Comparison of Relics and Advice in The Pardoner’s Tale

Discussion Question: Compare the Pardoner’s relics with his stories/advice.

While reading Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, it immediately became clear that there was a sharp contradiction between the Pardoner’s actions and words. He uses supposed ‘relics’ to make others see him as a “noble ecclesiaste”, but in reality both he and the relics are not what they appear to be (260). The Pardoner’s use of these holy objects directly contrasts with his sermons on the dangers of greed; he himself uses the relics to gain wealth and is therefore responsible for the very sin that he warns against. He does not seem to be ashamed of this fact and takes every opportunity to brag of it to his friends (312-315).  The Pardoner has a “tonge [that can] winne silver”, and he uses his gift with words to accumulate as much money as possible, and does not ever seem to consider the moral consequences that come about as a result of his selfish actions (260).

In The General Prologue, several of the Pardoner’s ‘holy’ objects are described by the narrator:

He saide he hadde a gobet of the sail

That Sainte Peter hadde whan that he wente

Upon the see, til Jesu Crist him hente.

He hadde a crois of laton, a ful of stones,

And in a glas he hadde pigges bones. (260)

It is nearly impossible that these relics are the actual objects from Biblical times. However, based on the Pardoner’s hypocritical nature, it is very likely that he is quite aware of this fact and chooses to use it to his own advantage. It is even mentioned in a footnote in the text that the Pardoner presents pig’s bones as saint’s bones to individuals who come to him for help (260). It is clear that he is using these objects to “[make] the…peple his apes” (260). In other words, the Pardoner is using the relics as a bribe for individuals; if they donate money to him, they will be forgiven of their sins, and will therefore be worthy “To offren to [his] relikes in this place” (313).  They have been led to believe by the Pardoner’s sermons that greed is a terrible crime for which many of them are guilty. What they do not realize is that the real criminal is standing before them giving them advice he himself does not follow.

Overall, it is arguable that the Pardoner’s fake relics reflect his own deceptive personality, and that they both are a sharp contrast to his supposedly ‘noble’ stories and pieces of advice. All of these ideas bring forward the question of whether Chaucer intended for us, as the readers, to hate the Pardoner for his crimes, or if we were meant to respect him for his skills of trickery? Furthermore, do all of his companions admire him as the Pardoner believes they do?

Works Cited:

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Norton Anthology of  English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc., 2012. 243-342. Print.

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3 Responses to Comparison of Relics and Advice in The Pardoner’s Tale

  1. Dane Thibeault says:

    Your insights regarding the evident juxtapositions between the character of the Pardoner and the narrative messages he aims to convey, have served to prompt some commentary of my own, regarding the text of The Canterbury Tales: more specifically, The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale. It is my critical hypothesis that Chaucer develops the Pardoner’s deceptive aptitude in order to lend proficiency to his presented narrative. If the Pardoner is to manipulate those around him within his contemporary experiences, then it may be inferred that he procures an advantage over his companions, with regards to how well equipped he is to develop a captivating story, aimed at satisfying victory within the narrative contest. Therefore, it is my deduction that Chaucer deliberately endows the Pardoner with traits of deception within the text of The Canterbury Tales with the stylistic intent of emphasizing fantasy and romanticism over reality—thus, the Pardoner is rendered as an enviable character, due alone to his enhanced capacity to develop an enticing and believable story, an ability attributed to his devious personality traits. In essence, therefore, those within The Canterbury Tales that are able to persuade those around them, or manipulate or distort the representation of reality or narrative, are appealing within the context of the story, as opposed to the context of actual life. Thus, my underlying assertion, regarding The Canterbury Tales as a collective literary entity, is that the text itself represents the disparities that exist between the life of an author and their surrounding contexts, and the narratives they produce: for instance, the narrator within Chaucer’s text disengages himself from responsibility for the descriptions of the characters involved with the journey of the pilgrimage and their presented tales, through justifying his own disclosure of the tales as a mere recollection or replication(through elaborating upon them in a metanarrative of sorts). In essence, then, an appropriate question for reflection would be: does Chaucer convey the contradictions between the character traits of the Pardoner and the messages he aims to represent through his narrative as his own convictions regarding the relationships between author and text? Is Chaucer, in effect, suggesting that it is an author of a text’s inherent instinct to distort reality, or otherwise “say one thing, and do another”? Therefore a further contemplation derives from such considerations: is the Pardoner the hypocrite, or is Chaucer more suited to this title? Regards,

    -Dane Thibeault

  2. rwhittaker says:

    The contradiction you mention between the Pardoner’s actions and words is an interesting discussion point, as there is juxtaposition not only between his actions and words, but also between his words themselves throughout different parts of his tale. The Pardoner openly admits that his relics are fake and that his only intent is to make money when he states that, “for myn entente is nat but for to winne” (The Pardoner’s Prologue, Line 115). Yet after the conclusion of his tale, the Pardoner offers his companions absolution from their sins, telling them that it is an honour
    “that ye have a suffisant pardoner” (The Pardoner’s Tale Line 644), as though he had never confessed to being fraudulent as aforementioned in the first quote.

    You ask the question of whether of not Chaucer intended the reader to admire the Pardoner for his trickery, or if we are meant to hate him for his crimes, I think it’s an interesting question aimed at ourselves, the readers, but also at the Pardoner’s companions. It is clear that the Host demonstrates distaste for the Pardoner’s actions, but the Knight however, does not seem nearly as offended and encourages the pair to essentially kiss and make up. What particularly offended the Host? Why wasn’t the knight nearly as upset?

    You state that the Pardoner has a deceptive personality, which as a reader I certainly agree with, but I’m curious about why the Pardoner – who is a seasoned in the act of dishonesty – would openly admit that he lies to earn a profit, and then still attempt to obtain a profit. Perhaps the Pardoner, who preaches day after day that “Avarice is the root of all evil”, is tired of his usual tricks and is looking for a challenge: telling the truth, and still making a profit. To answer your previously mentioned questions: do I respect the Pardoner for his crimes? Absolutely not, but do I respect him for his trickery? Maybe a little.

    I enjoyed reading your post, well done!
    – Reilly

  3. jddieu says:

    Dichotomy is a beautiful device that Chaucer employs within the text of the Pardoner’s Tale, giving a duality to both the relics and the word the pardoner preaches. This mechanism works well technically as a method of portraying the double-mindedness and vile state of the pardoner, juxtaposing the purity of his disguise against the evilness beside which, as has been mentioned in the lectures, may also act as a political commentary of the church during that period. As to whether we as the readers are meant to respect the pardoner’s devious skill set or to disdain his immoral actions, I find that the pardoner’s consciousness of his own ill-warranted deeds suggest a kind of gleeful, smug villainy that equates to a character one would love to hate. It is a portrait of a crook, cognizant of his crimes and yet harbours no guilt or remorse but in fact is willing to expound on his motives and his trade secrets. Above all, it seems as though the pardoner is a vessel from which Chaucer wishes to convey the true theme of the tale, not that “avarice is the root of evil” but a warning that we should be watchful for such hypocrisy, for such duplicity, that is ever-present.


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