The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale
The Wife of Bath and the Pardoner are both given particularly ample space to expose their own way of living before telling their Tales, in developed Prologues which have certain qualities in common. In both cases, the speaker seems unaware that the hearers (the readers) might not be so full of admiration as they seem to be about themselves. Both speak in a rather boasting mode about lives and actions which others might find less than appealing. The Pardoner's Prologue is less lengthy than the Wife of Bath's but serves to provide a powerfully ironic frame to the sermon that forms the body of his Tale. The Prologue serves to make us aware of the difference that can exist between a Tale and its Teller.
Critics often call the form used in these two Prologues 'literary confession' but neither of Chaucer's characters expresses any sign of regret. Rather, the two prologues are rooted in satirical traditions in which a figure embodying some vice speaks a 'confession,' almost entirely without shame, illustrating the way it lives. Chaucer found examples of this in the Romance of the Rose, the Pardoner's Prologue has some vague similarities with the figure Faux-Semblant (False Seeming) found there.
As seen in the General Prologue, a pardoner is a layman who sells pardons or indulgences, certificates from the pope by which people hoped to gain a share in the merits of the saints and escape more lightly from the pains of Purgatory after they died. This particular Pardoner works for a religious house notorious for fraud in this trade. Just as the indulgence bought with money seems to make confession, absolution and repentance unnecessary, so the fact that pardoners had permission to preach in the churches led to a confusion between them and ordained priests (who alone had power to absolve sinners from guilt).
There was widespread dissatisfaction with pardoners (as also with money-loving Friars) in Chaucer's time, and both were popular subjects of satire and joking. This can be found especially in parts of Piers Plowman, which Chaucer may have known. There was a fully developed satire of the avarice and corruption manifested by so many people associated with the Church, an awareness of the failure of many to practice the teachings of Christ. In Chaucer's age that gave birth to the challenge expressed by Wyclif and the Lollards, which in turn later found full expression in Luther's protest and the Reformation.
In the General Prologue, the Pardoner was portrayed as a very strange creature indeed, with physical features suggesting that he is some kind of eunuch and with a faint suggestion of sexual deviancy. None of that plays any role in the Pardoner's Prologue and Tale, which are entirely centered on the Pardoner's professional activities.
At the start of his self-presentation in the Prologue, the Pardoner tells us that he preaches in churches and that he always preaches the same sermon, which he knows by heart, on the text "Greed is the root of evils". He begins by establishing his legal rights, for Pardoners were unpopular with parish priests, as Friars were, since they took money which otherwise might have gone to them.
He begins by advertising a private sideline having nothing to do with his work as Pardoner. He has a collection of 'sacred relics,' bones and rags for which he claims supernatural powers, able to cure sick animals, increase wealth, and make husbands trust unfaithful wives. These desirable effects are all available for a small fee, and he uses a familiar trick to encourage the unwilling to come forward by insisting that those guilty of sin, especially unfaithful wives, must stay in their places and not offer him money. As a result, he expects, no one will dare to hold back. He boasts that this relic-business brings him a hundred marks a year in private income.
Then turning to his preaching, he begins by stressing that his only goal is to get people's money; he expresses total indifference to the fate of their souls in a mocking reference to eternal damnation as 'goon a blackeberyed'. The only other reason he has for preaching is hatred: to attack and defame someone who has dared insult pardoners.
The strongest irony comes in lines (Riverside) 427-31 when he explains that avarice (greed) is his own vice and at the same time (line 425 'therefore') the vice he preaches against with such powerful effect that he brings people to repent of their avarice sincerely (but not himself, he is glad to note). His only concern is that, realizing their sinfulness, they give him money to benefit from his pardons. All the money he gets he seems to regard as his own and he explains that he does not intend to be like Christ's apostles who worked hard with their hands; he does not care if he takes from very poor people, so that their children starve, so long as he can enjoy himself. He ends by stressing the irony: he himself is 'a full vicious man; yet he can tell a moral tale.
As the sermon (the Tale) begins, we become aware that there is an additional layer of irony. The sermon he preaches is not only against love of money as such, it first attacks all the 'tavern sins' of lechery, gluttony, drunkenness, which are allied with gambling (a way of getting money without work) and blasphemous swearing, which leads finally to anger, lying, and murder. Before the Prologue began, in the link passage providing the transition from the Physician's Tale to the Pardoner's Prologue, the Host asks the Pardoner to tell 'some mirth or japes' ('solas'). His response is to insist that he must have a drink in an alehouse first. The pilgrims reject the Host's suggestion and demand 'some moral thing' from which they may learn ('sentence'). The Pardoner accepts their request, but he prepares for it by having a drink. He is not only guilty of avarice, but also of frequenting taverns.
The Pardoner's opening denunciation of the tavern sins gains its force by two main strategies. First, he evokes the ugliness associated with each of the sins, provoking physical disgust; in addition he uses exclamations (apostrophe) to denounce the sins. Second, he lards his sermon with biblical and classical references, giving examples of the sin and its punishment or quotations attacking it.
In line (Riverside) 660 he finally intervenes to indicate the start of what he considers to be his 'Tale' although his sermon has begun long before. The Tale is the central, developed exemplum forming the central 'punch' of his attack on avarice. It is the well-known tale of the three 'riotours' who end up killing each other for greed.
This exemplum is widely admired (like the Miller's Tale) for the sheer artistry of its composition. It develops far beyond the strict demands of its sermon-frame, as can be seen from the entire opening section, in which the riotours are confronted by the personification of Death and set out with drunken bravado, like knights on a fantastic adventure, to kill Death. This serves to bring them face to face with the Old Man at the stile who longs to die (because his life is over and his conscience is at peace), who chides them for their violent language and insulting attitude, then prays that God will bring them to repentance as he directs them toward the grove where, he says, Death awaits them.
None of this is strictly necessary, all that is required is: "One day three friends discovered a pile of treasure hidden in a forest." The accumulation of detail, particularly the much- discussed Old Man, serves to bring increased irony (even poetic and religious depth) to the exemplum that then follows its familiar course to the disaster. The story is an exemplum illustrating not so much the text "Greed is the root of all evil" as the (unquoted) text "the wages of sin is death".
The Pardoner continues his memorized sermon to its standard conclusion which includes an invitation to come up and make offerings to receive the pardons. When this is done he turns triumphantly to the Pilgrims: "And lo, sires, thus I preach." This ought to be the end, only he cannot stop there. He may be thought to see that his Tale has had its usual effect, that the Pilgrims too are pondering deeply on their own forms of greed. He sees an occasion to make some extra money and (being greedy) cannot resist it. He becomes the eager salesman and forgets that he has begun by treating the Pilgrims as sharers in his secrets (which includes his contempt of the gullible people who believe his descriptions of his 'relics').
He pinpoints the Host (who keeps a tavern) as most likely to be feeling guilty of tavern sins and tries to pressure him. The result is a dispute that the Knight has to resolve, by forcing the Host and the Pardoner to kiss so that an atmosphere of harmony and mirth ('let us laugh and play') can be restored.
The main interest of the Pardoner's Prologue and Tale, taken as a whole, is the complexity of the irony. In the overall exploration of the functions of sentence and solas in the Canterbury Tales, we see here how a Tale can contain deep sentence and yet be told by a teller who is completely untouched by it, so firmly committed he is to the opposite values. The Pardoner has composed this wonderfully powerful Tale (sermon) in such a way as to move his hearers to the utmost. Only his motivation in doing this is not love (a desire to save them from their sins) but vice (a desire to make them anxious so that they give him much money).
This recalls the classical debate about whether a deed can be termed a 'good action' if it is done for bad reasons, with evil intentions. The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale confronts us with the question (already posed in other ways by the Miller's Tale) as to what makes a 'good' story. Can a 'good tale' (a potentially prize-winning one) be termed 'good' when it is told by such a shameless scoundrel for entirely selfish and indeed sinful reasons? Is this nonetheless a 'moral tale'?
Such questions make it clear that Chaucer was sensitive to the role of the reader / hearer in the interpretation and evaluation of texts. The complexities of response to the Pardoner's tale-telling may be compared to the equally complex responses provoked by the Clerk's Tale, be it within the text, or among its readers. The Pardoner is a prime example of one who refuses to listen, whose folly or disbelief (which is it?) is such that he firmly opts for this world's petty happiness ('Nay, I wol drynke licour of the vyne / And have a joly wench in every toun.' (Riverside 452-3)) And to hell with hell!