18 Jan 2020

The Character sketch of Wife of Bath in Canterbury Tales

                  Character of the Wife of Bath

The most prominent and famous picture 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 depiction exceed the typical. The character 'jumps out at us' from the pages of The Prologue, as one critic very forcefully puts it. She is the most entertaining character in The Prologue. We enjoy her sheer vitality, boldness and earthy essence. Blake found her a pest or irritant sent to plague man.

The view, however, would not have found agreement with Chaucer, who eyed and presented absurdity in a tolerantly humorous manner. He accepted folly, vice and immorality as an essential of men as well as women. In presentation of the Wife of Bath, we certainly do have satire, but the satire is not harsh or bitter.

The Wife of Bath is the essence of elemental importance. She is the woman of earthy physical passion, firm boldness and commanding personality. She comes before us clearly. Her red face, bold expression, huge and opulent body clothed in a riding coat, the gaps in her teeth, her new shoes, broad wimple adoring her head, and her heavy and fine kerchiefs, all add to an amazingly vivid character of flesh and blood. 

She would not tolerate any other woman of her community to give the offering before her at church. She was fully determined on her rights of precedence, as she was a rich and prominent member of her parish. If any confusion about priority occurred, she would be 'out of all charitee'. The Wife of Bath never suffered from any false modesty. She knew her place in society and laid full claims to it.

It is not without significance that she is the finest weaver in the country. Indeed, her clothes 'surpass them of Ypres and Ghent'. She is a wealthy and important member of her community. Naturally, she dresses according to her position in society. 

Her appearance is neat as well as forceful. She wore the best clothes, though she was somewhat overdressed on Sundays. However, she would want to impress the world that she is a successful business woman. She wears her bright red stockings neatly and straight.

Her kerchiefs are ‘full fine of ground', i.e., of fine texture. Her travelling knowledge and pilgrimages experience is shown in her choice of suitable dress and mount for the occasion. She wears a shielding outerskirt around her broad and chubby hips, and is 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 striking personality which suits her generous physical characteristics. She has a firm mind which knows its flaws clearly.

She also knows that how to get what she wants. She is jolly, talkative, and popular woman fond of men's company and well versed in the art of love.

She has widely travelled. We are told that she had visited Jerusalem thrice, besides other places of pilgrimage.

Her physical vitality is best represented by her various love adventures. She is a multi -married woman— she has had five husbands and is ready for the sixth. Her hurry in getting husbands would not have surprised her fellow pilgrims. In the Middle Ages, a woman of enough wealth would not have been left single even if she had wanted to remain so. Some man or the other would have cast a greedy eye on her wealth. 

The Wife of Bath, with her eager readiness to get married, would have found husbands with even greater promptitude. She is, however, the prominent partner in marriage. She would not allow her husband to rule in 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 bistowe the flour of al myn age
  In the acts and in fruyt of marriage"

She is totally as secular figure, and admits that she has never aspired to live the perfect life. She has no use for transcendental religion.

She has not only experienced 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:

Or remedies of love she knew per chauce,
For She koude of that art the old chauce..
Two striking features: gap teeth and deafness

The most vivid physical characteristics of the Wife of Bath are, perhaps, that she was 'some-del def 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 effort to claim his male superiority hits her across her ears. But beyond the damage to her ears, we may be cock sure that Wife of Bath would not have allowed her husband to gain any superiority.

The Wife of Bath is a pure warrior as far as women’s liberty is concerned. She is not merely a bullish, uninhibited, vulgar woman, dominating the particular men fortunate or unfortunate enough to have been married by her. She is a 'matriarchal figure' who has waged war on all men in general as Trevor Whittock puts it. 

She is the eternal female in revolt against a male-ordered and male-centred civilization. The Middle Ages, one should remember, had rigid and biased sexual ideals. Women were totally inferior to men, and were often beaten and treated most badly by their husbands. The Church was equally hard on women, who were regarded as 'tempters' of man. Men's evils and vices were strongly attributed to the seduction signified by women. 

The Wife of Bath, in spite of all her vulgarity and boisterous, absurdity, embodies the demand for respectability for woman as individuals. She is at once a spokesman of all that a man dislikes in a women— nagging, spending, gossiping, etc.—and what every woman desires for, which is domination over males.

The Wife of Bath has an inspiring personality, overwhelming in its impact and flamboyancy. It is suitable that she should be on the pilgrimage to Canterbury, for a pilgrim in the Middle Ages was a means of pleasure as well as an object of piety.

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. One can sense the only joy that Chaucer must have felt in creating her. She offers an important and earthy contrast to the mincing primness of the Prioress, who if the only other woman character described in The Prologue. The Wife of Bath is the most complex character among the pilgrims.

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