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An Analysis of Geoffrey Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale"

Geoffrey Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale"
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

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Geoffrey Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale", probably the darkest of his Canterbury Tales, reveals the corruption behind the entire corpus of saints, relics, indulgences and pilgrimages. Even the other pilgrims sense something dreadfully amiss in the Pardoner. As soon as the Host invites the Pardoner to tell his tale, the other pilgrims protest. They don't want to hear his story; they don't want anything to do with him.

On the surface, it's hard for us to see what seems so terrible about him. In the Prologue, where we first meet this "noble ecclesiaste," he seems somewhat comic, singing "Com hider, love, to me!" (Come hither, love, to me!) in a small voice like a goat. In addition to his small voice, he has pale, lank hair, and no beard "ne never sholde have" (and never would have). In fact, his face was "As smothe it was as it were late shave./ I trowe he were a gelding or a mare" (His face was as smooth as if he had just shaved. I think he was a gelding or a mare). A mare, of course, is a female horse, and a gelding is a male horse which has been castrated before reaching puberty -- which, if this were the case with the Pardoner, would account for his high bleating voice.

A pardoner's job, on the surface at least, was to sell Christian relics and certificates blessed by the Pope, the possession of which would supposedly help one get into heaven. As one loosely affiliated with the church, one might think his lack of virility would be an occupational asset; however, this was not considered to be true. It was one thing to voluntarily renounce the passions of the flesh; it was another thing entirely not to have any to begin with. The Pardoner would seem to fall into this category, and there is no question the other pilgrims saw him as somehow cursed.

This helps to create the vague unease the other pilgrims feel around him, but it isn't the main reason they're not delighted with his company. It's his occupation -- and the complete lack of conscience with which he practices it. Even the narrator, who seems to be somewhat gullible in many areas, is well aware that the Pardoner bilks people out of their hard-earned money and gives them nothing of value in return. 

Nor is the Pardoner shy about describing precisely how he goes about his work, beginning with his display of his bulls and relics. For example, he would be happy to sell you his holy sheep bone, which, when passed through well-water, will cure any creature that drinks of it. He can also cure jealousy and increase the fruitfulness of crops. But his main specialty, of course, is pardoning sins, even those that are so heinous that the sinner "dar nat, for shame, of it yshryven be" (dare not, for shame, go to confession).
The Pardoner is prattling along, almost as though he is describing to his fellow pilgrims how much good he can do for them, and then suddenly he takes them into his confidence, telling them that the line of bull he's just given them is typical of the "preaching" he does for a living. He knows his "japes" are false; he knows his audience cannot afford the money they pay him in good faith; but, as he tells the pilgrims, "myn entente is nat but for to wynne,/ And nothynge for correccioun of synne" (My intent is merely to win [money], and not at all for the correction of sin). In contrast to the pious Prioress, the Pardoner knows himself to be "a ful vicious man" -- but nonetheless, he thinks he can tell a moral tale. 

And he proceeds to do so. Again in contrast to the Prioress' Tale, which deals at least nominally with innocence and piety, the Pardoner's Tale deals with the class of people he knows best. The story concerns three drunken men who are drowning their sorrows in alcohol after a friend has died of the plague. In their less-than-rational state, they decide to head off on a quest to find Death and destroy him as he has destroyed so many others.
On the road they meet an old man, who greets the three partyers "ful mekely" but is mocked because of his age and infirmity. He points out that it is not of his choosing to be this way, and he would gladly exchange his age for the young men's youth. This sudden intrusion of a serious theme serves two purposes: first, it serves the Pardoner's purposes in reminding his audience that they too will age and die, and it's never too soon to seek reparations for their sins. But it also reminds Chaucer's readers that all the Pardoners of this world face the same fate; and if the Pardoner ever intends to seek reparations for his many sins, he should have started yesterday.

The old man, hearing their quest, directs them to a certain oak tree. There, instead of Death, they find a great hoard of treasure. Sobering quickly, the oldest of the three send the youngest into town to bring back wine with which to celebrate the grand occasion; while he is gone they plot to kill him so they will only have to split the treasure two ways. The youngest, however, is himself plotting to poison his companion with the wine so he can have the treasure all to himself. When he returns, the older men stab him and he dies; then they drink the poisoned wine and they die too. In this way, all three of them succeed in finding Death after all.

Thus the Pardoner presents his moral, namely that "Money is the root of all evil." In his own case this is certainly true; the Pardoner is the most heartless of any of Chaucer's pilgrims, because all he cares about is money. The irony is that he still wants the pilgrims to give him theirs, despite the fact that they know he's a quack. But there's always the possibility that this sheep's bone might really be the jawbone of John the Baptist....

This story can be found in "The Canterbury Tales."

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