In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the element of irony is frequently used in order to enhance the moral principles of the tales and to mock the flaws in society. This usage of irony is noticeably seen in the Wife of Bath’s tale of a knight whose penalty for raping a maiden is to discover what women truly desire above all. Irony is present in the interceding of the queen, the offers of the old hag, and the transformation of the hag into a beautiful young woman.
First and foremost, the knight comes upon an unaware maiden and takes advantage of her resulting in the serious punishment of beheading. Immediately the reader shall recognize and think it strange that the knight is indeed the traditional hero of the story although he happens to be a rapist. The queen then speaks upon his behalf and presents him with the challenge to find what women want most in the world. This is ironic itself considering the fact that although the knight rapes a woman, it is yet another woman who “importuned the king so long for mercy that in the end he granted him his life and gave him to the queen to dispose of” (Chaucer 241). Furthermore, the king is the one who gave all of his power into his wife’s hands, allowing her to do as her will with the knight. Thus, the king symbolizes the idealness that the knight is lacking. The queen’s proposal is clearly also ironic due to the fact that the knight must take into consideration of the feelings of women, something he had previously ignored.
Thus, the knight sets out on his quest, and along the way he encounters an ugly old woman with an offer to save his life if he pledges himself to her in return. Once again, the same twist is displayed – a female presents the knight with an opportunity to live. Then he returns to court and is able to answer this to the queen, “Women desire to have dominion over their husbands, and their lovers too; they want to have mastery over them. That’s what you most desire” (Chaucer 245). Now it is finally clear, and ironic, that the knight took what women want the most away from the maiden that he had raped, and hence was the reason for the queen to offer such a quest. When it is discovered that the price he must pay in return is himself, the knight cries, “Alack, alas! I know too well that such was my promise. So for the love of God, choose something else! Take all my goods and let my body go” (Chaucer 245). All of a sudden, the knight’s role has been reversed; he is now the victim.
Unwillingly for the groom, the wedding is held and upon seeing his sorrow, the woman presents him with these choices, “to have me old and ugly till I die, and be to you a true and faithful wife… or else to have me beautiful and young, and take your chances with a crowd of men all flocking to the house because of me” (Chaucer 250). In return, he replies, “Choose for yourself whichever’s the most pleasant, most honourable to you, and me also” (Chaucer 250). Upon receiving the answer that she was looking for, the most ironic aspect in the story happens: the old woman transforms into a beautiful and faithful lass. However it is unclear whether or not the knight only provides her with the response that she was looking for and not have truly learnt a lesson. If not, then irony once again arises in the fact that the old woman gives in return a shallow change of mind a skin deep change of appearance.
If skillfully used, irony can be most effective in order to deliver a story’s message to the reader. This makes it a key element in satire present in other works within Canterbury Tales such as the Summoner’s Tale in order to detail the corruption of the church and the Pardoner’s Tale which enhances men’s downfall due to greed. Because without irony, it is much more difficult to get the point across while being entertainingly humorous to the audience at the same time.