The Canterbury Tales: The Wif Essay, Research Paper
The Wife of Bath vs. The Prioress
The only two women described in great detail in The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, are the Prioress and the Wife of Bath. These two women appear similar in the General Prologue of the poem but, as we see through their tales, they are quite unique women and most importantly very different from one another. The initial similarity between these two women lies in their appearance but as the poem continues on we see that their life experience and their manner and personality vary greatly from one another.
In the general prologue Chaucer describes both the Prioress and the Wife of Bath in detail. Based on his physical description of these two women alone the reader would be lead to believe they are similar in their stature. The Prioress is described to be nicely dressed, Her clock, I noticed had a graceful charm (23). Chaucer also states that she wore a coral trinket on her arm,/ A set of beads, the gaudies tricked in green (23). These descriptions of the Prioress tell us that she has great pride in her appearance. Likewise, the Wife of Bath is described in the same manner. Chaucer states that Her kerchiefs were of finely woven ground (31) and Her hose were of the finest scarlet red (31). This description of the Wife of Bath also demonstrates the concern she placed on her appearance. Each woman also appears to be similar in size. Chaucer describes the Prioress as being by no means under grown (23) and he describes the wife of bath as having large hips, her heels spurred sharply under that (31). Here Chaucer is telling the reader that each woman is over weight. From these descriptions we see that both women looked similar on the outside but this is the only similarity we will see, because, as the poem progresses, Chaucer reveals that each woman has a uniquely different character.
One of the main differences between these two women is the type and breadth of life experiences they have each gained in the course of their lives. The Wife of Bath was experienced at the art of love and was a fine businesswoman. She was described as having had five husbands all at the church door (23), which is all Chaucer describes of her participation in the church. Every time the Wife of Bath marries she gains more experience and knowledge because each husband would yield her their gold and land (293). With this gold and land she was able to be a businesswoman and make cloth. All these things contribute to her life experiences and even she acknowledges the vast amount she has acquired when she states If there were no authority on earth/ except experience, mine, for what its worth/ And that s enough for me (276). This quote further establishes that the Wife of Bath has had many life experiences. On the other hand, the Prioress has spent her life involved only with the church, and as a result has been sheltered from many experiences. We see how deeply she believes in the word of God when she says before her tale o lord, our lord marvelous thy name,/ spread through the reaches of the earth (186). The Prioress, unlike the Wife of Bath, has no knowledge of men. She states that she is chaste and free (187) meaning that like a good nun she is a virgin. She says, that bare Thee, all without the touch of a man (187) which only reiterates her convictions about chastity. The Wife of Bath is anything but pure. Her interpretation of the bible gives her the divine right to have intimacy with men. She reports that In books: A man must yield his wife her debt ?/ what means of paying her can he invent/ unless he use his silly instrument? (288). This quote shows the Wife of Bath to have a very open view on sex and points out that she is anything but pure. As we can see these two women have had very different experiences and attitudes towards men, but they also had different experiences of where they have visited. Chaucer describes the Wife of Bath as more worldly, She d been to Rome and also to Boulogeu,/ St James of Compostella and Cologue and she had thrice been to Jerusalem (289). This is a contrast to the Prioress who is only described in the church and was not said to have traveled anywhere prior to her present trip to Canterbury. These two women have very different life experiences, the Prioress is sheltered from most common life experiences like marriage and children whereas the Wife of Bath has had an abundance of life experiences with a wide rang of different husbands, experience in business and has had an opportunity to travel.
The most prominent difference between the Wife of Bath and the Prioress s are their manner and personality. Chaucer shows the Prioress to be phony. She is described by Chaucer to counterfeit a courtly kind of grace (23). This description shows the Prioress to put on a front and acts like something she really isn t. She also appears to be kind and gentle and then goes on to tell a tale of Jews murdering a young boy. Her personality and the tale are a contradiction just like her counterfeit grace. The Wife of Bath on the other side is frank. She does not try to be something she is not but instead says exactly what s on her mind, I should speak as fantasy may (281). She is saying that she tells it like it is and openly speaks her mind. This is evident by the following:
Of what were generative organs made?
And for what profit were those creatures wrought?
Trust me, they cannot have been made for naught.
Gloze as you will ad plead the explanation
That they were only made for the purgation
Of urine, little things of no avail
Except to know a female from a male,
And nothing else. Did somebody say no?
Experience knows well it isn t so. (281)
This quote describes the Wife of Bath s view on what the reproductive organs should not exclusively be used for. She obviously isn t holding back and states exactly what s on her mind. The Wife of Bath is not construed as being polite like the Prioress. This quote shows the Prioress extreme politeness and refined manners, At meat her manners were well taught withal;/ No morsel from her lips did she let fall, nor dipped her fingers in the sauce to deep, / but she could carry a morsel up and keep/ the smallest drop from falling on her breast (22-23). The Wife of Bath is very blunt and does not appear to care about such trivial things as good manners. She obviously isn t displaying good manners, like the Prioress would, when she saw that he [her husband] would never stop/ Reading this cursed book, all night no doubt,/ I suddenly grabbed and tore three pages out/ where he was reading, at the very place,/ and fisted such a buffet in his face/ that backwards down into our fire he fell (297). This display of defiance described by Chaucer shows that the Wife of Bath does not place emphasis on politeness. Not only does the Wife of Bath not care about good manners but also she can be manipulative. She states that she had all five husbands eating from my hand (28). This shows that she uses manipulation to gain power over her husbands. The Wife of Bath is also shown to exert power over her husbands when she states, and when I d mastered him, and out of deadlock/ secured the sovereignty in wedlock (289). These quotes show that she places an utmost importance on power and will be manipulative to get it. The Prioress is nothing like the Wife of Bath in that respect, she is described as all sentiment and tender heart (23). Chaucer s description of her demonstrates that she would never behave anything like the Wife of Bath would. It is obvious that these two women s manners and personalities differ greatly because the Wife of Bath is frank, blunt and manipulative and the prioress is fake, polite and coy.
Overall, the Prioress and the Wife of Bath are much more different then they are alike. In contrast to the similarity of their outer appearance, these two women are very different in their life experiences, and their manner and personality. The Wife of Bath is worldlier and has a great amount of experience with men and in business, whereas, the Prioress has lived a life that is primarily confined to the church. The resulting difference in personality is vast. The wife of bath acts with guilelessness and is blunt and manipulative where, on the other hand, the prioress acts phony but is truly polite and kind.