Chaucer's The Pardoner's Tale: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Debbie Notari
In Chaucer's 'The Canterbury Tales,' a small group of people travel together on a pilgrimage to Canterbury to see the tomb of Thomas Becket. The pardoner, something of a swindler, is one character in this journey. Here, he is invited to tell a tale.

The Pardoner

The Pardoner's Tale begins with the travelers listening to stories as the host of the group invites each one to speak in turn. The host invites the pardoner to tell a humorous tale, something to lift their spirits, since they have just heard a tragic story about the death of a maiden. The pardoner agrees, but lets his audience know that he wants to have a drink first. They protest because they feel the effect of the alcohol will cause the pardoner to tell off-color stories.

The pardoner is a man who sells religious relics and tokens of forgiveness to anyone who will buy them. It is interesting to note that he is very frank with his listeners, admitting that he sells these false relics for a profit. He proudly claims to be a gregarious preacher, as well, and some might call him a salesman. One of his favorite topics is greed, which he proclaims is the root of all evils. He promises that his relics can heal sores, cure animals of snake bites, bring prosperity, and even cure a husband's jealousy, but he knows full well that they have no such powers. The pardoner also sells false certificates of pardon for sins committed. In addition, he admits to being heartless, caring only for what he may gain from others, no matter what his gain may cost another person. The pardoner admits he has no morals, but says he will try to tell a moral story, nonetheless.

The Pardoner's Tale

After shocking his audience with his audacity, the pardoner goes on to tell the story of three young men from Flanders who live wild lives, drinking lavishly, gambling, partying, and sleeping with women at will. Before continuing the story, the pardoner gives a brief sermon on the evils of drunkenness and gluttony, throwing in all kinds of Biblical names and allusions. He then focuses on the three young men, who at the start of this story are sitting in a bar. They notice some men walking by carrying a corpse and send a servant to ask who died. The servant replies that he already knows the name of the deceased, a friend of theirs, who was killed by Death while he was drunk. (Death is personified in the pardoner's tale.) In fact, the servant goes on to relate that Death has killed a thousand people as of late. The tavern owner corroborates the story by adding that Death has recently killed the inhabitants of an entire nearby village with what might be the plague.

The foolish young men, no doubt under the influence of alcohol, pledge to find and kill Death. They vow to support each other in this quest whether they live or die. Although the young ruffians don't meet Death, they do find an odd elderly man who taps the ground with his cane, begging his mother to open the earth and let him in, complaining that not even Death will listen to him. When the three men hear him speak of death, they confront the old man, who tells them they will meet Death under a tree in a nearby grove. The three don't find Death, but a large treasure of gold instead.

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