The Pardoner 2 Essay, Research Paper
The Pardoner s Tale
In Geoffrey Chaucer s famous work, The Canterbury Tales, he points out many inherent flaws of human nature, all of which still apply today. In the phrase, avarice is the root of all evil (Hopper, 343), one can fail to realize the truth in this timeless statement because of its repetition throughout history. Whether applied to the corrupt clergy of Geoffrey Chaucer s time, selling indulgences, or the corrupt televangelists of today, auctioning off salvation to those who can afford it, this truth never seems to lose its validity. Many things have changed since the fourteenth century, but human s ability to act foolish is not one of them. The best example of this is illustrated in The Pardoner s Tale. His account of three rioters who set out to conquer Death and instead deliver it upon each other, as well as the prologue which precedes the tale, reveal the truthfulness of the aforementioned statement as it applies to humanity in general and the Pardoner himself.
In Chaucer s descriptive General Prologue of the character s, the Pardoner is described in very unflattering terms. Chaucer states that he had hair as yellow as wax….Hung down thinly But sparsely it lay, by shreds here and there (Hopper, 343). Also, described in the General Prologue the Pardoner is described as a gelding or a mare (Hopper, 44), the Pardoner is presented as apparently lacking the male sexual organs that would allow him to assume a straightforward gender identity (Patterson, 371). The general tone of the description paints a picture of the Pardoner as corrupt and slimy from the very beginning of The Canterbury Tales. This image is carried on throughout, and proven several times over in his preceding speech and tale.
Before the Pardoner begins his tale, he delivers a sort of disclaimer, informing the pilgrims of his practices within the church. The Pardoner was an expert at exploiting parishioner s guilt for his financial gain. He sold them various relics that supposedly cured ailments ranging from sick cattle to jealousy. If the relics did not seem to work, it was obviously because of the sinful man or woman who purchased them, and no fault of the Pardoner. The Pardoner would routinely say to his potential customers,
Good men and women, I warn you of one thing, If anyone is now in this church,
Who has done a horrible sin, so that he for shame, be confessed of it, be she young or old, Who has made her husband a cuckold, such people shall have neither power nor grace, To make offering to my relics here (Hopper, 346).
This practice proved quite successful for the Pardoner, as he later states, proclaiming, By this trick I have taken in, year by year (Hopper, 347). By extolling his ability to profit from deception and fear, the Pardoner offers himself as a clear example of the phrase he himself was fond of saying, Avarice is the root of all evil (Hopper, 343). He then proceeds to to tell a moral story (Robertson, 333) of three rioters and their search for Death which actually constitutes a kind of self-portrait (Robertson, 333).
The Pardoner s Tale is an exemplum, or a story that teaches a lesson. In telling his story, the Pardoner sets out to prove the truthfulness of his statement of money being the root of all evil. The Pardoner tells a story of three young rioters who, having learned that a friend recently succumbed to the plague, seek to find, and kill, Death. However, during the course of their quest, they meet an untimely demise due to a pile of gold found under a tree. The Pardoner manages to weave in the seven deadly sins throughout the story, all leading back to the gold. Because of their desire for the gold, the rioters betray and ultimately destroy each other, thus proving the Pardoner s statement true. He states, Thus were ended with these two homicides, and in addition on the false prisoner too (Hopper, 379). The Pardoner was an enormously effective preacher and the sermon he delivers as his tale confirms the fact (Payne, 128). It is perhaps fortunate for the pilgrim s reputation as a judge of men that he sees the Pardoner, since it is the Pardoner s particular tragedy that, except in church, every one can see through him at a glance; but in church he remains to the pilgrim a noble ecclesiaste (Donaldson, 7).
The moral of the tale is obviously wary of money, because it can, or perhaps will, cause irrational or evil actions. The irony of this section of The Canterbury Tales is the fact that, while The Pardoner s Tale proves to be an exemplum, the brief account he gives of himself produces the exact same effect.
The Pardoner works within the church yet he lives a decidedly liberated or even sinful existence, which he freely admits. While chastising churchgoers for living sinful lives in order to persuade them to believe in his false relics, he brags about drinking liquor from the vine (Hopper, 351), and keeping a jolly wench in every town (Hopper, 351). Indeed, he introduces his tale with the rather open statement, For though I myself am an entirely a vicious man, Yet I can tell you a moral tale, which I usually preach for profit (Hopper, 351).
True to his character, when he is through with his tale condemning the evils of money and praising the virtues of righteousness, he immediately tries to push his worthless relics onto the pilgrims. And to further the hypocrisy, he tries to persuade them to purchase papal pardons which will be all new and fresh, at every town s end (Hopper, 381). He again attempts to gain from their fears, by saying that they may be thrown off their horse at any time, and therefore, should purchase one of his pardons to ensure salvation in the afterlife (Hopper, 381). The host immediately points out the idiocy if the Pardoner s attempts by saying, You would make me kiss your old breeches, And swear it was a relic saint (Hopper, 382). Indeed, things appear to be getting quite tense until the Knight intervenes and the journey continues.
Chaucer does an exquisite job of pointing out flaws of human nature, as well as the hypocrisy that lies in religion to this day. He shows in several ways that money is indeed the root of evil. In addition to the obvious message in The Pardoner s Tale, Chaucer also paints a vivid picture of the Pardoner s character and uses this further to reinforce his point. In examining both The Pardoner s Tale and the Pardoner himself, it isn t hard to see that the statement continues to ring true, just as it did five hundred years ago, avarice is the root of all evil (Hopper, 343).