Within the world of the Canterbury pilgrims, created by Chaucer, we meet various characters who present their "own" fictions. In each case, the tale is in some way a reflection of the teller. While Chaucer portrays the pilgrims initially in set pieces in the General Prologue, we learn more about them as they each tell their own tale. Each pilgrim begins with a prologue, briefly introducing themselves and their beliefs before telling their tale.
The Wife is unusual in that her prologue is longer than her tale and is by far the longest prologue Chaucer gives to any storyteller, only the Pardoner comes remotely near her for length. For most tales the prologue is usually an instructive introduction to the tale; here the tale is more of a sequel to the prologue. The Wife tells us much about herself, but her account is almost a full autobiography and can be seen as a mixture of confession and attempted self-justification. The Wife of Bath is perhaps the most fully realized character in the Canterbury Tales. Headstrong, boisterous and opinionated, she speaks about the perpetual struggle against the denigration of women. The Wife of Bath's crusade to prove the worth of women does open the prologue to modern interpretations that reconfigure the Wife of Bath as a feminist icon.
However, she is explicably manipulative, using her sexuality as a weapon against her husbands in order to persuade them to provide for her. She can be harsh, cruelly accusing her husbands of ingratitude and withholding sex to extract gifts from her husbands. Yet in the Wife's prologue she boasts of these strategies. She indicates that they were a necessity; she has been afforded so few benefits that she must use her sexuality, the one great weapon that she has, to gain a dominance over her husbands.
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 tale is used as an example to further convince the reader of the wife's views seen in the prologue. There are certain things consistent between the Wife of Bath's prologue and her tale. The most apparent similarities that clearly depict the comparison are the dominance of both women over their husbands; the duplication of the appearance between the old hag and dame Alice and finally the likeness in the views of marriage and the outcome which brings happiness to both. Although there are some contrasts amid the prologue and the tale, such as the characters and the setting, the resemblances far outweigh them.
The Wife of Bath seems to be only authentically happy when she has mastery over her husbands. The wife sees the relationship between men and women as a battle in which it is crucial to gain the upper hand, "Oon of us two must bowen, doute less" (Chaucer: line 440). She uses weapons like her sexuality and her youth to make her husbands suffer, so much that they feel impotent, "How piteously a-night I made hem swink e!" (Chaucer: line 202). The Wife also uses deceit and nagging as weapons against her husbands.
In the tale, the old hag, likewise gains further control over her husband when the knight places her in the governing position and yet again as seen in the prologue, the knight must consent to give up this power in order for her to acquire it or both would have continued unhappily. Subsequently, a second relationship between the prologue and the tale is the description of the old hag and the Wife. The Wife of Bath describes herself as old and lethargic, "But age, a llas, that al wol envenime, Hath me bi raft my beaut ee and my pith" (Chaucer: line 481 - 482). Although the description of the Wife is not as unpleasant as the portrait of the old woman, there is notably replication between the two women. The old woman is described by the knight as, "A fouler wight ther may no man devise." (Chaucer: line 1219).
Due to these similarities of the two women, it can be argued that the wife sees herself in the old hag's character, as becoming the old hag, yet hoping to transform onto the young and beautiful maiden. The personalities of the Wife of Bath and the old woman of the story are even identical; the old woman is prone to argumentative speeches, such as her defense of poverty and low status, similar to the Wife of Bath's defense of female sexuality in the prologue. The old woman even has rhetoric skills perhaps greater than the Wife of Bath. Her outburst against the knight defending her supposed faults uses nearly unconquerable logic. The story even represents a scenario of wish-fulfillment for the Wife of Bath, for the old woman suddenly transforms herself into a young and beautiful woman at the story's end. It is a fairy-tale transformation story in which a kiss turns a hideous creature into a princess.
The views of marriage expressed in both Prologue and Tale are those of the Wife; whether they are also Chaucer's is debatable: other pilgrims tell tales giving views of marriage, but none of them can speak from such extensive personal experience as the Wife of Bath, and this experience is the subject of her lengthy and hectic prologue. The vitality of Chaucer's portrait of the Wife, and the assurance he gives her in asserting the case for wives' mastery over their husbands indicate at least sympathy, if not agreement, with her point of view. The theme of the Wife of Bath's Tale is thus not female equality in marriage, but rather the power struggles between the husband and wife. She does not seek an equal partnership with a husband, but a situation in which she has control over her spouse. The Wife of Bath even indicates that it is only in a marriage where the wife has control over her husband that true happiness can be attained. When Jan kin attempted to exert control over her and struck her down, she reasserted her control over him through guilt.
A similar situation occurs in the tale to further emphasis the Wife's view. An important feature of married life, in the Wife's opinion, is sexual intercourse: she claims that she "wol use" her "instrument/As freely as" her "maker hath it sente", and that her husband will have it "both eve and more." She claims, on the authority of her husbands, to have "the beste quondam might be" and admits that she can "night withdraw e" her "chambre of Venus from a good fela we." She relishes such boasts, and takes great delight in recounting her demands of her first three husbands. As already mentioned she uses her sexuality as a way to get around them. Certainly the prologue of the Wife of Bath is robust. With its unstoppable vitality, language and vigorous vocabulary it is the Wife's personality that dominates. Therefore it is sometimes seen that the tale is lacking in the similar robust and perceived as a sort of anticlimax after the prologue.
However, the connections seen between the prologue and the tale help support the notion that the Wife of Bath's tale is shaped to echo her life, or at least what she described of it in her prologue.