Wife of Bath: Study Questions & Answers

By Peter Boysen

Many students finding understanding the language in "The Canterbury Tales" a little difficult. Use these sample questions to review the information in the Wife of Bath's story.

The Wife of Bath's Prologue

As with most of the Canterbury Tales, The Wife of Bath's Tale opens with a Prologue that introduces the reader to the character telling the story, and sets the stage for the story to follow.

Knowledge/Comprehension Level Questions -- designed to evaluate whether the student has read the text, and to see if the student knows the crucial characters and events involved.

1. When did the Wife of Bath's fourth husband pass away? (while she was taking a pilgrimage to Jerusalem)

2. What was different about the Wife of Bath's fifth marriage, in comparison to the first four? (her fifth husband was the first one that she married for love, instead of money)

3. What is Valerie and Theofraste? (This is the "book of wicked wives" that tells the tales of the most dishonest wives of all times, including the story of Eve in Eden, the betrayal of Samson at the hands of Delilah, and Agamemnon's slaying at the hands of Clytemnestra.)

4. How did the Wife of Bath lose her hearing in one ear? (She and her fifth husband, Jankyn, got in a fight when she ripped three pages out of his "book of wicked wives" and punched him in the face, and he smacked her on the head.

Application/Analysis Level Questions -- These questions measure whether or not students can take their knowledge about the story and apply it in higher-level thinking.

1. Explain the meaning of the "flour" and the "bran." (These refer to the Wife of Bath's allure. The "flour" refers to the allure that younger women have; the "bran" refers to the spicier aspects of sensuality that come with age)

2. What is the purpose of Valerie and Theofraste in the story? (This book was a common type in that day and age -- the cautionary/morality tale. The fact that the stories are only about wicked wives shows the rampant sexism of that time.

Evaluation/Synthesis Level Questions -- These questions measure a student's ability to form judgments using the text and to generate creative responses.

1. Has the Wife of Bath learned anything from her five marriages? (Answers may vary. The fact that she married a man half of her age as Husband #5 may tell us that her emotional age is far younger than her physical age)

2. Write a fictitious story that would fit in Valerie and Theofraste. (Answers will vary).

The Wife of Bath's Tale

These questions concern the Wife of Bath's Tale itself.

Knowledge/Comprehension Level Questions

1. The friars and mendicants in the time of this story have taken the place of which creatures during King Arthur's time? (fairies and elves)

2. After the knight rapes the beautiful maiden, what is his sentence? (death by decapitation)

3. What chance is the knight given to escape beheading? (He must go out into the world and find what it is that women want most in life, and return to King Arthur's court with his answer within one year)

4. What are some of the answers that the knight receives as he goes around England looking for the answer to his challenge? (money, sex, humor, honor, flattery, freedom, jovality are all answers)

5. What is the answer to the knight's quest? (The elderly hag tells King Arthur's court that women really want to be in charge of their men -- this answer pleases the court)

6. What price does the knight pay for having the elderly hag save his life? (He has promised to reward her, and she asks him to marry her as that reward)

7. How does this "price" turn out not to be so costly, after all? (Once the knight lets her be in charge, when he gives her the choice of having her be beautiful or ugly, she is satisfied and becomes beautiful and good at once)

Application/Analysis Level Questions

1. What makes the outcome of this story ironic? (The reader -- and the knight -- most likely do not expect for the woman to change physical form after the knight answers her question)

2. How is allusion used in the Wife of Bath's Tale? What is the effect? (The story of Midas, as related by Ovid, is the allusion. The fact that the Wife of Bath leaves the allusion unresolved tells the reader more about her unreliability as a narrator than anything thematic about the allusion itself.

Evaluation/Synthesis Level Questions

1. Does the knight give the hag the answer that he wants, because he believes it, or because he knows that she wants to be in control, and is simply answering strategically? (Answers may vary)

2. Would this sort of deal be realistic after a rape conviction in our own time? Why or why not? (Answers may vary)

3. Do you think that being in control of a relationship is what women want most? Why or why not? (Answers may vary)