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Analysis of the Canterbury Tales - the Wife of Bath and the Merchant

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Ben Jackson

Ms. Boll

AP Literature and Composition


Analysis of the Canterbury Tales

The Wife of Bath and the Merchant

In the three Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, two focus on marriage and its many facets: The Wife of Bath's tale and the Merchant's tale. Between them they share two critical ideals of marriage. The Wife of Bath focuses on justifying marriage whereas the Merchant's tale criticizes it. But the Merchant seems to win the argument by using many things that the Wife of Bath says are good about marriage as bad things about marriage. The Wife of Bath epitomizes what the Merchant says are negatives of marriage

The first thing that must be understood is the Merchant's idea of marriage. In his short prologue he does an excellent job of complaining about his wretched wife.

I know too well that's how it goes with me.

I have a wife, the worst that there could be;

For if a fiend were coupled to my wife,

She'd overmatch him, you can bet your life. (The Merchant's Tale, 6-9)

He continues like this for most of his prologue, even saying that, "Not if you were to take a knife and rive/ Him to the heart, could tell of so much grief..." As the tale begins, it is revealed that the Merchant sees marriage as more of a commodity that one must simply do some looking around for. The whole idea comes off as very loveless and much more businesslike. January exemplifies this idea when he sends for his friends to do his looking for him, saying that, "I have resolved to be a wedded man,/ And that at once, in all the hast I can,..." This idea of marrying as soon as possible is mimicked in the Wife of Bath's prologue as she prattles on about finding a new husband soon.

The beginning of the Merchant's tale is all about the goodness and sanctity of marriage, but the praise soon becomes excessive and takes on an almost sarcastic mood. In the Merchants tale, the ideal wife for January is a young one that can be molded and easily manipulated, much the way the Wife of Bath enjoyed the task of whipping her husband's into shape. She enjoys the task so much that she even mentions that marrying should become a profession for women:

Diverse scoles maken parfyt clerkes,

And diverse practyk in many sondry werkes

Maketh the werkman parfyt sekirly:

Of fyve husbondes scoleiyng am I.

Welcome the sixte, whan that evere he shall! (The Wife



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