When you meet the Wife of Bath, she sticks with you. She stands out as a Canterbury pilgrim. In fact, she stands out in all of literature. No doubt it was Chaucer’s intention. One detail will prove it. The individual Tales generally have a prologue—a little intro to the story, a little getting acquainted with the teller of the Tale. They average about 50 lines. And then there is the Wife of Bath with 828 lines of often intimate particulars! (The General Prologue to the whole of the Canterbury Tales is only 30 lines longer—858 lines.) We become, though completely unanticipated, her confidantes.
A “Wife’s” introduction in the General Prologue, we expect would begin with the uncommon fact of her 5 husbands—but NO! Instead we’re told “she was somewhat deaf, and that was a pity.” Is this just a poet’s quirk? Hardly. She mentions her deafness herself several times in her Prologue. Deafness provides a continuing thread until the closing scene, the denouement, of her lengthy preamble.
The Wife, whose name is Alison, gained wealth and property from her husbands. Three of them, she simply tells us, were “good and rich and old.” When she’s in the market for her 5th husband, she’s captivated by a young man of little status, but very attractive legs! After a month’s growing attraction, with a grand wedding, he became husband number 5. She generously shared her wealth with him. Ah, but she came to regret it!
He often read aloud from old books about wicked wives. He’d repeat proverbs condemning women like, “It’s better to live with a dragon than with a woman who scolds!” Listening was painful for her. On a particular night, as he sat by the fire, he began with a reading about Eve who brought misery to all mankind. Then he spoke of wives who found various means of disposing of their husbands.
When she realized he wouldn’t stop, she’d had enough. “I suddenly tore 3 pages from his book and hit him so hard with my fist that he fell backwards toward the fireplace.” That was just the beginning of the fracas. He got up in a rage, hit her head with his fist and she fell to the floor.
He was aghast at how still she lay! When she finally came to, she said, “You’ve killed me—but before I die I want to kiss you.” He came
near and knelt beside her. “Dear Alison,” he said, “so help me God, I shall never smite thee again. I beg you to forgive me.” And what did Alison do? “I hit him with my fist again and said, ‘I have that much revenge. Now I shall die. I can no longer speak.’" Her narrative comes to an unexpected, but rather harmonious, conclusion. “At last, with much care and woe, we came to an agreement—and I made him burn his books. After that we had no more strife.”
She was left a little deaf from the blow to her head, but otherwise it’s a happy ending.