Chaucer makes many political and social observations in The Canterbury Tales and the Wife of Bath is no exception. Chaucer writes her character as a suitable vessel which embodies true statements against the misogynistic and socially backwards ideas of her time. He accomplishes this by subtly planting radical ideas about society’s view of sexuality within the entertaining caricature of a “town slut.”
The Wife of Bath is described as having “headkerchiefs…of the finest weave” (Chaucer, 14) and “stockings…of finest scarlet red, / Very tightly laced; shoes pliable and new. / Bold was her face, and handsome; florid too.” (14) Chaucer also makes sure to note her “enormous hips” (15) and the fact that she is “gap-toothed, if you take my meaning.” (15) These are important descriptions of which to take notice, as they are all sexually suggestive. The physical features that Chaucer observes: her clothes, face, hips, and gap-tooth, which during that time symbolized sensuality and lust, are a carefully-constructed and exaggerated representation of a type of woman that people in the fourteenth century would have recognized.
However, Chaucer is careful not to leave the Wife of Bath as a shallow and silly character present merely for the reader’s entertainment. He incorporates provocative statements and leads the reader to question just how ignorant (or brilliant) the Wife really is. This is significant because, while the reader’s attention is preoccupied with the entertaining and far more obvious reading of the character as a flamboyant harlot, Chaucer is able to weave a much more complicated and deeper subtext into the tale.
Both the Prologue and Tale of the Wife of Bath contain a caricature, but deciphering the nature of this caricature is difficult. While on the surface it may appear that the parody is the Wife of Bath as a humorous, loose woman adorned in red stockings, I propose that the caricature is rather to be found in the fact that the society in which she lives is heinously misogynistic.
Whereas the evident storyline is focused around the Wife of Bath’s comical forcefulness with her husbands, the underlying connotation is far craftier: several times in her tale, the Wife of Bath makes avant-garde statements concerning the state of society. These statements emphasize not only her groundbreaking notions of the place of the person in society, but they also serve to highlight the Wife herself as an intelligent character to study. To begin, the very fact that she formulates an argument using quotes from books which, under normal circumstances, she as a woman would not be able to read shows a progressive character. This leads the reader to question just how much learning the Wife actually possesses, and while Chaucer never provides an answer to this question the fact that the reader is lead to this question at all shows a delicate subversion on Chaucer’s behalf: it is not often in the fourteenth century that ordinary – and especially, unrefined – women are depicted as having any level of logical ability or learning.
Early on in her Prologue, the Wife of Bath asserts her strength as a character in saying “I’d gain, in every way, the upper hand / By force or fraud, or by some stratagem” (160) and “if I had been his wife, / Even he would not have daunted me from drink!” (161) These…