ENGLISH LITERATURE: Week 4 – Notes on the Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale
The Pardoner in the Canterbury Tales is hypocritical, gluttenous, vindictive, and spiteful towards others; he is morally and spiritually corrupt in the extreme. He does, however, tell a tale that, as he promises it shall be in the section that precedes his prologue, a valid sermon against avarice and greed. When Harry Bailey speaks at the end of the Pardoner’s Tale, he does not reject the tale but the teller, the Pardoner. Chaucer the poet aptly presents the Pardoner as a skilled orator and conman and he deliberately illustrates that it is possible for a character far beyond redemption to tell a moral tale.
The Pardoner tells a moral tale against avarice, gluttony, and the love of money. The latter is a theme that the Pardoner says is always central to his sermons, citing the Latin, the love of money is the root of all evil. The origin of the tale, which was part of common folklore in Chaucer’s day, is an Oriental myth.
The three rioters who are central to the tale, damn themselves literally and metaphorically. They betray each other over gold and their desire for it. They also drink and gamble excessively. Upon learning that an old friend of theirs has died, they further damn themselves by going in search of death.
The Pardoner tells a tale, however, that is both instructive and valid as a sermon because it is loaded with advice against drunkeness and gluttony. The Pardoner cites examples of stories from the Bible, too, to illustrate the dangers of drunkenness (Solomon and John the Baptist; Lot and his daughters) and gluttony (Adam and Eve).
There can be no doubt that the tale is moral. The Pardoner professes himself that although he is a ‘ful vicious’ man, he can still tell a moral tale.
The Pardoner as a character, an individual, and a typification of a group of professional churchmen is entirely amoral and, despite telling a moral tale, Chaucer uses various markers to illustrate why he cannot be trusted or accepted on any level.
One of the most telling qualities that Chaucer gives the character of the Pardoner is rhetorical skill. The characteristic essential for Chaucer to illustrate that the teller of the tale cannot be accepted is arrogance.
The question of authority is central to the Pardoner’s tale and its significance both seperated fro and as part of The Canterbury Tales. As the Pardoner is such a skilled orator, Chaucer implies, using the Pardoner and also by selecting Harry Bailey, one of the most astue of the pilgrims and a conman himself, to expose him and silence him so he cannot speak a word more.