In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales a knight rapes a young woman and is sentenced to death for his action unless he can find out what it is that women really want. Eventually the knight finds a “loathly lady” who promises to tell him what women really want if he will marry her. He makes and keeps his promise, and on their wedding night this “loathly lady” appears to him as a beautiful young woman with a proposition. The knight can either have her as a beautiful young woman when they are alone at night and be loathly to everyone who sees her during the day, or she can be beautiful for all to see during the day and be loathly to him at night. The knight can’t make a decision and finally decided to let her decide for herself. This is the right answer because according to the Wife of Bath what women really want is to have mastery over themselves. They want to be the deciders. And as a result of letting her decide her own fate, the “loathly lady” stays young and beautiful both during the day and at night.
I have always found this tale to be problematic and full of questions I can find no answers for no matter how often I read the story: Why is the knight ultimately rewarded for his loathsome act at the beginning of the story? Is the “Loathly Lady” the same person as the young maiden who was raped by the knight? Was the “Loathly Lady” only loathly because of her class and not because of her looks so that upon marriage she only looks different to the knight and the court because her marriage has transformed her from one class to another? And where does the Wife of Bath fit into all this? Is she a loathly lady herself because of her age and because she is a widow, and will she undergo a similar transformation from loathed to respected when she is able to capture her sixth husband?