Appearing first in the general prologue, the Wife of Bath is another great character in English literature. Possessing an extensive introduction before she begins her tale, her actual tale, once it has begun, is short and filled with social shock. So, the question remains: is she an actual woman, is her deafness—described in her general introduction—that of a spiritual or social nature (instead of a purely physical one), and is she a representation of a woman who lived or a sort of drag-act performed by a man in an attempt to locate the ideal womanhood?
Scenes of cloth weaving in medieval literature are always allegorical for the weaving of other (tales, words, etc.). This is especially acute for the Wife of bath who is said to be a creature of cloth and wears ten pounds of cloth on her as she is described. Accordingly, she is a great weaver and said to outdo even the world’s greatest weavers of the medieval world.
But more than cloth weaving, the tale is about reading and misreading; the Wife offers up a bounty of literary references during her prologue and to a degree, it slows her down, unable to start the actual story. One such reference is in regards to the ‘Book of Wicked Wives” perhaps suggesting that the tale is a misogynistic account of women in general; specifically, where power is given rather than forcefully taken by the woman. But when telling the tale, and how she became deaf, the story is presented in several different manners, thus presenting the wife of bath as an unreliable narrator.
What the Wife of bath does not tell us is just as important as what she does tell us. For example, she spends a large amount of time talking, over 800 lines, and so suggests that she can only give pleasure to herself and others; her tale of sexual exploits, with that of five husbands, reinforces this but also suggests that since she does not tell of any children, that she never had any and so hints at other facets of her life without out rightly telling the audience of her barren status.
The tale itself focuses on this theme of marriage and concerns a young knight who rapes a woman. He is brought before the queen of the land and is given a question: what do women want? (Freud got nothing on Chaucer! Five hundred years too late, buddy!) The knight is given little over a year to find the answer; if he answers correctly, then he may keep his life. Eventually, he happens upon an ugly old woman (the Loathly Lady), a stereotype in medieval literature, and she says that she will tell him the answer if he marries her; the knight agrees. After he marries her, she asks whether he wants her young and beautiful, but bound to the probability of infidelity, or old and withered, but loyal; to this the knight replies, ‘whatever is best for you’ and thus attains his answer to his riddle—that power in marriage is given to the woman, not taken by the woman; thus, the story represents an idealized ending to how the Wife of Bath desires her own love life. This question of beauty and ugly and morality—how one is represented by physical presence—is one of the central tenants of medieval texts and also, I feel, could give Schrodinger a run for his money in the indeterminate ability to know one’s fellow many at any given time.