In his Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer assembles a band of pilgrims who, at the behest of their host, engage in a story-telling contest along their route. The stories told along the way serve a number of purposes, among them to entertain, to instruct, and to enlighten. In addition to the intrinsic value of the tales taken individually, the tales in their telling reveal much about the tellers. The pitting of tales one against another provides a third level of complexity, revealing the interpersonal dynamics of the societal microcosm comprising the diverse group of pilgrims.
Within the larger context, the tales can be divided into groups. These ‘fragments’ are each cohesive, not in the least because of their treatment of a single overarching question or issue, as is examined in detail by structuralist critic Jerome Mandel, in Building the Fragments of the Canterbury Tales. Using Mandel’s premise as a beginning, one can further conjecture a structural similarity between the fragments; for the immediate purposes, a similarity between Fragments I (beginning with the Knight’s Tale) and III (beginning with the Wife’s Tale) is worth noting, in which an opening tale poses a serious question and partially addresses it, and a pair of lighter tales follows, each playing off the other to further examine the question. As the fragments progress, moreover, the questions as they arise encompass the previous question. Thus, the Wife of Bath’s Tale serves an important didactic purpose in encompassing the Knight’s, and heightening the level of the dialogue as Alice, the Wife of Bath, exams the validity of the question the knight poses in its entirety.
In the Knight’s Tale, the questio...
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...haps, in the Wife of Bath’s view, should Emily have been given the choice of the two, a head injury might have been avoided. Meanwhile, that second sin mentioned in her prayer, that of miserliness, Alice saves for another day, and another tale—one at which we may later get a glimpse.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.” From The Riverside Chaucer, Third Edition. Ed. Larry D. Benson. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Coghill, Nevill, trans. The Canterbury Tales. Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1951
Eisner, Sigmund. A Tale of Wonder: a Source Study of the Wife of Bath’s Tale. New York: B. Franklin, 1969.
Mandell, Jerome. Geoffrey Chaucer : building the fragments of the Canterbury tales. N.J. : Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992.
Newton, Lisa, ed. Ethics In America: Study Guide. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1988.
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