Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

CHAUCER: The Wife of Bath’s Prologue

If English literature were like boxing then surely two of the heavyweights would be Shakespeare and Chaucer. In one corner we have Shakespeare’s Falstaff: womanizer, liar, storyteller extraordinaire and rowdy companion of a future king. In the other corner we have Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. The lady has been around the block once or twice. She knows who she is and what she wants. She’s also buried five husbands. This seems like a pretty even match to me: Falstaff vs. the Wife of Bath. The story begins innocently enough. There’s a little group heading out on a pilgrimage to Canterbury to seek the holy blissful martyr. This was before there were iPods or CDs to listen to. There wasn’t even FM radio back then. So to keep themselves entertained they agree to take turns telling stories. When the Wife of Bath’s turn comes she decides to talk about what she knows best: herself. And to make it more interesting she concentrates on what she knows second best: sex. It’s a long way to Canterbury. That’s no problem because the Wife of Bath has had five husbands. And she’s going to tell us about every one of them.

She begins like this: If there were no authority on earth except experience, mine, for what it’s worth (and that’s enough for me) all goes to show that marriage is a misery and a woe… That, in a nutshell, is her whole philosophy, her whole way of life: If there were no authority on earth… To put it in modern terms, the Wife of Bath has a problem with authority figures. She doesn’t like to be told what to do, what to think, who to see or not see, and she especially doesn’t like to be told how she should act. She wants to do as she pleases, whenever she pleases. But the Wife of Bath isn’t just some self-centered airhead. To think that is to vastly underestimate her and she will eat you alive. Remember what she said: If there were no authority on earth EXCEPT EXPERIENCE. And if the Wife of Bath is anything, she’s experienced.

She’s also one of the most illogical people you’ll ever meet in literature. But there’s always a method to her madness. Every logic-twisting turn she makes somehow ends up in her favor. In short, she first decides what she wants. If logical thinking will help her get it, fine. If not, then she’ll find some other way. This approach works for her. She knows from experience how to get what she wants. And she didn’t learn it from reading books. Even the Bible were no authority for her. It’s not that she hasn’t read the Bible. She has. And she quotes it frequently to prove her point. She just twists it around to fit her needs. Here’s an example: God bade us all to wax and multiply. That kindly text I can understand. She likes that part. And she says Take wise King Solomon of long ago; We hear he had a thousand wives or so. She likes that part too. When it comes to husbands why not marry two or even eight? But she doesn’t like the part about virginity. The Apostle Paul…may advise a woman to be one; Advice is no commandment in my view. He left it in our judgment what to do…There’s a prize offered for virginity; Catch as catch can! Who’s in for it? Let’s see! The Wife of Bath doesn’t think virginity will be a big hit, and she’s right. She knows human nature too well. Her conclusion is that In wifehood I will use my instrument As freely as my Maker me it sent.

The Wife of Bath has worldly wisdom. She’s learned about life by living it; by talking to other women; through sheer trial and error. Her philosophy of life is this: trust your own experience, not someone else’s authority. That sounds good. She would be the life of the party wherever she went. The catch is: she’s getting older and she doesn’t like it. Neither did Falstaff. They’re two of a kind. They can talk their way around or through anything; almost. Time is its own authority. It trumps experience.


Blogger Ulysses Discussion Group said...

Complementing this excellent take on the Wife of Bath, is the superb summary of the Conterbury Tales in the form of a review of Peter Ackroyd's new translation. Published in the Dec. 21-28 2009 issue of the New Yorker, I found it online at:

It's worth a look. I read it twice.

2/22/2010 10:29 AM  

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