Notes on the Pardoners Tale - Characters, Themes and Narrative techniques

Some notes on the characterisation, structure, themes and narrative techniques of the Pardoner's tale

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Notes on the Pardoner's Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer
From York Notes (and some personal thoughts)
CHARACTERISATION
The old man is the first and only person the three men meet. He speaks humbly and
simply but with a wisdom tinged with an air of mystery and melancholy. He is the only
character, apart from the three rogues, that speaks for any length or purpose in the tale.
It has often been questioned is he in league with death or death himself? Although
he greets the three rogues politely (`this olde man ful mekely hem grette') who simply
insult him in reply (`why livestow so longe in so greet age?'). It is interesting to note that
for a frail old man accosted by the three rogues the is not afraid of anything they say.
This suggests he may have hidden power or knowledge: if, for example, the old man
is death then he has no need to fear them.
If the rogues had actually listened to the old man, they would have noticed that what he is
saying is rather odd:
`I ne kan nat finde
A man, though that I had walked into Inde,
Neither in citee ne in no village,
That wolde chaunge his youthe for myn age'
Which is a rather odd and unappealing preposition: unless the old man is referring to
his immortality?
The old man paints a pitiful picture of himself:
`ne deeth, allas, ne wol nat han my lyf.
Thus walke I, lyk a restless kaitif,
And on the ground...
I knokke with my staf, bothe erly and late,
And seye, "Leeve, mooder, leet me in!"'
The fact that even death doesn't want him suggests mysteriously and somewhat eerily,
that the old man has in some way become immortal/is not allowed to die/has become
death himself.
The host is a lively and human figure in this otherwise dark and gothic tale. He serves
as an authorial voice that directs the narrative. He has a temper, and this is shown when
he is invited to pay the pardoner for a relic, he retaliates with the crude yet comical:
`I wolde I hadde thy coillons in myn hond
In stide of relikes or of seintuarie
Lat kutte hem of, I wol thee helpe hem carie

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They shul be shrined in an hogges toord!'
THEMES
Deception is present on many levels in the Pardoner's Tale:
The first element of deception could be considered the tale itself: the pardoner
never says whether the tale is true or not
The pardoner's life is based on deceiving people into parting with their money.
He is a habitual fraudster and enjoys the profits of his many deceptions.…read more

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Many of the relics the Pardoner mentions being in his bag `ycrammed ful of
cloutes and of bones' are physically unpleasant, and are the residue of physical
decay, bones and rags. This focus on physical decay reflects the moral and
spiritual corruption of the Pardoner
This focus on corruption increases the gothic mood of the prologue and tale ­ there is a
sense of darkness and macabre characteristic to gothic literature.…read more

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John Wyclif (132084) was condemned as a heretic in 1376 when he made his
treatise `De Dominio Devine' which claimed that all authority was founded on
grace, and that wicked kings, popes and priests therefore should not hold power.
As a philosopher and widelyread man, he would have moved in the same
intellectual world as Chaucer and it is very likely that Chaucer would have read
Wyclif's works.…read more

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Death
In the time of literalism when Chaucer was alive, Death personified was real for
many people. When people literally believed in the physical presence of a
heaven, hell, and angels etc., `Death' as a thief stealing the souls of men was a
very real fear. This can be seen in the Pardoner's tale, when the boy says `ther
cam a privee theef man clepeth Deeth' (L 389).…read more

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The sudden digression from the Tale to sermonising, can be read as a device to
create anticipation amongst the listeners.
Not until line 374 does the story begin: a short, brilliantly focused moral story
illustrating the claim that money is the root of all evil.
Both the Pardoner's Prologue and the Pardoner's Tale form one narrative unit centred
around the Pardoner. They fit together to present a highly effective moral tale and reveal
much about the Pardoner as a character within the group of Pilgrims.…read more

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