Characterisation of the Pardoner in The Pardoner's Tale

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The Pardoner

  • The Pardoner is the only fully-developed character in The Pardoner's Tale and as a result we know a lot about him, mostly through his own confessions but also from Chaucer, standing back as an observer (through The General Prologue)
  • We also gain some understanding of the Pardoner from remarks made to him by other pilgrims. Critics regard the Pardoner as the most complex and fully realised character in all of The Canterbury Tales.
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The Pardoner

  • The voice of the Pardoner - loud, upbeat, rhetorically confident and unabashed - sings out from every line of his Tale.
  • He is sure of everything he says and convinced that he has the skill to hold an audience with his personal confession, sermonising and storytelling.
  • He is confident that he will always create the effect upon them that he intends (which is why he is so shocked at the Host's outburst at the end of The Tale)
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The Pardoner

  • The Pardoner explains to the pilgrims with brazen honesty what he does and why.
  • He cheats simple country parsons & their congregations because he wants their money to fund a comfortable life for himself. No detailed motivation for this is provided, as we might expect from a character in a modern novel.
  • Chaucer broke away from many literary conventions. For example, in the literature of the Middle Ages the link between good deeds and reward, and bad deeds and punishment, was expected. To suggest that good deeds could go unrewarded or villainy go unpunished broke both artistic and moral codes.
  • Yet the Pardoner is a rogue who apparrently gets away his villainy, and even more shocking, revels in what he does.
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The Pardoner

  • Added to the novelty and shock of this is the fact that many of the pilgrims, and Chaucer's readers, would have seen this reflected in what happened in reality. Corrupt pardoners were ill-regarded figures in the popular imagination in the Middle Ages.
  • It can be suggested that Chaucer, in creating such a corrupt character, is implying criticism of the Church.
  • He is suggesting that the Church, through its dominance of social and spiritual life, creates characters like the Pardoner & that such characters inevitably lack the self-will, even the self-awareness, to act in any different way.
  • The notion of self-determination, of people being able to control their destiny through changing their personality, was not part of the mind set of the Middle Ages.
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The Pardoner

  • The fact that the Pardoner explains in such detail what he does, how he appears to be one thing but is really another, is a remarkable feat of invention by Chaucer.
  • His 'confession' of his true self is completely bound up with the Tale he actually tells and the narrative frame he sets it within. It is sufficient here to remind ourselves that he is quite happy to confess that he is a hypocrite, constantly committing the very sin of greed that he preeches against. He says plainly "I preche nothing but fpr coveitise".
  • Neither Chaucer the author nor any of the pilgrims makes any direct criticism of what the Pardoner does, possibly because at the time Chaucer was writing the sstem of pardoners was widely regarded as totally corrupt.
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The Pardoner

  • True, the Host is furious with the Pardoner at the end of the Tale, but this is a personal altercation.
  • We imagine that if he had not been singled out as a sinner in special need of a pardon, the Host owuld have been as quiet as everyone else at the end of the Tale.
  • Chaucer's description of the Pardoner in The General Prologue might suggest a woman in disguise. We may think that if the pilgrims read the Pardoner's appearance in this way, this might add another layer to the disdain they feel towards him.
  • However, in medieval times people thought more about individual sexual acts and relationships than an individuals sexual identity, and so Chaucer's pilgrims might be more tolerant of the Pardoner's sexuality than we might imagine.
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The Pardoner

  • The modern reader, however, is entitled to wonder whether the Pardoner is telling the truth about his plan to marry in The wife of Bath's Prologue , or whether he is trying to persuade the pilgrims that he is as heterosexual as the bluff and energetic Host with whom he has just argued.
  • There is no way to tell, but it is a measure of Chaucer's skill as a writer controlling the whole structure of his work, that he slips in this curious comment from the Pardoner after he has so extensively revealed his character in his Tale.
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The Pardoner

  • One question we can't answer about the Pardoner is whether he actually believes in God.
  • If he does, then his desire for a good life for himself is stronger than his religious convictions.
  • If he doesn't then he is doubly hypocritical, pretending to hold a belief he doesn't subscribe to in order to defraud those who do.
  • There is no evidence in the text to argue this issue either way. However, if we consider the Pardoner as a character of this time, we might conclude that it would be very remarkable indeed if he were an agnostic or an atheist.
  • More likely he belives in a Christian god in some basic way, but not in the authority of his Church as an organisation on earth.
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