The Canterbury Tales is written in the form of a frame narrative. A short prologue introduces each tale, the tale is then told and we then return to the frame. Such a framing device requires the reader to continuously move between the frame and the embedded narratives and this leads to our response being anticipated but not always being congruent with the other audiences.
Chaucer projects three audiences in The Pardoner’s Tale: the peasants, the pilgrims and ourselves. This technique emphasizes an ironic disjunction between the knowledge of the different audiences and thus aids us in developing a better understanding of the characters in the tale.
In The Pardoner’s Tale, the Pardoner addresses the implied audience directly, as if he is telling the tale to the peasants. The peasants are illiterate and gullible and we can see that the Pardoner is aware of this through his use of latin, “Radix malorum est cupiditas” (l. 138), pronouns, tone and condescension, “Nat Samuel, but Lamuel, saye I” (l. 297).
Furthermore, the Pardoner constantly refers to the bible and written texts which he knows the peasants could not read: “Redeth the bible and find it expressly” (l. 298) and “In Holy Writ ye may yourself wel rede” (l. 454).
We could therefore assume that the peasants would be more convinced by the Pardoner’s speech than anyone else. Although they would have had some idea of the deceit behind the Pardoner’s sermon, they would have been more easily persuaded into buying his pardons because of the supposed idea attached to having one’s sins absolved.
The pilgrims, on the other hand, have a better understanding of who and what the Pardoner is. Although the pilgrims’ responses to the Pardoner are few, we are made aware of the estimation that they hold of him from the words:
“And night anoon thise gentils gan to crye, ‘Nay, lat him telle us of no ribaudye. Tel us some moral thing that we may lere, Som wit, and thane wol we gladly here”(ll. 35 – 38)
It is thus possible to deduce that the unsoundness of the Pardoner’s morals is known to the company before he begins his cynical confessions. He may pose as a holy man when he is swindling the peasantry of some remote hamlet; but hypocritical airs and graces would be absurdly futile among his present companions. That there has been no attempt at such posturing is made clear enough by the host, the gentles, and the Pardoner himself. The host calls on the Pardoner for a merry tale; the Pardoner assents with an alacrity which warrants vehement suspicion, and the gentles protest that they want no ribaldry, and insist on something elevated and instructive. This is significant enough of the impression the Pardoner has made on his traveling companions.
Furthermore, the host’s response to the Pardoner’s tale is symptomatic of the group. After the Pardoner completes his tale, he displays his false relics and asks for contributions. His act is intriguing for he makes no acknowledgement of his hypocrisy. Only a few lines before, in his Prologue, he exposed the fraudulence of his whole operation to the Pilgrims. However, his attempt to sell pardons to the Pilgrims is a source of resentment for the host and the host reacts by stating that:
“I wolde I hadde the coilins in myn hand In stede of relikes or of saintuarye. Lat cutte hem of: I wol thee helpe hem carye They shall be shrined in an hogyes tord”.(ll. 664 – 667)
Our perception of the Pardoner is most complete as we are fully aware of the incongruence between the various audiences. We see the Pardoner for who and what he truly is and can form a perception of him based on both the peasants’ and the pilgrims’ knowledge of him. The Pardoner is described last in the General Prologue and this correlates to the Pardoner’s position in the human chain: he is morally deprived. Furthermore, the use of irony is obvious in the word “gentil” (l. 671), used to describe the Pardoner. Such a word would usually be associated with nobility and not morally wanting characters.
The Pardoner later sings “Com hider, love, to me” (l. 674), a distinctly worldly song inappropriate for officers of the church to sing. In singing these words, the Pardoner makes clear his intentions: he is far more interested in the world and monetary gain than the church.
Chaucer also emphasizes the external appearance of the Pardoner. He is described as a loathsome character, which suggests that his unsavoury external physique is an index to his internal state: one of corruption.
It is also clear that the narrator is not taken in by the Pardoner. He feels that there is a disjunction between what the Pardoner thinks of himself and the way in which he appears. It is suggested that the Pardoner embodies the parody of manhood. He is presented as someone of ambiguous gender and sexual orientation, further challenging social norms. The narrator seems unsure as to whether the Pardoner is an effeminate homosexual or a eunach. He is described as having no beard, long flowing hair and a high pitched voice. The narrator further expresses that the Pardoner either lost his virility or he never possessed any. Such a physical appearance leads to a further degree of irony seen when the Pardoner interrupts the Wife of Bath’s Tale and comments on taking a woman and, in the Prologue, he speaks of his many conquests. In terms of his physical appearance, he seems incapable of such exploits.
This description of the Pardoner can be read in conjunction with the opening lines, which refer to physical regeneration, which mirrors spiritual rejuvenation. With this in mind, we may state that the Pardoner’s physical sterility is a mirror of his spiritual sterility.
In the General Prologue, we are aware of the function of the Pardoner as a layman who sells pardons or indulgences, certificates from the pope by which people hoped to gain a share in the merits of the saints and escape more lightly from the pains of Purgatory after they died. This particular pardoner works for a religious house notorious for fraud in this trade.
At the start of his self-presentation in the Prologue, the pardoner tells us that he preaches in churches and that he always preaches the same sermon, which he knows by heart on the text “Radix malorum est cupiditas” (l. 46), meaning “Greed is the root of all evil”. However the strongest irony is present when he explains that avarice is his own vice and at the same time the vice he preaches against with such powerful effect that he brings people to repent of their avarice sincerely:
“Thus can I preche again that same vice Which that I use, and that is avarice. But though myself be gilty in that sinne, Yit can I make other folk to twinne From avarice, and sore to repente- But that is nat my principal entente: I preche no thing but for coveitise.”(ll. 139 – 145)
As the sermon (the Tale) begins, we become aware that there is an additional layer of irony. The sermon he preaches is not only against love of money as such, it first attacks all the ‘tavern sins’ of lechery, gluttony, drunkenness, which are allied with gambling (a way of getting money without work) and blasphemous swearing, which leads finally to anger, lying, and murder. Before the Prologue began, in the link passage providing the transition from the Physician’s Tale to the Pardoner’s Prologue, the Host asks the Pardoner to tell “som mirthe or japes” (l. 31). His response is to insist that he must have a drink in an alehouse first. The pilgrims reject the Host’s suggestion and demand “som moral thing” (l. 37) from which they may learn. The Pardoner accepts their request, but he prepares for it by having a drink. He is not only guilty of avarice, but also of frequenting taverns.
The Tale itself, holds the greatest irony. In the Tale, the Pardoner almost seems to be telling a story about himself. For me, the rioters are symbolic of the Pardoner and in the Tale, the Pardoner is admitting to the sin of his love for money. The Pardoner’s Tale concerns three rioters who go in search of Death in order to vanquish him. An old man directs them to a nearby tree under which they find a large fortune. The greed of all three rioters leads to them all being murdered and thus, the rioters find death in the form of avarice. In much the same way, the Pardoner’s sin of avarice is depicted in his love for money. Thus we see a pertinent example of irony in the way that the Pardoner tells a story about himself, while preaching against such immorality.
The main interest of the Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale, taken as a whole, is the complexity of the irony. In the overall exploration of the functions of narrative levels and irony in the Canterbury Tales, we see here how a Tale can contain deep sentence and yet be told by a teller who is completely untouched by it, so firmly committed he is to the opposite values. The Pardoner has composed this wonderfully powerful Tale (sermon) in such a way as to move his hearers to the utmost. Only his motivation in doing this is not love – a desire to save them from their sins – but vice – a desire to make them anxious so that they give him much money.