Hypocrisy in the Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale
Chaucer’s Pardoner is hypocritical, selfish and unreliable despite his tacit desire to preach and encourage others to pursue a life free of blasphemy, gluttony and materialism. The Pardoner appears to be highly familiar with the Bible and the authorities of the Church, and generally delivers convincing arguments against sin, but it is impossible for a reader to absorb his message without taking into consideration his audacious and hypocritical nature. Underlying this is the question of whether such an immoral character as the Pardoner is capable of telling a moral tale. This conflict of ideas is what renders the Pardoner such an intriguing character.
One element of the Pardoner’s Tale with moral value is the concept that ‘yiftes of Fortune and of Nature been cause of deeth to many a creature’. He describes three young rioters who discover a large amount of gold, which eventually results in their deaths. Therefore, the Pardoner is presented as having grounds to his argument and the story he tells does have a moral to it: selfishness and greed are vices ultimately punishable by death. ‘Radix malorum est Cupiditas’ serves as a motto of sorts, which the Pardoner quotes a number of times throughout the Tale, fortifying his lesson with the starkly negative and frightening words: ‘death’ and ‘Cupiditas’. The primary problem here, however, is that the Pardoner himself is selfish and is very much characterised throughout the Prologue and Tale as being obsessed with money and avarice. This obsession has led to his spiritual death, which he seems not to have realised.
In a similar light, the Pardoner openly admits to fooling people and making a living at the expense of others. He quite casually declares to his accompanying pilgrims: ‘from this gaude have I wonne, year by year’. This depicts the Pardoner as a manipulative character who seizes any money-making opportunity. Chaucer’s adverbial phrase ‘year by year’ suggests a proud relishing on the Pardoner’s part, as though he gets as much pleasure from duping the people to whom he preaches as from earning the money itself. That he calls these people ‘lewed’ reveals his contempt for his uneducated, simple congregations. He also admits to preying on the vulnerable, for example ‘the good-man that the beestes oweth’: he selects the na?ve, unsophisticated citizens of rural, pastoral communities. Both the adjective ‘lewed’ and the noun ‘gaude’ inhabit a negative semantic field, with which the Pardoner feels quite comfortable to align himself, thus implying an open, perhaps ‘savage’, immorality.
On the other hand, the Pardoner instructs his audience against ‘dronkenesse’ in a structured, coherent argument, which gives his lesson a genuine, moral quality. He explains that ‘a lecherous thing is wyn’, warning that alcohol leads to ‘wrecchednesse’. The assonantal rhyme of ‘lecherous’ with ‘wrecchedness’ echoes the Pardoner’s apparent feeling of disgust for those who resort to drinking alcohol. To strengthen his diatribe against it, he lists the negative effects of alcohol on its consumers: ‘sour is thy breath’, ‘foul artow to embrace’. The adjectives ‘sour’ and ‘foul’, coupled with the informal pronominal choice ‘thy’, serve to attack drunkards for their behaviour and, therefore, add a moral quality to the Pardoner’s sermon. This is further enhanced by his utterance ‘dronkenesse is verray sepulture’, which frightens his audience with the risk of losing its reputation, mind and sense of reason. His preaching against alcohol is summed-up by his belief that ‘soverein actes…of victories in the Olde Testament…were doon in abstinence and in preyere’: all good deeds in the Bible were done by sober gentlemen, encouraging his audience to pursue a pure, wholesome lifestyle. His persuasive end to this section, ‘ye may it leere’, invites his listeners to reflect upon the dangers of alcohol and experience for themselves the benefits of living without it.
In spite of this, Chaucer characterises the Pardoner as being preoccupied by alcohol, which suggests an unreliable quality. Before telling his tale, the Pardoner explains that he ‘wol…drinke’, implying that he somewhat relies on alcohol as a means of controlling himself and his thoughts; hence the rhyme of ‘thinke’ with ‘drinke’, which depicts the Pardoner as untrustworthy and, as the reader discovers throughout the Prologue and Tale, inconsistent. This preoccupation with alcohol is also emphasised by the rhyme of ‘clinke’ and ‘drinke’: all of these sounds echo his fondness of alcohol and so reveal his hypocritical streak for preaching against something in which he frequently partakes. He even compares ‘a draughte of moiste and corny ale’ to a ‘triacle’, suggesting that alcohol in some way remedies him. His detailed knowledge of ‘the white wyn of Lepe’ and ‘Spaigne’ further illustrates his fancy for liquor, which presents him as even more inconsistent with his teachings against it.
In the Prologue to the Tale, when the Pardoner is about to begin his narrative, Chaucer establishes a contrast between ‘gentils’ and ‘ribaudye’. The Pardoner is immediately distanced morally from the other pilgrims, who, from experience, find him prone to talking of crude, filthy matters. However, they do invite him to tell them a moral tale, which ‘wol we gladly here’. This founds the underlying debate of whether a character such as the Pardoner is able to tell a moral tale. He contradicts himself by encouraging his congregation towards the very sin against which he preaches; he details the rewards that his listeners will experience for purchasing pardons and relics from him. The descriptions of ‘stoor shal multiplie’ and ‘shal have multiplying of his grain’ focus purely on material gain, rather than spiritual, which is precisely what the Pardoner attacks his congregation for. This highlights his inconsistent, hypocritical nature, which suggests overall that he cannot successfully tell a moral tale, despite his claim that ‘for though myself be a ful vicious man, a moral tale yet I you telle kan’.
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