I’m somewhat embarrassed to node my ignorant waffling on the The Wife of Bath's Tale, but I considered it would be preferable to the vacuum in Literary Criticism currently evident on the subject. When that abates I will take steps to remove it. The original purpose of this essay was to address the question "Which do you find more interesting; the Wife's Tale or Prologue?’, but I twisted it into more of a general comparison because I thought it a somewhat stupid question to ask A-level English students.
Both the Wife of Bath's Tale and Wife of Bath's Prologue are different dialogues with strikingly different perceptions on characterisation, themes and form.
The Prologue is the longest prologue in the Canterbury Tales, dominating the Wife’s Tale at least in size, and is written through the 1st person viewpoint of the ‘Wife of Bath’ character. Chaucer orbits the form around tales of the Wife of Bath's experience of marriage and fleshes this out by sharp monologues criticising the church’s authority through Christian-based references and diction – "Wher can ye seye, in any manere age, that hye God defended marriage, By express word?" and the satirical – "Oure Lord Jhesu refreshed many a man;". But although the Prologue is strung with allegories, poetic meaning and inferences to taboo subjects – "How kounde I daunce to a harpe smale, And singe, yuris as any nightingale" – the character of the Wife herself is very much a straightforward one rooted in experience; it is doubtful whether she symbolises anything aside from her own singular philosophy. The fact that Chaucer (2) spent so much time fleshing her out with so many differing tales of marital experience reinforce her importance as an individual over a symbolic stereotype. This is the opposite of the Tale, where the characters are somewhat unconvincing and underdeveloped in themselves – their effect lies predominately as tools Chaucer uses to achieve its parable-esque meaning through the tale’s 3rd person plot-centric viewpoint.
Both the Tale and Prologue are somewhat unrealistic in places. The Wife of Bath’s knowledge of litany references purportedly made by Jankin is somewhat warped and inconsistent, as are other points in her tale, for example – the number of pages she ripped from Jankins book change each time she refers to them. The Tale also leaves a few questions – why would women be given judgement over such a serious case in predominately male based social system, and why would women be sympathetic to a convicted rapist? Both resolve themselves in a highly unrealistic fairytale ending, with the man coming to submit to the dominance of the woman on top(2). The Prologue also rambles, the Wife seems easily distracted and inconsistent in her delivery, even admitting it herself occasionally – "but now, sire, let me se, what I shod seyn?". (3)
On the surface, the Tale holds little resemblance to the themes articulated in the The Wife of Bath's Prologue ; there is only the link of women dominating men to link the pair. However looking closer there are religious themes and authority inferences inherent – the Dante reference "Crist wole we claime of him oure gentillesse" twists the whole ‘gentillesse’ satirical monologue built up between lines 1108-1120 (4) into an attack against the church’s puritanical arrogance. The age versus youth theme explored in the Prologue with first the youthful wife dominating older men, then getting dominated herself by the younger Jankin, has parallels in the Tale too. The wise woman is old like the Wife, and both the knight and Jankin use and get the better of their spouses in differing ways, but are eventually taken back into line by their aged female’s cleverness.
The Tale and the Prologue hold therefore, several similarities in theme and meaning, but multiple differences in presentation and form. In terms of quantity of verse to analyse, the Prologue itself holds the greater critical interest for me. In terms of presentation also, I find the use of a central character much more intriguing , entertaining and original compared to the fantastic metaphysics used in the tale. The Prologue itself is an exquisitely poignant example of characterisation - by far the strongest in The Canterbury Tales – and drew my interest into the themes of the piece much more so then the parable-esque tale. I find the 1st person form means I can identify to a greater extent with the Wife, particularly through her practical down to earth observations, and her humorous inferences entertain my attention. This exquisiteness of characterisation and the subtle nature in which the way Chaucer personified the themes of his piece through the Wife, denote my reason why my dubious laurel of literacy critique interest falls to the Wife of Bath's Prologue instead of the Wife of Bath's Tale.
(1)  It is generally accepted that Chaucer used the Wife as a vehicle for conveying some of his more controversial viewpoints while distancing himself from their repercussions– the tale was by and large a fabrication.
(2)  The sheer strength of the themes of dominance and male submission in the piece suggests to me that the Wife of Bath's Tale and Prologue may also be a vehicle for articulating the validity of hierarchical, non-equal relationships involving sadomasochism – in modern terms, BSDM. The piece is laced with examples, in particular examine the power-based relationship the wife holds with Jankin.
(3)  This easy nature somewhat offsets the subversive undercurrent of the Wife of Bath's prologue, and could be a flaunt of unconcern in the face of the threat of the puritanical church that was ‘authority’ at that time.
(4)  Here the tale examines the idea that money makes one a ‘gentleman’, although the gentillesse or gentile nature of these ‘gentlemen’ are called into question.