They sit down to drink their friend’s wine and celebrate, but each happens to pick up a poisoned bottle. Within minutes, they lie dead next to their friend. Thus, concludes the Pardoner, all must beware the sin of avarice, which can only bring treachery and death. He realizes that he has forgotten something: he has relics and pardons in his bag. According to his custom, he tells the pilgrims the value of his relics and asks for contributions—even though he has just told them the relics are fake. He offers the Host the first chance to come forth and kiss the relics, since the Host is clearly the most enveloped in sin (942). The Host is outraged and proposes to make a relic out of the Pardoner’s genitals, but the Knight calms everybody down. The Host and Pardoner kiss and make up, and all have a good laugh as they continue on their way.Read a translation of The Pardoner’s Tale →
We know from the General Prologue that the Pardoner is as corrupt as others in his profession, but his frankness about his own hypocrisy is nevertheless shocking. He bluntly accuses himself of fraud, avarice, and gluttony—the very things he preaches against. And yet, rather than expressing any sort of remorse with his confession, he takes a perverse pride in the depth of his corruption. The Pardoner’s earnestness in portraying himself as totally amoral seems almost too extreme to be accurate. His boasts about his corruption may represent his attempt to cover up his doubts or anxieties about the life of crime (in the name of religion) that he has adopted. It is possible to argue that the Pardoner sacrifices his own spiritual good to cure the sins of others. Yet he doesn’t seem to really consider his spiritual corruption a real sacrifice, since he loves the money and the comforts it brings him. Either way, he quickly covers up his statement, which shows at least a flicker of interest in the good of other people, with a renewed proclamation of his own selfishness: “But that is nat my principal entente; / I preche nothyng but for coveitise” (432–433).
The Pardoner’s Tale is an example, a type of story often used by preachers to emphasize a moral point to their audience. The Pardoner has told us in his Prologue that his main theme—“Greed is the root of all evil”—never changes. We can assume that the Pardoner is well practiced in the art of telling this specific tale, and he even inserts some of his sermon into it. The Pardoner’s point is quite obvious—his tale shows the disastrous effects of greed. The hypocrisy he has described in his Prologue becomes evident in his tale, as all the vices he lists in his diatribe at the beginning—gluttony, drunkenness, gambling, and swearing—are faults that he himself has either displayed to the other pilgrims or proudly claimed to possess. Ridiculously, when he has finished his condemnation of swearing, he begins the tale swearing his own oath: “Now, for the love of Crist, that for us dyde . . . now wol I telle forth my tale” (658–660). Such an overtly hypocritical act is perfectly consistent with the character that the Pardoner has presented to us, and an example of Chaucer’s typically wry comedy.
As if on automatic pilot, the Pardoner completes his tale just as he would when preaching in the villages, by displaying his false relics and asking for contributions. His act is intriguing, for he makes no acknowledgment of his hypocrisy. Only a few lines before, in his Prologue, he exposed to the entire company the fraudulence of his whole operation. It is inconceivable that he would now expect to get contributions from his fellow travelers—so why does he ask for them? Perhaps, like a professional actor, the Pardoner enjoys the challenge of telling his tale so convincingly that he tricks his audience into belief, even after he has explained to them his corrupt nature. Or perhaps he takes delight in showing the audience how his routine works, as an actor might enjoy showing people backstage. In any case, the Pardoner’s attempt to sell pardons to the pilgrims is a source of rancor for the Host, because, in trying to swindle the other pilgrims, the Pardoner has violated the Host’s notion of fellowship on which the storytelling pilgrimage is based.