Essay, Research Paper: Canterbury Tales Characters

Literature: Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Pardoner's Tale is arguably the finest short narrative in Geoffrey Chaucer's
Canterbury Tales. The tale of three men that attempt to kill Death, but instead
die themselves is a story of exceptional intellect, moral, and humour. These
three qualities are quite unsurprising considering the actual author of these
tales. What is surprising though is that the character that tells this fantastic
story is the Pardoner. There have been many studies on Chaucer's
characterisation of the Pardoner, most of which have concentrated on his amoral
attitude or on his sexuality. However, in this essay a different side of the
Pardoner will be explored, his humour, his intellect, his skills, and even his
morals. One work in particular stands out above from others in both its
completeness and in the time of its publication. Chaucer's Pardoner by George
Lyman Kittredge, published in 1893, precludes the current outspoken,
post-modernist academic paradigm in which much of the study on the character of
the Pardoner has centered on him as a eunuch and a homosexual. Instead Kittredge
examines the Pardoner as an intelligent scoundrel that experiences a internal
moral dilemma during the prologue, tale and epilogue. Kittredge's work focuses
on the consistency of the character of the Pardoner. First, the Pardoner as a
hustler is examined. For myn entente is nat but for to winne, And no thing for
correction of sinne: I rekke nevere whan that they been beried Though that hir
soules goon a-blakeberied. That is, as Kittredge makes note, the Pardoner is
only concerned with his personal financial gain. He has no concern for the
reformation of morals or for the truthfulness genuineness of those people
attempting to repent. Further evidence of the Pardoner as an immoral swindler is
exemplified in his lack of concern for stealing from the poor and starving. Al
were it yiven of the poorest page, Or of the pooreste widwe in a village- Al
sholde hir children sterve for famine. It makes no difference to him if he is
swindling widows or their starving children. Further example of the Pardoner as
an amoral character is shown with his denounciation of the seven mortal sins. In
keeping with his hypocritical and cynical attitude, he is guilty of all seven.
This last portion is generally used to show the evils of the Pardoner but
instead another interpretation is made possible by his frank cynicism. The
Pardoner is a very humorous character when he has the opputunity to be himself
rather than the clergyman that he must pretend to be while conducting his
business. This is best shown in the manner in which he denounces his practise
and the reagard in which he holds himself. The humour of the Pardoner also
coincides very well with his intellect and wit. This tale shows his intelligence
and wit especially in the discussion between the three companions and the old
man. "Now sires," quod he, "if that ye be so lief To finde Deeth,
turne up this crooked way, For in that grove I lafte him, by my fay, Under a
tree, and there he wol abide: Nat for your boost he wol him no thing hide. In
this dialogue the companions are seeking the person of Death, while the old man
is instead directing them where they may find their deaths. Now although this is
just one example of the combination of humour and intelligence in the character
of the Pardoner, his true intelligence is best exemplified by the rest of the
story that surrounds this dialogue. It also seems that the intelligence of the
Pardoner has become known to his fell travellers. And right anoon thise gentils
gan to crye, "Nay, lat him telle us of no ribaudye. Tel us some moral thing
that we may lere, Some wit, and thanne wol gladly heere." His companions do
not want some vulgar joking tale, they want an intelligent moral story and the
Pardoner readily delivers with the tale of the three companions seeking out
Death. His skill as an orator of tales is undeniably fantastic, and we
experience him at his best in this tale. His aptitude at storytelling has also
allowed him to show his skill as an adept hustler. His business has brought him
over a hundred marks in his first year, which at the time was a fair sum of
money. The manner in which he gained this money is shown in the epilogue to the
Pardoner's Tale. This immoral, unscrupulous, intelligent and humorous character
has been psychologized in many other English papers. A common conclusion is that
during the Epilogue he is being serious in his request for money from his
companions. This interpretation degrades the intelligence and skill of the
Pardoner in that he has already told his fellow travellers he is a fraud and to
ask money of them at this point would be "superhuman folly". Kittredge
dedicates a large portion of his argument in defence of the Pardoner's rant
during the epilogue. His conclusion is that the tale the Pardoner told has left
him in a state of moral dilemma. The Pardoner is confused by his mixed emotions
and the seriousness that has overtaken him. He allows his speech to go on for
too long to allow some joculiarity into the serious tone that has presented
itself. It is clear that the Pardoner is not an easy character to understand. He
is at times immoral and quite deceitful. While at others he is honest and
humorous. The main division therefore lies in whether the weight is placed on
his actions or on his words.
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