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Free Study Guide-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free BookNotes
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CHARACTER ANALYSIS

The Summoner

The Summoner was a church official who was responsible for summoning the sinners before the ecclesiastical courts. Chaucer shows his extreme loathing and hatred for the two characters of the corrupt Summoner and Pardoner. He groups them together as joint partners in spiritual crime and makes the Pardoner accompany his brother the Summoner in a bawdy song about lustful love. The Summoner possesses disgusting physical features that reflect the sordid state of his soul. His fiery red pimpled cherubic face is the direct result of his sinful and lecherous activities. His food habits are far from sober. His delight in eating garlic, onions and leek and his fondness for wine further aggravates his physical condition. He suffers from some kind of leprosy. The Summoner appears extremely repulsive with suppurating blotches on his cheeks, black scabby eyebrows and scanty beard. It is hardly surprising that innocent children are afraid of his gruesome appearance. Chaucer sarcastically approves of the Summoner saying that there wasnít a friendlier rascal to be found.


The Summoner would allow a sinner to keep a mistress for an entire year just in return for a quart of wine. He is sympathetic to such people because in all likelihood he commits the same sin himself. The Summoner is also illiterate and broadcasts his ignorance by repeating a few Latin phrases when drunk. The extent of his entire knowledge lies in the refrain, "Questio quid iuris?" (The question is what is the law?). The Summonerís moral depravity can be glimpsed from his views on excommunication. He is ever ready to forgo excommunicating a sinner if he is sure of a hefty bribe and proclaims that purse is the archdeaconís hell. This means that the punishment is to the sinnerís purse rather than to his soul. This corrupt Summoner extorts protection money from every gullible sinner by threatening them of excommunication At this point Chaucer directly speaks and states that every man should fear the archdeaconís curse:

"of excommunication since it will certainly kill his soul just as absolution will save it. This gluttonous Summoner carries a shield of cake or loaf and his head is garlanded with flowers. There is a consistent strain of moral disgust, outrage and loathing throughout the Summonerís portrait."

The Pardoner

If the Summoner received Chaucerís unmitigated disapproval, the Pardoner is a personification of absolute evil. A Pardoner sells papal indulgences and relics. He preached that Papal indulgences pardoned the sins committed in oneís life and ensured a place in purgatory instead of hell. Pardoners made a commercial business out of sale of indulgences as they made them easily available through payment of money. Chaucerís Pardoner has come straight from Rome with a bag overstuffed with indulgences. He also carries false relics to cheat naïve people. These include a pillow case which had served as the Virginís veil, the piece of sail with which St. Paul went to sea until Christ caught him, and a glass jar filled with pigís bones. He has duped many innocent parsons and his parishioners by selling them false indulgences and relics. He confesses in the Prologue to his Tale, that, he knows the exact method of extorting money from people by preaching against the avarice of money. The hypocritical Pardoner has repulsive physical features. His sparse waxy yellow hair hangs limply by the sides like strands of flax. His glaring hare like eyes, small goat like voice and absence of facial hair indicates that he is a eunuch. He rides Ďdischeveleeí and his hood is in his bag. He wears a vernicle on his cap to indicate his official authority. His special skill lies in singing at the offertory to extract maximum money from the people. The Pardoner does not invite Chaucerís gentle irony but harsh sarcasm. There is an outright condemnation of the Pardonerís mal-practices and moral corruption.

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