Who should have the dominant power in a marriage, the husband or the wife? According to the Wife of Bath in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, the woman should take control of the marriage in order for both the man and wife to have happiness. Headstrong, opinionated and liberal, the Wife of Bath fights against the denigration of women by men. She believes women can do whatever they want with their sexuality, including the right to use it as a weapon to subdue their husbands. With her marriage experience of five husbands, she attempts to speak for all of womankind and tries to generalize the struggles between husbands and wives. In Chaucer's eyes, the Wife of Bath is much like a prostitute who uses her sexuality to receive financial support from her husbands. Though the Wife of Bath is supposedly the heroine of her tale, Chaucer uses comedy and irony to reveal her negative characteristics.
The Wife of Bath believes that usage of her sexuality for material goods is more like a "marriage debt" than prostitution. She believes that her husbands owe her because they " ve taken her body. She is quite manipulative and uses her sexuality to shame and deceive her husbands into providing for her. Love does not define marriage, with the exception of the fifth marriage, for the Wife of Bath; marriage is simply something she must go through to survive. She feels neither shame nor guilt for her sinful actions, rather, she defends womankind by saying that the female sexuality is the ultimate weapon women have to protect themselves in a marriage.
As a matter of fact, she believes that her sexuality is a god-given right. "God bade us all to wax and multiply." (pg. 259) In order for there to be happiness in a marriage, the Wife of Bath believes that the woman must have the dominant control. The ugly, old woman in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" reflects the Wife of Bath's thoughts on marriage. Both the Wife of Bath and the old lady use argumentative speeches to defend what they believe in. The Wife of Bath defends the female sexuality while the old lady defends poverty and low status.
Happiness was achieved only after the knight ceded control to the old woman. The woman brings out her low background and uses guilt to subjugate the knight. This situation mirrors the marriage between the Wife of Bath and her fifth husband. She actually loves her fifth husband but yet, unable to gain control over him. This is because women desire things that are hard to get. When her husband hits her, she pretends to be dead to make him feel guilty.
Her main concern is not to make him understand what he has done wrong but rather, use her helplessness to gain dominance over her husband, which she ultimately gains. It is quite obvious that Chaucer does not have a good impression of the Wife of Bath. In the general prologue, Chaucer's descriptions of the Wife of Bath are sexually suggestive. His detailed description of her clothes, hips, legs, feet and especially her gap-tooth, which represents sensuality and lust in Chaucer's time, hints the Wife of Bath's openness towards her sexuality. Chaucer also mentions her traveling experiences to many religious places.
However, he's merely mocking the Wife of Bath. He knows quite well that the Wife of Bath is no religious and devoted Christian. She tries to make herself look religious by using text from the Bible to back up her arguments defending female sexuality. The Wife of Bath's tendency to lie is revealed a few times in the prologue to the Wife of Bath. After telling her future fifth husband about the dream concerning him, she confesses to the reader that "it was a lie. I hadn't dreamt at all/ 'Twas from my godmother I learnt my lore/ In matters such as that, and many more." (pg 274) The Wife of Bath's frequent fabrications and deceptiveness causes Chaucer and the reader to question the veracity of the Wife of Bath's motives for her actions as well as her whole tale as a whole.
Throughout the prologue, the Wife of Bath appears to fight for freedom of female sexuality. However, she does so for more selfish and greedy reasons. Feminists would not give in to the desires of men. In contrast, the Wife of Bath claims that she lets the men have their desires after she gains benefits. "Why then take trouble to provide them pleasure/Unless to profit and amuse my leisure." (pg 264) Evidently, the Wife of Bath is just as lustful and power-thirsty as the other men out there. The Wife of Bath is overall a very liberal woman who shamelessly uses her body to dominate her husbands.
Though she appears to defend females who are mistreated by their husbands, she wants the power of dominance mainly for the quenching of her sexual and monetary desires. Her strategy to achieve power only make womankind look as devilish and evil as men think they are-not justifying the reasons why women should fight for their sexuality.