The Pardoner’s Subconscious Character
“The Pardoner’s Tale,” by Geoffrey Chaucer, makes evident the parallel between the internal emotions of people and the subconscious exposure of those emotions. This particular story, from The Canterbury Tales, is a revealing tale being told by a medieval pardoner to his companions on a journey to Canterbury. Though the Pardoner’s profession is to pardon and absolve the sins of people, he actually lives in constant violation of sins such as gluttony, gambling, and, most importantly, avarice. The Pardoner does feel guilt and advocates not to commit avarice; he exclaims, “‘Radix malorum est Cupiditas,'” (line 426) as his theme more than once. Because he drinks so heavily before the poem, he is not aware that he is personifying himself in his tale. Furthermore, he inadvertently places a character in the story that is parallel to himself and who reveals his own personal desire: the old man.
The Pardoner’s sinful lifestyle and drinking habits are the cause for the old man to be placed in the story. His whole life, even his profession, is filled with terrible sin every day. The Pardoner knows himself that he is just in it for the money: “‘Thus kan I preche agayn that same vice / Which that I use, and that is avarice.'” (Lines 427-28). Even though he is such a hypocrite, his daily greed and lifestyle does make him feel guilty. He continues on about how good of a preacher he is and how he can get money from even the poorest of people. As time passes and he continues on, the effect of the drink can be seen to take place with the subject of his speech. “his tongue loosened by drink, the Pardoner is conceivable as sufficiently carried away to boast incautiously as well as impudently.” (Whittock, 187). When his tale starts to unfold, the parallel begins to take place.
At the point where the old man encounters the three men, the Pardoner is personified. The first reaction to the old man is of his physical appearance. The old man is extremely old looking and decrepit. “Why lyvestow so longe in so greet age?” (Line 719). This may have been a reaction the Pardoner himself has encountered in reality. Because he cannot grow facial hair and become a man, others have poked fun at him (as the host after the tale). The ages of the two men are significant because it advertises the purpose of each character. The old man is the guide to spiritual and physical death, as is easily seen by the deaths of the three rioters. Thus, the old man looks of death: “Lo how I vanysshe, flessh, and blood, and skyn!” (Line 732). On the other hand, the Pardoner’s profession is to absolve sinners and steer them towards life; he guides people to spiritual and even physical life! Therefore, he personifies all that is pure and innocent, such as a youthful and innocent boy. Both, with this physical aid, do good jobs of preaching to people to get their desired results.
The eager minds of the people and the skill of the two preachers are what lead the people to either life or death. It is obvious that the Pardoner does not actually use sacred relics to cure anything: “Relikes been they, as wenen they echoon / Thanne have I in latoun a sholder-boon / Which that was of an hooly Jewes sheep.” (Lines 349-51). He has actually “cured” those who come to him seeking salvation and pardon. This mindset, with the addition of the Pardoner’s great skill in making himself sound so innocent and pure, is what actually cures the people. The people just need something tangible, like the fake relics, to hold on to and believe in to be “cured”. Again, the same is true for the old man. The three rioters that come to him are already in search of and eager to find Death, as opposed to life or salvation. When the old man points them in the right direction, they run to find it, so it does not take much to show them Death. Though it does not take much for the old man to show where Death is, he still lives as an aging old man.
Both the Pardoner and the old man show the path to what the people seek to find; consequently, neither of the two have been granted what they truly desire. It is not possible to directly see what it is the Pardoner desires throughout the tale, but it is possible to use the old man as a window to his subconscious. The Pardoner does not show love or admiration for anything but wine. By looking into what it is the old man desires, the Pardoner’s goal will become evident. “Thus walke I, lyk a restelees kaityf / And on the ground, which is my moodres gate / I knokke with my staf, bothe erly and late / And seye, ‘Leeve mooder, leet me in!'” (Lines 728-31) The old man is extremely old and may be characterized as the “living dead.” These lines expresses how he wants to be young so bad that he would want to go back into his mother’s womb. They, also show a feeling of doom or hopelessness to be young again. The parallel then relates to the Pardoner: he wants so badly to grow old and he knows he will never be able to.
With that, it is possible to relate his theme with what he feels is the essense of greed: the Catholic Church. Because the Church has had so much greed as to take away the age and manhood of himself, he feels the Church is the extreme evil. Thus, he uses the Church’s name in his own Cupidity, deceiving, and avarice. “For the several members of his audience who are slow in catching irony, he spells it out. With papal documents, the seals of church powers, and his own ecclesiastical title” (Williams, 75). The Pardoner uses the Church with his own personal greed to become rich. Even knowing he will not be admitted to heaven for his greed, he continues to fool people in order for him live comfortably.
His own Church first deceived the Pardoner before he began deceiving others and giving them false pardons. His deceiving demeanor and “venomous” ways are the results of he being castrated by the Church. His past experience with the Church leaves him with only the grim reality to fight with. The Pardoner is one with innumerable anger that is bottled up. His manhood can never return to him, and only through his drunken subconscious can he express his true feelings towards the Church. “Perhaps it may then be said that the Pardoner in turn destroys fiction in order to complete the process of rendering everything subjective and meaningless.” (Williams, 73). His grim hopelessness towards life is not present because with life comes age, which he does not possess. He can never share in pleasures everyone else around him may feel, so he has to have different pleasures in life such as gluttony, avarice, deception, and jealousy. Therefore, all he is left with is a life that will be forever still and lonely. On the other hand, his drinking is what lets us see into what he actually wants. His parallel with the old man is his only way of letting the reader know of his true feelings.
Williams, David. “Language Redeemed.” The Canterbury Tales: A Literary Pilgrimage.
New York: Twayne, 1987, 73-88.
Gerould, G. H. “The Vicious Pardoner.” Critics on Chaucer. Edited by Sheila Sullivan.
Gables: Miami UP, 1970, 129-32.
Hussey, S. S. “Chaucer: An Introduction.” New York: Methuen & Co., 1981, 177-83.
Whittock, Tevor. “The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale.”
A Reading of the Canterbury Tales. London: Cambridge UP, 1968, 185-94.