Geoffrey Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, "Pardoner's Prologue and Tale"

Genre: The prologue may be a "literary confession" or "Vice's confession," like the "Wife of Bath's Prologue" in some interpretations but with absolutely no ambiguity about the speaker's viciousness, despite his cheerful demeanor. It also works with the tale itself to form a fairly complete medieval vernacular sermon of the "exemplum+sermon" format (see RC 905). The tale, itself, is a "novelle" or short story of a type often used in sermon exempla. The old man who directs the young men to their doom is variously interpreted as everything from Jesus, the Devil, God's mercy, and the Wandering Jew.

Form: Rhyming couplets

Source: Faus Semblaunt (Deceptive Appearance) in Roman de la rose makes a similar confession (11065-11974), and various forms of the tale, itself, exists in fairy tales so old they antedate the Indo-European migration, surviving in Germanic, African, Buddhist, Persian and other Eastern forms.

Characters: The Pardoner and his victims, in his Prologue's delerious self-dramatization of his ruthless frauds; three riotous young men, their deceased buddy, a young "knave" who knows how to tell a story, an old man who cannot die, and "a privee theef men clepeth Deeth / That in this contree al the peple sleeth" (VI.675-6).

Summary: The Pardoner explains his con game to the pilgrims, showing them how he deceives them with false relics while preaching against greed to stimulate more plentiful donations to his purse, and then he preaches against various "tavern sins" (lechery, gluttony, sloth, false oaths, and gambling) and illustrates them with a tale of three young men who try to kill Death. They meet an old man who must wander the earth until he can find someone who will exchange his youth for the old man's age. The old man tells them Death is hidden under an oak tree, and when they dig they discover an immense treasure. They send one of their number to town for food and drink, planning to bring the loot to town by night to avoid charges of theft. While one "rioter" is in town, he gets a bright idea, but his bright idea already has entered the minds of his "brothers" back at the oak tree. When he returns, all three meet what they were seeking. Then, the Pardoner urges the Hoost to come forward and kiss his relics, but Harry's having none of it and the Pardoner becomes extremely angry. The Knight prevents violence by inducing Harry to "kisse the Pardoner" and they ride on together (VI.965).

Interpretive Issues:

1) The Pardoner's prologue and tale answers Harry Bailey's request for a tale that will help him recover from his shocked reaction to the Physician's tale of Apius and Virginia.  The Pardoner's unusually free self-disclosure in his prologue, really a full confession that he is a fraud, seems rather unusual based on the previous tellers' representations of themselves.  The Merchant admits he is unhappily married, but he does not admit he is a terrible merchant.  The Friar and Summoner attack each other's professions, but they do not savage their own.  Only the Pardoner, so far, has begun his tale this way.  Is he responding to something Harry said?  Does what he confesses, and the way he confesses it, give us a psychoanalytic explanation for his motives?  Many critics write admiringly of the tale he tells.  For instance, M.B. Ruud's 1937 review of Carleton Brown's Oxford edition called the tale "Chaucer's masterpiece" (379).  Of late, however, critical attention seems to have focused more on that prologue and its relationship to Harry's violent outburst against the Pardoner in the epilogue.

2)  How could the Pardoner forget that he had told the pilgrims the relics were false in his Prologue? Indeed, how could he forget that he had declared his entire racket to be a shame and in no way connected to salvation of souls?

3) How would you describe his manner when explaining his tactics to the pilgrims? Does this tell you anything about his motives? In particular, how does he excuse his lack of attention to his customers’ souls?  How might a medieval audience have understood this tale in terms of "caritas vs. cupiditas"?

4) The Pardoner has a particular trick he uses to force even the most reluctant and skeptical in his audience to pay money and to seek his relics (VI.377-8). How does it work? Could his prologue or his tale be designed to have a similar, hidden power over his hearers?

5) The tale is among Chaucer's most admired for its elegant plot, its economical but affecting characterization, and its pathos. We have seen the result, in the "Cook's Fragment," "Physician's Tale" and "Man of Law's Tale," of Chaucer's decision to give a teller a weak or openly defective tale. What, by contrast, is the effect of the Pardoner’s having such a well-designed and well-narrated tale?

6) The three young revelers swear "we wol sleen this false traytour Deeth" (VI.699). What Christian ideological task do they thereby usurp and who was assigned to do that job? How does this add even more irony to the oath they swear to each other and how might that oath relate to other foresworn oaths in the tales so far (VI.2-4)?

7) The old man bears a curious doom. What must he find in order to die, and why can’t he find it? Why are human beings reluctant to make that exchange, and why is it one of their greatest follies?

8) The downfall of the three rioters and the eight bushels of gold florins could be called one of the great crime stories (along with Cain and Abel). For a modern retelling of it, see B. Traven’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, also made into a wonderful movie by John Huston (with father Walter Huston, Tim Holt, and Humphrey Bogart).

10) The Pardoner’s switch to the hard-sell is accompanied by an interesting imagination of the future that is designed to make the Pilgrims ready customers (VI.934-40). How might this, and the claim that the Hoost "is moost envoluped in synne" bear on Harry’s outburst (VI.942, 946-55)? How might it relate to what Harry has told us about himself in previous inter-tale dialogue? And how might it relate to what he says in VI.958-59?

11) What is it to "kisse the Pardoner" (VI.965)? Why does the Knight ask Harry to do so, and why does Harry do it?

Critical Articles:

Braswell, Mary Flowers. "Chaucer's Palimpsest: Judas Iscariot and the Pardoner's Tale." The Chaucer Review,          29 (1995) 301-310.

            Mary Flowers Braswell explores the idea that the "Pardoner's Tale" draws heavily upon the influence of Medieval Judas tales. She argues that Chaucer use this dark theme, prevalent in the plague-ridden Middle ages, to add depth not only to the rioters and the old man, but to the story's teller as well. (See the full annotation by Tom Zorc )10/8/96) in the Goucher Chaucer Seminar Annotated Bibliography, )

Click here for more article links.

Sanders, Arnold.  "One Way Out: Chaucer's Pardoner, Harry Bailey, the Knight, and Death."  3/16/01  (DRAFT)

Back to the English 211 Syllabus View.

Back to the English 330 Syllabus View.