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The relationship of the Prologue to the Tale:
Truth and fiction
Within the imagined (by Chaucer) world of the Canterbury pilgrims, we meet various
characters who present their “own” fictions. In each case, the tale is in some way a
reflection of the teller, and vice versa. While Chaucer portrays the pilgrims initially in set
pieces in the General Prologue, we learn more about them as they tell their tales, express
opinions and trade insults, as characters speak of themselves. The Wife’s prologue is by
far the longest in the whole work (two other pilgrims only – the Pardoner and the Canon’s
Yeoman – are given fairly lengthy prologues). She reveals herself, in the volume of what
she says, more fully than any other pilgrim, but its confused nature and lack of coherence
make her self-portrait less clear-cut than, say, the Pardoner’s. Moreover, her account
reveals a discrepancy between what we suspect to be the case, and what she wants her
hearers to think of her. Her desire to wield sovereignty leads her to claim she has gained it
more fully than warranted by the evidence she lets slip.
Where Chaucer allows most characters a single opening (in their tales) to express a view,
the Wife has two: first, her argument from real, lived experience, then in the model case in
her story. One presents compelling evidence, the other a clear narrative demonstration -
autobiography and fiction together allow the Wife to state her case more forcefully than
either alone could do.
The argument of the Prologue
The Wife’s stated purpose is to speak generally of strife in marriage. Her real
preoccupation is with “maistrie”. The struggle for this has been the cause of her woe,
especially in her fourth and fifth marriages. She depicts all five in terms of combat. The
attempt to gain mastery may succeed or fail, but division of sovereignty is not
The first three marriages are uneven matches: aged, wealthy but feeble men (thought of
collectively as “he”) are worn out by the sharp-tongued, lustful and vivacious woman
whose fortune is not so much her face as her energy and sexual prowess. Her fourth
husband is a more even match for the now not-so-young Wife: her husband is about her
age, has a mistress and seems not to suffer from the Wife’s flirtations.
The (unexplained) death of the fourth husband leads to a match that reverses the earlier
pattern, as the Wife, now well heeled, secures a man half her age to share the marital bed.
Jankin wields weapons of learning in his misogynist outbursts. The Wife wins sovereignty
here, it seems, because she has more stamina: Jankin, conceding “maistrie” recognises her
limitless resolution and shows a hitherto concealed desire for a quiet life. The Wife claims
that Jankin’s yielding led her to treat him well; having “bought” a young husband, her vanity
requires that he know his place, and her spoiling of him is a demonstration of her superior
status. But she did not, in the earlier marriages, extend the same kindness to the husbands
who had “bought” her.
The argument of the Tale
The Prologue relies on evidence from experience – but this is particular, not universal.
Setting the Tale in the mythical golden age of King Arthur, the Wife gives it a more
universal application. The pagan setting expresses truths not taught by religion, but
revealed in the workings of human nature. The Arthurian world is not what is but what was
or ought to be – a better world than the everyday one. That women might renew youth in
old age seems impossible, but giving women sovereignty plainly can be achieved – the
ideal can in part be realised. If this does not happen, husbands who are “angry nigardes of
dispence” are to blame.
The propriety or appropriateness of the Tale
(Scholars have suggested that Chaucer originally intended what is now the Shipman’s Tale
to have been spoken by the Wife.) The tale of the knight and the loathly lady is
appropriate on several grounds, less so on others. It suits the Wife because it makes the
case for women’s sovereignty. It is also suited to her in its telling: while some details (such
as the characters and setting) are very sketchy, other details recall the Prologue, but are
out of place in a romantic fantasy: these include the story of Midas’s ears (here the Wife
mixes mythologies) and the digression on “gentillesse” in which the Wife quotes Dante (not
born in the supposed time of King Arthur; the Wife of Bath herself might be expected to
quote this authority, but not the Fairy Wife of her Tale). Moreover, the debate about
“gentillesse” is a distraction from the central discussion of “maistrie”.
Chaucer doubtless sees that these weaknesses are those of the Wife, as narrator: before
this the Pilgrims have had many excellent examples of differing kinds, and many more will
follow. Part of the skill and humour of the whole work lies in the exceptions that prove the
rule – one of the two tales offered by Chaucer (the pilgrim, supposedly reporting the
others’ tales) is so tedious he is obliged to give up and try another.
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