that she should be on the pilgrimage to Canterbury, for a pilgrimage in the Middle Ages was a means of pleasure as well as an object of piety. Chaucer’s characterization of the Wife of Bath is in accordance with the method advocated by Cicero who listed eleven points in Characterization. Chaucer leaves out only two of these while describing the Wife of Bath in The Prologue. We are not given her name, which is Alison as we are to learn later. The other point which is left out is her purpose, which however, we can say is implied. Her purpose apparently is that of visiting the shrine of St. Thomas with the other pilgrims and, possibly, to procure as sixth husband.
The Wife of Bath is a clear-cut individual in her self-revelation before she tells her tale or gives her opinion on marriage, and tells her adventures in the marital field without a sign of inhibition. She is as Neil Coghill stipulates, “as amoral as Flagstaff and Rabelaisian before Rabelaisian”. One can sense the sheer joy that Chaucer must have felt in creating her. She offers a vial and earthy contrast to the mincing primness of the Prioress, who is the only other women character described in The Prologue. The Wife of Bath is the most complex character among the pilgrims.