The Wife of Bath: Feminist Character?

How Feminist Is Chaucer's Wife of Bath?

The Wife of Bath, from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, from a 1492 edition
The Wife of Bath, from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, from a 1492 edition. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Of all the narrators in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, The Wife of Bath is the one most commonly identified as feminist, though some analyses conclude instead that she is a depiction of negative images of women as judged by her time.

Was The Wife of Bath in the Canterbury Tales a feminist character? How does she, as a character, assess women's role in life and in marriage? How does she assess the role of control within a marriage -- how much control should or do married women hold?

 How does her experience of marriage and men, expressed in the Prologue, get reflected in the tale itself?

The Wife of Bath

The Wife of Bath portrays herself in the prologue to her tale as sexually experienced, and advocates for women having more than one sexual partner, as men were assumed to be able to do. She sees sex as a positive experience, and says that she would not want to be a virgin – one of the models of ideal femininity taught by her culture and the church of that time.

She also makes the assertion that in marriage, there should be equality: each should “obey each other.” Within her marriages, she describes how she was also able to have some control, even though men were supposed to be dominant – through using her wit.

And she takes on the reality that violence towards women was common and considered acceptable.

One of her husbands hit her so hard that she went deaf in one ear; she did not accept the violence as a man’s prerogative only and so she hit him back – on the cheek.  She’s also not the ideal medieval model of a married woman, because she has no children.

She talks about the many books of the time which depict women as manipulative and depict marriage as especially dangerous for men who want to be scholars.

Her third husband, she says, had a book that was a collection of all these texts.

In the tale itself, she continues some of these themes.  The tale, set in the time of the Round Table and King Arthur, has as its main character a man, a knight. The knight, happening on a woman traveling alone, rapes her, assuming she is a peasant – and then finds out that she was actually of the nobility. Queen Guinevere tells him she will spare him the death penalty if, within a year and ten days, he discovers what women desire most. And so he sets out on the quest.

He finds a woman who tells him that she will give him this secret if her marries her. Though she is ugly and deformed, he does so, because his life is at stake.  Then she tells him that woman’s desire is to control their husbands, so he can make a choice: she can become beautiful if she is in control and he is submissive, or she can stay ugly and he can stay in control.  He gives her the choice, instead of taking it himself – and so she becomes beautiful, and gives him back control over her.  Critics debate whether this turn is an anti-feminist or feminist conclusion.  Those who find it anti-feminist note that ultimately, the woman accepts control by her husband.

  Those who find it feminist point out that her beauty, and thus her appeal to him, is because he gave her the power to make her own choice – and this acknowledges the usually-unrecognized powers of women.

More: Geoffrey Chaucer: Early Feminist?