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 s 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. 93). 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 ossibly 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. 53-654), 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 hat 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 is 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. 9-150).
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.