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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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THE TALE

The young revelers are described enjoying "abominable" excesses-dancing girls, drinking, gambling, and tearing Christ to pieces in curses-and laughing at each other's sins. Just as we might be thinking that we're all a little like that sometimes, the Pardoner lights into a long attack against those very vices.

His longest is against drunkenness. He describes a drunken lout making loud snores that sound like "Sampson, Sampson" (line 226), and we remember that the Pardoner himself is effeminate and small-voiced in contrast. But the Pardoner is drunk, and this irony sheds doubtful light, not only on his tirade against drink, but also on the ones against gluttony, cursing, gambling, and lechery, since he's admitted to all of them.

All this makes us realize that while he doesn't care if the villagers' souls "go blackberrying" when they die, he doesn't care about his own spiritual condition either.

His tirades seem to have no particular logic to them, but he starts with the biggest, gluttony and drink, and proceeds downward. Each sin has moral examples attached; the cursing that accompanies the gambling section is especially vivid and funny-"By God's precious heart," "By his nails" (line 323).

He picks up the story of the three rioters as the main moral example.

NOTE:

The point of view shifts here from the moralizing tone of the drunken Pardoner to Chaucer's own more objective point of view, since it concerns the selfishness and greed of men similar to the Pardoner.

The first sound we hear is a death bell as the corpse of one of their drinking buddies is carried past the door. But, like the Pardoner himself, the three are untouched by any morals that might be drawn.

The drunken three have an arrogant and prideful response-that they are capable of killing Death-but some also see something admirable in taking on such an adversary, even though it's just a drunken boast.

It's ironic that the three pledge their honor and vow to die for each other, calling each other "brother" and "friend," for they will soon be dying by each other's hand.

The old man they meet greets them meekly, but they respond impolitely, asking why he's still alive. His response, which includes a line from "Holy Writ" (line 414), shows that he is patiently waiting for the will of God to die, since no youth will trade him his age. But the gamblers depend only on the momentary turns of fortune. The old man would trade all his belongings for a shroud (line 406); by following his directions, the three revelers will do just that.


There's also a shift in the view of Death. From an evil being to be beaten or feared, the old man shows Death also as a welcome relief. Rather than being a "false traitor" as he is to the youths, Death is a natural part of life, and life itself may be "abominable" excess if lived too long.

He tells them Death awaits under a big oak tree, where they find the gold. Of course, because the theme of the sermon is that "money is the root of evil," we are meant to see that the money is Death, which symbolically is lying at the root of a tree. But the drunken rioters don't see that, even though ironically one of them says, "My wit is great, though I bourde [joke] and play" (line 450). He adds that they will spend the fortune as "lightly" as they've gotten it (line 153). Little does he know how true those words are.

But earthly goods create discord and greed, and God's ever-present plan, in the form of the Devil ("feend," line 516), appears in the conversation of the first two rioters and in the mind of the youngest. Unintentionally, in his guilt and nervousness, he tells the apothecary he needs the poison to kill "vermin," but we can see the irony; that's exactly what he and his false "friends" are.

As in the Knight's Tale, we're told that after the first two kill the youngest, one "happened," "per cas" (by chance) to drink the poisoned wine (line 557). This is our signal that it's anything but chance in the works. A divine plan is evident even in the evil schemes of these three fatal jokesters. They have found Death by carrying him around with them.

We're jolted by the change in tone when the Pardoner again intrudes his phony piety, telling people they are full of pride and blasphemy. Obviously he has memorized his tale and is just repeating it, not listening to a word he is saying about the wages of sin. Does all this mean that it doesn't matter how you act, you'll go to hell anyway? Or is there an assumption that even though the Pardoner is incorrigible, there's still hope for the rest of us? Either way, the Pardoner remains steadfast in his "cupiditas" (love of worldly things), and shows us the truth of his boast that he doesn't care about anything else when he offers fake pardons to his listeners.

We get this impression even when he ends by saying "I will not deceive you" (line 590) and that Christ's pardon is worth more than his. Does this mean the Pardoner is filled with a blast of true repentance? Readers have disagreed about this for years. You'll have to make up your mind based on what you have already seen of the character and his motives.

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