English 201: English Literature to 1700
The best beginning procedure is always to read the assignment all the way through, keeping track of characters, so that you know what's happening. If possible, read the whole work first. Try to get the big picture of the book (or section, or chapter) before getting bogged down in details. Read through, then go back and clear up details. Then you're ready to read the work closely with these questions in mind.(In the discussion below, page and line numbers in parentheses refer to The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th ed., vol. 1  unless otherwise indicated.)
The Wife of Bath's Prologue
The Wife of Bath's Tale
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The Wife of Bath's Prologue (pages 253-272)
The Wife of Bath (Alis or Alison)
3 old husbands
4th husband (young, a "revelour")
Janekin, once a clerk, the 5th husband
In the interruptions:
First, reread the description of the Wife of Bath in The General Prologue, lines 447-78 (p. 226). What sort of person is she portrayed as in this description? She has been on almost all the available pilgrimages; with that in mind, what are all the possible meanings of line 469?
What is the Wife's subject (line3) and what sort of evidence will she use (lines 1-2)?
What evidence was used in telling the Wife (a word that simply means "woman") that she should have no more than one husband (lines 3-25)? What evidence and arguments does she use against this position (lines 26-51)? How does she use the Apostle Paul to support her argument (lines 52-120)? What argument based on experience does she then use (lines 121-168)? How effective is the Wife's justification of her five marriages and her desire for a sixth? Does she seem to be a positive or a threatening character?
To understand some of the humor of the Pardoner's interruption, reread the description of him in The General Prologue, lines 671-716 (pp. 231-232). Then look again at lines 690-693 in the General Prologue description. What is the humor in lines 170-174 of The Wife of Bath's Prologue (p. 257)?
The Wife lumps the three old husbands together in lines 199-457. How did she treat them? Why? Notice that the long passage in lines 241-384 is what she said to the old husbands. And note that the apprentice Janekin first mentioned in line 309 is not the same person that became her fifth husband. How true was what she told the old husbands? (See lines 385 and following.)
What sort of person was the Wife's fourth husband (described in lines 459-508)? How did she treat him? Be sure to note the passage in which the Wife remembers her youth (lines 475-485).
How and when did the Wife meet Janekin, her fifth husband? (Her description of him begins at line 509.) Why did she marry him? Why did he marry her? She sort of proposes to him in lines 549-90. What is the problem in arranging a marriage at this point? How honest is she with him? How honest is she with us, her listeners?
The Wife's fourth husband finally dies in line 593. What does the Wife do at his funeral? How old is the Wife when she marries Janekin? How old is he? (See lines 606-607.) Why, in the immediately following lines, does she say she is the kind of person she is? How soon did she marry Janekin?
How did the Wife and Janekin get along? What is in his book? What does he do with the book? What does she do with the book? What happens then (lines 794-816)? How do they settle their differences? Be sure to read lines 817-31 carefully.
In the second interruption (lines 835-862), what do the Friar and the Summoner promise to do? How does the Host settle the argument? To recall these characters, reread their descriptions in The General Prologue: for the Friar, lines 208-271 (pp. 220-221); for the Summoner, lines 625-670 (pp. 230-231); for the Host, lines 749-823 (pp. 233-234).
An important source for the Wife of Bath's Prologue is La Vielle (the Old Woman) in the medieval French Romance of the Rose. There are selections in Norton Topics Online: http://www.wwnorton.com/nael From the opening page select the Middle Ages; the selection appears in the first section, "Medieval Estates and Orders."
The Wife of Bath's Tale (pp. 272-281)
an old woman
When and where is the Wife's story set? How does the Wife get back at the Friar for interrupting her? (See lines 863-887.)
What does the knight do wrong? How is he judged and sentenced? Why isn't he executed? What must he do to save his life? (See lines 888-918.)
Does the knight have any trouble finding answers? What's wrong with the answers he gets? (See lines 928-956.)
Why does the Wife tell the story of Midas (lines 957-988)? Something is changed in the story she tells from the way Ovid tells it. Do you know what the difference is? Where might the Wife have heard the story as it exists here?
Whom does the knight meet in the forest on his way home? What does he agree to do if the old woman saves his life (lines 1015-1018)?
What answer does the knight give the Queen and her court? (See lines 1044-1048.) Have we heard this before? Is the Queen satisfied?
In lines 1052-1088, what does the old woman demand? Does she get it? Why? What is the knight's reaction?What sort of wedding do they have?
How does the Knight behave toward his bride that night in bed (lines 1089-1109)? What does he accuse her of? (See lines 1106-1107.) How does she respond to each of these charges? (She responds to her lower status, her lack of gentility or "gentilesse," in lines 1115-1182; to her poverty in lines 1182-1212; and to her old age in lines 1213-1222). How effective are her arguments?
How does the old woman offer to resolve the knight's complaints? What choices does she give him? (See lines 1223-1233.) How does the knight respond (lines 1234-1244)? Is that the right response? What does the old woman decide to do (lines 1245-1255)? Have we heard it before? What happens to the old woman and how does the knight respond (lines 1256-1260)? Do they live happily ever after (lines 1261-1264)? What is the Wife of Bath's closing wish (lines 1264-1270)? How might we see the old woman's actions as a fantasy of the Wife of Bath?
How is this tale similar to Marie de France's Lanval? To Malory's Morte Darthur? To Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? How is it different?
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