Essay, Research Paper: Pardoner's Tale

Literature: Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Pardoner's Tale: Deception and Foolishness There are several types of
foolishness being described in the Pardoner's Tale itself. He describes gluttony
in general, then specifically wine. He talks of gambling, taking bets and the
like, and of swearing. The exemplum of his sermon describes three fools who go
foolishly seeking death, then find it in a large amount of gold. Deception is
another topic addressed by the Pardoner: he comes right out and says that he is
a con artist, and that he is out to take people's money. In his tale, deception
by the rioters leads to the death of all three. These are good points, but there
is another deception the Pardoner plays, and gets caught: his sermon is a direct
chastisement of the Host, who is not pleased by this. As a whole, Chaucer
effectively uses this character of The Pardoner to point out some of the more
foolish and deceptive aspects of other characters in the Tales as well. In the
beginning, the Narrator describes The Pardoner in some quite undesirable terms.
His is the characterization that comes closest to making a judgement call - in
most cases, the judgement is left to the reader. Yet, "I trowe he were a
gelding or a mare," is hardly non-judgmental (97.693). The Narrator also
spends a bit of time describing the different relics and showing the truth of
what each relic really is; however, there is a point in his negative description
of both the physical and moral aspects of this character. The Pardoner
represents the "Ugly Truth." The Knight is grand, the Wife is pretty,
but the Pardoner is downright ugly. He is also the only pilgrim to acknowledge
his shortcomings - he knows he is a con artist and liar, and in his tale's
prologue freely admits this in both words and actions. The Pardoner then
proceeds with the tale itself, which is a deception as well. In the sermon, he
describes gluttony in detail, and defines it as not just overeating, but the
intense pleasure of doing so. He also denounces wine, with graphic examples of
drunkenness. He discusses the negative merits of swearing and cursing. Then, he
closes the sermon itself with a condemnation of gambling. There are several
things going on here. The first, most obvious hypocrisy is that before telling
this tale, the Pardoner insisted on stopping at an inn for food and beer. He is
also partaking in a bet - he who tells the best story wins. However, there is
another level. This sermon is retaliation to the Host, who just before asking
the Pardoner to speak has been cursing and talking about using beer as medicine
to mend his broken heart. It can be suspected that the Host is drunk, as well.
However, when addressing the Pardoner, the Host intentionally insults him:
"'Thou bel ami, thou Pardoner,' he saide, / 'Tel us som mirthe or japes
right anon" (165.30-31). The Pardoner, being of rather quick wit, replies:
"'It shal be doon,' quod he, 'by Saint Ronion…'" (165.33). The
reference to St. Ronion is a possible play on "runnion", which is
possibly defined as a sexual joke (165, footnote 8). Thus, the Host has rather
offended the Pardoner, who calls a stop at an inn to think "upon som
honeste thing whil that I drinke" (165.40). This exchange is picked up once
again after The Pardoner's Tale is done. Several things from the Tale upset the
Host. He is the owner of a tavern, encouraging food and drink. He himself likes
to partake of these things. He also swears quite readily, and from the General
Prologue, we know the Host was the one to propose the storytelling game in the
first place. So, at the end of the Pardoner's Tale, when the Pardoner suggests
"…that our Hoste shal biginne, / For he is most envoluped in sinne"
(178.653-654), it is in direct response to the insult at the beginning of the
Pardoner's turn to tell a Tale. This nearly starts a physical fight - the
intervention of the Knight prevents this infighting from progressing further.
The Pardoner's sermon, while perhaps aimed at the Host, also describes much of
the rest of the pilgrimage. After all, they met at the tavern, agreed to this
innocent game, and some among them have been rather inebriated. Indeed, the sins
listed in the sermon do seem to apply to most of the characters. In this way, he
seems to be telling the truth in some way in regards to everyone. The Prioress
and Monk like their food, the Miller likes his ale, the Wife of Bath likes her
money, and so on. What sets him aside is that he does admit this, in fact, he
announces it in his Prologue. Being that people do not like to look at the
darker sides of themselves, and that Chaucer is writing about types of people,
and also that Chaucer is fond of using allegories - it does not seem
unreasonable that this may be cause for such a negative description of the
Pardoner in the General Prologue. The Pardoner is possibly the epitome of the
'ugly truth' about people. Truth is sexless, has some charming characteristics,
but when used as a reflection of one's self, most people do not like what they
see. The Pardoner offers his listeners a chance to redeem themselves, not
through his relics, but by acknowledging these undesirable aspects in their own
selves. It seems at the end of his Tale, that the Pardoner is hawking his relics
as redemption, even though he knows they are fake. He also knows that everyone
else knows they are fakes. Did he forget this fact? It doesn't seem reasonable
that a person so quick of wit (as evidenced in the introduction to The
Pardoner's Tale) should forget so suddenly. It does make sense, however, for him
to use this opportunity to thumb his nose not just at the Host, but to everyone.
This passage is very cynical, as when the Pardoner offers to give pardons as
they ride; "Or elles taketh pardon as ye wende, / al newe and fressh at
every miles end" (178.639-640). If they fall for his relics, then they are
fools, and a fool and his money are easily parted. Does the Pardoner as a
character know this? To a point. He says as much in his prologue that he can use
his wits and speech to attack a person that has offended him, and does as much
in his Tale. The Pardoner is not an example of what a good person should be, and
he knows this. While he preaches salvation and redemption, he is honest with the
group about being in it for the perks. What sets him aside from the other
pilgrims and their tales is that he knows and admits this. He is aware of his
manipulations as evidenced by his them of "Radix malorum est cupiditas."
He is a scoundrel, he is a con artist, and he is a thief of sorts. No one likes
him; he doesn't even like himself. In his Prologue, he makes it clear that his
intention, when preaching to the masses, is to win money. He intentionally tells
stories that emphasize the fact that money is the root of all evil, and his Tale
shows this trait well. Since he has already told them his secret, this tale is
for their enjoyment, and to satisfy his part of the bet. The story he tells of
the rioters and Death is interesting to analyze as well. While it is a
complicated tale, it does fit the requirements the Pardoner gives in his
Prologue, "For lewed peple loves tales olde -- / Swiche thinges can they
wel reporte and holde" (168.149-150). It is fairly easy to remember the
plot and the consequences. It emphasizes several things: making and breaking
promised, greed, ill will towards others, and the consequences of these actions.
The Pardoner's reason for using this story is to encourage ignorant people to
not want their money. After the story, he gives them the opportunity to not just
get rid of it, but to get something else as well - absolution for their sins.
Regardless of his intentions, he must occasionally accomplish a good work, but
he really doesn't care. He's in it for the money: Radix malorum est cupiditas.
In the Pardoner, Chaucer has created a very complicated character. He is ugly,
very intelligent, honest with the pilgrims to the point of being rude, sensitive
to insult but not empathic, and one aware of his situation. The Pardoner knows
that without those papal bulls he would be a common laborer. He knows the text
that he is preaching and is aware of its effects on the uneducated, but he
doesn't believe it. He seems somewhat bitter - he preaches salvation and
redemption, but sees through it. He can offer his relics to the masses, but who
pardons the Pardoner? In many ways he is a very modern character - disillusioned
with religion, using what means he has to make as much money as he can, trying
to attain a higher rank in life. It is a tribute to Chaucer's ability to write
so well about the human condition that a character created literally hundreds of
years ago, in a society that we would barely recognize today, could be so vivid
and real with just a little introspection. The Canterbury Tales were written by
a true master of poetry and human sympathy, and is one of the greatest works of
English fiction and poetry since the Middle Ages.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: Norton and Company.
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