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How is the Pardoner Different From the Parson in The Canterbury Tales?

Instructor: Joe Ricker
Despite their shared religious affiliation, the Pardoner and the Parson are very different characters in 'The Canterbury Tales.' The Pardoner's profession, and his interesting perspective on that profession, sets him apart from the Parson.

A Matter of Perspective

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is one of the most lasting works in literature. The 24 tales told by different characters on their way to Canterbury are stories of virtues and vices, moralistic values, and the sinful gratification of human desires.

When a group stops at the Tabard Inn in London during a journey to Canterbury to pay homage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket, the Host requests that each person tell a tale. The teller of the best tale will win a free meal after they return from their journey. The travelers range in demographic from working class men to members of the Church. Among them are the Pardoner and the Parson, who are both men of religion. While both the Pardoner and the Parson represent members of the religious class, they are very different in the way that they live their lives. The tales they share are also very different in nature and contain clear indications of their lifestyle and character.

The Pardoner and His Tale

A pardoner is an agent of the pope who offers pardons to members of the church for their sins. The Pardoner who has joined the group of travelers for Canterbury sells little objects to people and, in exchange, absolves them of their sins. The Pardoner, despite his affiliation with the Church, is not a moral man. He knows this; in his tale the Pardoner makes it clear that he is fully aware that his most significant vice is avarice, which is greed. The Pardoner is aware of his own greed; he acknowledges his own sin. He makes no effort to change his ways; instead, he simply acknowledges that he, like the people he pardons, is no better than they are in the way of his sin.

Avarice is also one of the Seven Mortal Sins, and the Pardoner continually expresses his belief that ''money is the root of all evil.'' The tale the Pardoner offers is a cautionary tale that illustrates this moralistic principle. It begins with three men who plot to rob and murder Death. After meeting an elderly man who tells them he has been robbed by Death, the men set out to find Death and relieve him of his fortune. In the process, two of the men plot to murder the younger of the three and keep his share of the spoils. The younger man, wary of the other two, poisons some wine that the other two drink after they've killed the youngest man. They too die.

The Pardoner uses his opportunity to speak to offer hope for the sinners with his cautionary tale. While the Pardoner isn't necessarily pandering to the crowd, he remains some level of rapport with them because he knows they might want to be absolved of their sins. Immediately after his tale, the Pardoner offers to sell them his wares to absolve them of their sins. His tale is practically a sales pitch. The Pardoner, being true to his occupation in absolving people of their sins, tells a story that offers absolution--for a fee.

The Parson

A parson is a man who serves as a pastor or priest. A significant difference between the Pardoner and the Parson is that the Parson doesn't actually tell a tale at all. He is the last to speak, having refused to contribute a tale when requested to by the Host. Because of his religious conviction, he won't subject himself to entertaining the others' desire to further feed their sinful natures with a tale. Instead, the Parson delivers a sermon condemning the sinners in the group. Being a religious man, this is an easy task. Also, because the Parson has heard all the tales from the other travelers, and is the last to speak, he has gained a significant amount of material to discuss in his sermon. For the most part, the Parson's litany warns of the dangers of sin, and because the travelers are nearing Canterbury and the shrine of St. Becket, his sermon is a fitting end for their journey.

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