The Pardoner's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Theme & Analysis


Scarlett has a Ph.D. in English and has taught literature and composition for both high school and college.

This lesson will analyze the Pardoner's Tale in relation to its characterization of the Pardoner, its genre, and its effectiveness as a piece of rhetoric. At the end of this lesson, students will be able to evaluate the tale from these three angles.

The Pardoner's Prologue

In Medieval Britain, a pardoner was a layperson authorized to sell indulgences, documents that certified that the buyer was absolved of a portion of their sins. Pardoners were not particularly well-liked, and Chaucer's Pardoner's flagrant unscrupulousness makes him one of the most memorable characters in The Canterbury Tales.

In his own Prologue, the Pardoner shares his tricks of the trade with the other pilgrims. When preparing to part fools from their money, he tunes his sales pitch carefully to his audience and mixes in a little Latin to sound legitimate. Though he is not a member of the clergy, the Pardoner calls what he does ''preaching''. Hypocrisy—a ''do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do'' mentality—is the Pardoner's chief character trait, but he reasons that his indulgence in the very vices against which he preaches does not mean he can't save others from them.

Through this rationalization and other strategies, the Pardoner demonstrates that he is highly accomplished in rhetoric, the art of persuasion, and in a fine display of his talents, he tells the other pilgrims a story of drunkenness and greed designed to persuade them to buy his wares.

The Pardoner's Tale and Drunkenness

The Pardoner tells a parable, a story that contains obvious symbolism and a moral. It is part of the Pardoner's hypocrisy that he chooses a narrative form that Christ uses often in the New Testament.

The story begins with the Pardoner's introducing his main characters, three rioters in Flanders, but he quickly digresses into a long denunciation of various sins beginning with gluttony, including indulgence in alcohol:

''Whan man so drinketh of the whtye and rede,

That of his throte he maketh his privee,

Thurgh thilke cursed superfluitee.''

He goes on at length emphasizing the evils of drinking and associated vices: sexual promiscuity, gambling, swearing, and lying, many of which figure prominently in the story and in the Pardoner's own life.

When the Pardoner gets back to his main story about the three rioters, he emphasizes alcohol's role in their downfall. They are sitting in a tavern first thing in the morning, and their presence there is the occasion for them to see the corpse of their former friend pass by. Their inquiries about who died spurs the action. Drink also plays a part in their formulation of a harebrained plan to go find Death and kill him. The Pardoner calls attention to this when he says,

''And up they sterte, al dronken in this rage,

And forth they goon towardes that village...''

The third time the Pardoner emphasizes the role of alcohol in the rioters' demise is in the end when the one who had gone to town for provisions poisons the wine that the other two sit down to enjoy after they have murdered him.

The examples above illustrate the Pardoner's stated intent to warn his audience against drunkenness, though, of course, he does so hypocritically. In fact, before he begins his tale, he informs us that he is going to have a drink to lubricate his storytelling ability:

''But herkneth, lordings, in conclusioun:

Your lyking is that I shall telle a tale.

Now have I dronke a draughte of corny ale,

By God, I hope I shal yow telle a thing

That shal by resoun been at your lyking.''

The Pardoner's Tale and Greed

Greed is a second theme that stands out in The Pardoner's Tale. The rioters kill each other because two of them would rather split the money two ways than three. The leader tells his companion to

''Arys, as though thou woldest with him pleye;

And I shal ryve him thurgh the sydes tweye

Whyl that thou strogelest with him as in game,

And with thy dagger look thou do the same;

And than shal al this gold departed be,

My dere freend, bitwixen me and thee.''

Meanwhile, the youngest rioter who went to town has the exact same thought:

'''Oh Lord!' quode he, 'if so were that I mighte

Have al this tresor to my-self allone,

Ther is no man that liveth under the trone

Of god that sholde live so mery as I!'

And atte laste the feend, our enemy,

Putte in his thought that he shold poyson beye,

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