Chaucer’s Pardoner: Hate Him or Love Him?
The character of the Pardoner in Chaucer’s ‘The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale’ is a controversial, ethically depraved character that, it could be said, represents corruption within the Catholic Church. As the narrator of the tale, however, he brings appeal to his character through his skill as a storyteller, his wit, and his blunt preference of evil, which disregards the conventions and moral standards of Medieval England. Although the reader will clearly disapprove of the Pardoner’s character ethically, it could be reasoned that he is likeable from a dramatic viewpoint.
It could be argued that the Pardoner’s evil nature is somewhat charismatic, as he bluntly refuses to conform to Christian morality. In the Pardoner’s prologue, he unashamedly declares how he ‘telle a hundred false lapes’ to extract money from his congregations. In terms of dramatic judgement, it is entertaining and interesting to observe a character that seems proud of the fact that he ‘preche of no-thing but for coveityse’. In Medieval society, the Catholic Church was a politicised, domineering force that constantly reminded people of their own mortality and impending punishment in purgatory or hell if they sin. People, especially the less educated ones, were controlled by the Church because they lived in fear of such punishment. The way that the Pardoner gives no thought to the consequence of his greed and avarice gives the readers the impression that he is daring, and might make them admire him for not allowing the Church to intimidate him and dictate his behaviour. For these reasons, the Pardoner could be seen as a likable character; in some ways, like a Gothic hero, because of his lack of regard for conventional morality and preference of sin and evil over the principles imposed on society by the Catholic Church.
The Pardoner is an educated, skilled storyteller who makes his tale vibrant and appealing. He shows his experience as a storyteller when he talks about his techniques, such as how: ‘in chirches whan I preche, I peyne me to han an hauteyn speche, And ringe it out as round as gooth a belle’, which displays his confidence in himself as a speaker and performer. When he tells his tale, he uses biblical examples to confirm his teaching, such as the story of what happens to ‘that drunken Loth’ when he condemns excessive drinking to be a form of gluttony. As he spins his tale, his description of the three immoral men who ‘at otheres sinne lough’ makes his speech engaging, as it has an interesting storyline, rather than it being simply a demoralising lecture. Therefore, it could be argued that the Pardoner’s skill as a speaker and storyteller makes him more agreeable as a character, at least in terms of dramatic judgement.
The character of the Pardoner might also be seen as appealing because he creates moments of humour in ‘The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale’. Some readers would find the irony that he does ‘preche agayn that same vyce/ Which that I use, and that is avaryce’ amusing, and find his character more likable for it. The Pardoner also brings humour through crudeness, such as the statement about hw ‘Whan man so drinketh of the whyte and rede/ That of his throte he maketh his privee’, and hyperbole; he states that he would take money from ‘the povrest widwe in a village/ Al sholde hir children sterve for famyne’, which is so exaggerated that it suggests that Chaucer makes the Pardoner a figure of satire. Readers might like the Pardoner from the point of view of a dramatic judgment, because he makes his tale entertaining through the use of many different examples of humour.
However, from the point of view of a moral judgment, there is not much to like about the Pardoner. The way that he exploits innocent people for the sole purpose of ‘to winne/ And no-thing for correccioun of sinne. I rekke never, whan that they ben beried/ Though that her soules goon a-blakeberied!’ shows such selfishness and greed that the reader will deeply disapprove of his actions and attitude. He calls the people ‘lewed’ for being less educated than him, and intimidates them into submission; when someone displeases him, he does ‘stinge him with my tonge smerte/ In preching’, so that the people feel compelled to respect him. Snake-like imagery is used to emphasise the Pardoner’s scheming, evil nature, when he ‘spitte I out my venim under hewe/ Of holynesse’. His greed and avarice is shown when he demands to have ‘money, wolle, chese, and whete’, despite of the fact that he has taken a vow of poverty as part of his priesthood. The Pardoner admits himself that he is ‘a ful vicious man’, who lives a wicked, depraved life of schemes, lies, avarice and self-indulgence, which the reader will loathe him for, if they are judging his actions from a moral, rather than dramatic, viewpoint.
If the social context of ‘The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale’ is considered, the reader also disapproves of the character because he appears to be the embodiment of all the corruption and hypocrisy within the Medieval Catholic Church. The Pardoner does not seem to give any consideration to the moral teachings or true meaning of the Christian faith; instead, he uses his position as a pardoner and his knowledge of the scriptures to take advantage of people and fulfil his greed. He deceives people by presenting ‘cloutes and of bones’ as relics to them, and manipulates them into buying them with false assurances that they will cure their ill animals and ‘heeleth jalousie’. He further exploits the people by cleverly pressurising them into buying the relics by telling them that anyone ‘That hath doon sinne horrible…Or any womman, be she yong or old/ That hath y-maad hir housbond cokewold’, will not be able to make use of the relics, so that the whole congregation feels compelled to buy his relics to prove their innocence to their neighbours. The Pardoner is proud of the fact that ‘By this gaude have I wonne, yeer by yeer,/ An hundred mark sith I was Pardoner’, which shows his avarice and lack of moral principles. Another abhorrent quality that the Pardoner boasts of is his hypocrisy; ‘Thus can I preche agayn that same vyce/ Which that I use, and that is avaryce’. In Chaucer’s time, when life expectancy was low and people were very aware of their mortality, they looked to Pardoners in the hope that their sin could be redeemed so that they might find salvation from hell; a concept that the Church terrorised them with. The way that the Pardoner takes advantage of the people’s fear of eternal punishment for material gain could be seen to represent the greed, deceitful schemes and intimidating teachings of the wider Catholic Church, which encouraged people to achieve their salvation and appease their sins by buying into relics like those the Pardoner presents. For this abuse of power and moral decadence, some readers might feel great aversion towards the character of the Pardoner.
To conclude, there are two different ways of observing the undeniably evil character of the Pardoner from Chaucer’s ‘The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale’. From the point of view of a dramatic judgment, he is likable for his charisma, his Gothic refusal to conform to the principles of Catholism, his skill as a storyteller, and the moments of humour he brings to the tale. If the Pardoner is judged morally, however, it is impossible to find anything to commend him; he is almost overly debauched and greedy. As he is an unchanging character, who could be seen as Chaucer’s representation of the way the hypocritical Catholic Church abused its power in Medieval England, it could be reasoned that he is a loathsome character that is dramatically interesting and entertaining to read about. Therefore, I agree that the reader does find himself liking the character of the Pardoner, despite disapproving of his moral character.
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