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THE TALES: SUMMARIES AND NOTES
The Pardonerís Tale
There was once a group of three debauched men in Flanders who whiled away their entire time in gambling, drinking, dancing, and visiting brothels. The Pardoner then digresses to castigate gluttony and says that lechery springs from wine. He reminds the pilgrims that Lot had unknowingly committed incest because he was drunk. A drunk Herod had ordered the innocent John the Baptist to be killed. Gluttony had caused the first transgression and the fall of mankind. He then quotes St. Paulís injunction against excessive eating and assails cooks who give a better appetite by their exquisite dishes. The Pardoner then attacks wine as the cause of lechery and alludes to the story of Samson who revealed his secret because he was drunk. He also mentions several Biblical examples to strengthen his point that drinking destroys a manís wit, judgment and discretion. Gambling is his next target of attack since it engenders perjuries, manslaughter, and blasphemies and is moreover a waste of time and money. He then relates various historical incidents denouncing gambling. He rounds off his digression by castigating swearing, blasphemy and perjury.
The Pardoner then returns to his story of the three debauched men. One night they were drinking in a tavern when they heard the clinking of a hand bell which meant that a corpse was being carried to the grave. One of the men asked his servant to find out whose corpse it was. The servant replied that he already knew and that the dead man was an old friend of theirs who had been suddenly killed last night by a sneaky thief named Death, who was killing everybody in a nearby plague ridden village. The three debauchees then pledged to seek out Death and kill him. In a drunken rage they then set off in the direction of the plague ridden village.
When they had traveled about half a mile they met a poor old man. One of the debauchees insultingly remarked about his advanced age. The man replied that he was cursed to roam around the earth in search of someone who would exchange his youth for old age and that even Death refused to take his life. The three men thereupon suspected that the old man was in league with Death and demanded to know where they could find Death. The old man said that he had last seen Death under an oak tree round the bend of the lane. The three men rushed to the spot and to their surprise found eight bushels of gold coins. They were extremely happy at their stroke of luck and resolved to keep the gold for themselves. But they decided to move the treasure at night to avoid being accused of robbery. They drew straws to decide who would go to the town to buy food provisions and wine for them while the other two would guard the gold. The youngest of the men drew the shortest straw and set off towards the town. As soon as he had gone the other two conspired to kill him when he returned and divide his share amongst them. In the meanwhile the youngest man also grew greedy and desired to keep the entire treasure for himself. He thus bought a strong rat poison and three bottles of wine. He mixed the poison in two bottles and kept the third one clean. When he returned to the spot, the other two men killed him and then sat down to drink their wine that had been poisoned. They also died on the spot. Thus all of them died through trickery and treachery born of their greed. The Pardoner ends his story by castigating wickedness, greed, gambling, lechery and lust. He tells the pilgrims to desist from avarice and displays his pardons that can save their souls. He promises to put down their names on his prayer roll and absolve them by his holy power. He calls upon them to buy his relics and pardons and immediately get absolution. He suggests that the Host who is the most sinful should make his offering first. The Host grew extremely angry at this suggestion and hinted that the Pardoner was a eunuch. The Pardoner grew so angry that he didnít say a single word in response. The worthy Knight then resolved the quarrel and restored normalcy and the party of pilgrims rode on their way.
The Pardonerís Tale is an exemplum used by preachers to dissuade people from falling into vices. The Pardoner reveals excellent oratory skills in his narrative. His tale moreover fulfills all the standard criteria of a good short story.
The Pardonerís physical appearance is revolting. He is a beardless man with a thin goat-like voice. Moreover he has waxy yellow hair, which hang from his head like strands of flax. He rides Ďdischeveleeí and his hood is in his bag. He sings a repulsive song about love along with the Summoner. Chaucer suggests in the "General Prologue" that the Pardoner is a eunuch. Yet he is able to hold his audience captive. The fact that this corrupt Pardoner tells a moral tale is itself ironic.
The Pardonerís Tale moralizes that the three debauchees brought death upon themselves by their avarice. The taleís agenda is against avarice. The riotous living and dissolute habits of the three men are only incidental sins. The Pardonerís central point of concern is avarice and denounces greed as the root of all evil.
However it is possible to see the three debauchees as projections of the Pardonerís own twisted personality. Like the three men of his story the Pardoner is self-deluded. The tale reflects his own inner turmoil and its tragic outcome is a forewarning of his own future end. The Pardoner however does not pay attention to this fact. As the greed of the debauchees resulted in their death, the Pardonerís avarice will result in his spiritual death.
The Pardoner is thus not only physically impotent but also spiritually impotent. He cannot see what is most apparent.
The Old man in the story has been the object of much interpretation. Critics have seen him variously as a mystic figure or even a symbol of death. However the old man represents age. He is in contrast with the boy at the tavern who represents youth. The old man symbolizes experience. He expresses an intense longing for death but cannot find release. The old man appears suddenly and also disappears suddenly. He tricks the debauchees by sending them up a crooked path that has ominous implications of the fall of mankind. In the case of the Pardoner who is a hypocrite, the old man is a symbol of hypocrisy as he deceives the three rogues who ultimately meet with their death.
Chaucer was a master of irony. The Pardonerís Tale is an excellent example of his irony. It is ironical that the Pardoner does not get the point of his own story.
The way the Pardoner ends his story is appropriate to his character. He tells the pilgrims to buy relics and pardons from him and absolve themselves of their sins. He further says that it is their good fortune that he is present among them for the salvation of their souls. This is a cheeky challenge to the pilgrims since they know his true colors. Moreover the Pardoner addresses the Host and asks him to lead his gang of pilgrims by setting the example himself. This angers the Host who humiliates the Pardoner by his cruel taunts about his sexual impotency and violation of his monastic vows. The Pardonerís angry silence can only be interpreted as an acceptance of defeat.