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The Pardoner's Tale is arguably the finest short
narrative in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The tale of three men
that attempt to kill Death, but instead die themselves is a story of
exceptional intellect, moral, and humour. These three qualities are quite
unsurprising considering the actual author of these tales. What is
surprising though is that the character that tells this fantastic story is
the Pardoner. There have been many studies on Chaucer's characterisation
of the Pardoner, most of which have concentrated on his amoral attitude or
on his sexuality. However, in this essay a different side of the Pardoner
will be explored, his humour, his intellect, his skills, and even his
morals. One work in particular stands out above from others in both its
completeness and in the time of its publication. Chaucer's Pardoner by
George Lyman Kittredge, published in 1893, precludes the current
outspoken, post-modernist academic paradigm in which much of the study on
the character of the Pardoner has centered on him as a eunuch and a
homosexual. Instead Kittredge examines the Pardoner as an intelligent
scoundrel that experiences a internal moral dilemma during the prologue,
tale and epilogue. Kittredge's work focuses on the consistency of the
character of the Pardoner. First, the Pardoner as a hustler is examined.
For myn entente is nat but for to winne, And no thing for correction of
sinne: I rekke nevere whan that they been beried Though that hir soules
goon a-blakeberied. That is, as Kittredge makes note, the Pardoner is only
concerned with his personal financial gain. He has no concern for the
reformation of morals or for the truthfulness genuineness of those people
attempting to repent. Further evidence of the Pardoner as an immoral
swindler is exemplified in his lack of concern for stealing from the poor
and starving. Al were it yiven of the poorest page, Or of the pooreste
widwe in a village- Al sholde hir children sterve for famine. It makes no
difference to him if he is swindling widows or their starving children.
Further example of the Pardoner as an amoral character is shown with his
denounciation of the seven mortal sins. In keeping with his hypocritical
and cynical attitude, he is guilty of all seven. This last portion is
generally used to show the evils of the Pardoner but instead another
interpretation is made possible by his frank cynicism. The Pardoner is a
very humorous character when he has the opputunity to be himself rather
than the clergyman that he must pretend to be while conducting his
business. This is best shown in the manner in which he denounces his
practise and the reagard in which he holds himself. The humour of the
Pardoner also coincides very well with his intellect and wit. This tale
shows his intelligence and wit especially in the discussion between the
three companions and the old man. Now sires, quod he, if that ye be so
lief To finde Deeth, turne up this crooked way, For in that grove I lafte
him, by my fay, Under a tree, and there he wol abide: Nat for your boost
he wol him no thing hide. In this dialogue the companions are seeking the
person of Death, while the old man is instead directing them where they
may find their deaths. Now although this is just one example of the
combination of humour and intelligence in the character of the Pardoner,
his true intelligence is best exemplified by the rest of the story that
surrounds this dialogue. It also seems that the intelligence of the
Pardoner has become known to his fell travellers. And right anoon thise
gentils gan to crye, Nay, lat him telle us of no ribaudye. Tel us some
moral thing that we may lere, Some wit, and thanne wol gladly heere. His
companions do not want some vulgar joking tale, they want an intelligent
moral story and the Pardoner readily delivers with the tale of the three
companions seeking out Death. His skill as an orator of tales is
undeniably fantastic, and we experience him at his best in this tale. His
aptitude at storytelling has also allowed him to show his skill as an
adept hustler. His business has brought him over a hundred marks in his
first year, which at the time was a fair sum of money. The manner in which
he gained this money is shown in the epilogue to the Pardoner's Tale. This
immoral, unscrupulous, intelligent and humorous character has been
psychologized in many other English papers. A common conclusion is that
during the Epilogue he is being serious in his request for money from his
companions. This interpretation degrades the intelligence and skill of the
Pardoner in that he has already told his fellow travellers he is a fraud
and to ask money of them at this point would be superhuman folly.
Kittredge dedicates a large portion of his argument in defence of the
Pardoner's rant during the epilogue. His conclusion is that the tale the
Pardoner told has left him in a state of moral dilemma. The Pardoner is
confused by his mixed emotions and the seriousness that has overtaken him.
He allows his speech to go on for too long to allow some joculiarity into
the serious tone that has presented itself. It is clear that the Pardoner
is not an easy character to understand. He is at times immoral and quite
deceitful. While at others he is honest and humorous. The main division
therefore lies in whether the weight is placed on his actions or on his
words. Word Count: 930

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