Derek Pearsall - "Chaucer's Pardoner: The Death of a Salesman"

Of all the Canterbury Tales, the Pardoner's Tale is the most fully articulated within its dramatic context. The description of the Pardoner in the General Prologue is entirely and in detail consistent with the Pardoner's account of himself in his Prologue, where he gives a more extended description of his ways of "affiling" his tongue to win silver, and the tricks by which he gets money out of his simple-minded audiences, particularly his use of false relics. The tale that he tells grows directly out of his autobiographical Prologue, being in its entirety a specimen of the kind of moral tale that be is wont to use in his preaching. At the conclusion, the dramatic framework is completed with an extended end- piece where the Pardoner explicitly signals the termination of his recital 1 and turns again to the pilgrims, his primary audience. The exchange that follows, between Pardoner, Host, and Knight, is one of the very few occasions where Chaucer allows the pilgrimage frame to admit a conversation between more than two persons (the Introduction to the Tale, with the expostulation of "thise gentils,' is another). For good measure, there is the intrusion of the Pardoner into the Wife of Bath's Prologue, which is the only occasion in the Canterbury Tales where a pilgrim is interrupted in full spate and then resumes. Kittredge, though acknowledging that the Pardoner is a lost soul," clearly wishes to find in him some traits of disfigured humanity, and reads the explicit of the Tale as a paroxysm of agonized sincerity, a moment of moral convulsion, "an ejaculation profoundly affecting in its reminiscence of the Pardoner's better nature, which he had himself thought dead long ago."2 Sympathy for the

Page 359

tortured soul of the Pardoner was forthcoming from a different quarter some years later, when Walter Clyde Curry, basing his argument on the physical features attributed to the Pardoner in the General Prologue -- his long fair hair, his glaring eyes, his thin, high-pitched voice, his beardlessness - and the hint in line 691, "I trowe he were a geldyng or a mare," revealed "the Pardoner's secret" and pronounced him to be a congenital eunuch, or eunuchus ex nativitate.3 Curry detects a wistful sadness in the Pardoner's talk of his plans to get married (in the Wife of Bath's Prologue), and declares that he is more to be pitied than censured:

Born a eunuch and in consequence provided by nature with a warped mind and soul, he is compelled to follow the urge of his unholy impulses into debauchery, vice and crime. Being an outcast from human society, isolated both physically and morally, he satisfies his depraved instincts by preying upon it. His character is consistent throughout both with itself and with nature as described in the physiognomies (p. 70).

This has proved a very influential reading of the Pardoner's nature, and provides the basis for the standard iconographic interpretation of the Pardoner, as expounded by R. P. Miller.4 According to this interpretation, which derives from patristic distinctions between good and bad eunuchs (distinctions required by the contradiction between Deut. 23:1 and Isa. 56:3), the Pardoner is the type of the perverse cleric who is sterile in good works, impotent to multiply the number of the faithful, lacking in the organs of spiritual generation and increase.

But the outspokenness of our age has allowed attention to dwell also on the neglected second term of equine comparison applied to the Pardoner, and to identify him as a practitioner of "thilke abhoinynable synne, of which that no man unnethe oghte speke ne write."5 The association of effeminacy (the mare) with homosexuality is age-old, and several of the physical features attributed to the Pardoner concur in suggesting that he is a homosexual. The powerful association between homosexuality and inveterate wickedness and heresy6 fits well here, of course, as does every other circumstance once the secret is out: the Summoner's "stif burdoun" becomes an obscene double entendre, the Pardoner's claim to have "a joly wenche in every toun" (453) becomes a pathetic and ludicrous attempt to cover up his sexual deviancy, and the Host's threat to seize his coillons" and have them enshrined in "a hogges toord" (instead of in a reliquary) comes to have a singular pointedness. Likewise, psychologically, we can recognise that his boasting of "normal

Page 360


depravity, especially avarice, is a kind of screen for his tortured sense of abnormal depravity, and a hidden plea for acceptance.7 Everyone, it seems, wants to rescue the Pardoner: perhaps some obscure sense of reassurance is to be obtained from asserting his essential humanity.

These are the main lines on which the Pardoner has been "psychologized," though there have been many other incidental lines of speculation. To the question, why does he speak so frankly about his wicked life? various answers have been proffered: he is on holiday and does not expect to meet these people in the future course of business; be is offended by the unwillingness of the "gentils" to let him tell a tale of "myrthe" and therefore deliberately gives an exaggeratedly diabolical view of himself so that they will realize how foolish they have been; he is drunk and does not know what b(@ is doing.8 Equally prolific have been the explanations of the Pardoner's inconsequential behavior in attempting to sell pardons to the pilgrims after having told them of all his knavish tricks: he is joking wildly because he is ashamed of having given way to a momentary spasm of sincerity; he is carried away by his own tale; he is in earnest; he sees the pilgrims carried away by his tale and seizes the chance to make the most spectacular coup.9

It must be clear that there is no basis in the text for the verification of any of these interpretations. Psychologizing, that is, fantasizing about motives to be attributed to characters who appear to have none, is a sport that has no rules and is, therefore, in the end, not very satisfying. On the other band, what is equally clear, it will not do to push the Pardoner back into the conventional frame of the confession of sin made by an allegorical personification, such as that of Fals-Semblant in the Romance of the Rose,'10 where Chaucer found his primary model. The sense of menace, of some stirring of unspeakable evil, the sense of death, is too strong and too universally apprehended to allow any easy fitting of the Pardoner to a literary scheme. Furthermore, it is not easy to accept the "historical' argument that the Middle Ages were not interested in the inner workings of the individual consciousness, or in character.11 it would be difficult to know how we could read their writing with any understanding if we did not believe that we shared some assumptions about the way people behave and the intentions on which they act. But we must understand through the clues we are given, and through the literary conventions within which writers work, and not use their writings as a stimulus for speculations that feed our own fads and sensibilities.

Perhaps a comparison will lead the way to some more specific of the author.

Page 361


understanding. The Wife of Bath, not to move outside the Canterbury Tales, is a prime example of Chaucer's interest in the workings of the individual consciousness. She speaks constantly of her thoughts and feelings, her hopes and regrets: she does not always speak consistently or honestly, but it is in that region of inner being that she moves. Her discourse embodies the movement of her mind, and her mind often moves counter to the plan of her performance. She reacts to what she herself says, and is aware of the larger moral world in which she has her being, even though she does not much like it. She has a present, in which she lives, pd a past and a future within which that present exists coherently. The Pardoner, by contrast, has no thoughts or feelings (except for the anger aroused by the Host's violent speech, which makes him speechless), no hopes or regrets. He never talks about his motives, except to reiterate monotonously that his purpose is ever one. He never once says "I think" or "I feel," but only describes what he has done or what he will do.12 Without soul, feeling, or inner being, he is a creature of naked will, unaware of its existence but in the act of will. In transferring the kind of expository matter he found in the Romance of the Rose into the context of a discourse by a realized individual, Chaucer is not so much writing unpsychologically as creating zeropsychology. There is one flicker of awareness of a world which is not an extension of the Pardoner's will --

Yet kan I maken oother folk to twynne
From avarice, and soore to repente. (430-31)

This gives him a momentary unease, but he does not seem to understand why it should do so, and it fades into mere words. To say that he "relishes the irony" is to misinterpret this hollow juxtaposition.13

The Pardoner thus creates in us a powerful response, and yet as a character he has no capacity for change or self-awareness, and no insight into himself. There is no inner consciousness, because there is no "within." He puts on a brilliant performance, but it is like that of a marionette, or a clockwork toy, which once wound up goes through its motions mechanically. This image of automatism is explicitly evoked by the existence of the Tale as a performance within a performance: the Pardoner does not actually tell a tale, but merely reproduces verbatim his habitual performance, even to the extent of including the homily and peroration, which are out of place here. It is as if he exists only in the act of performance.

The horror, therefore, is the horror of vacuity. The Pardoner is not a rotten apple, but rather like one of those apples that grow

Page 362


near the Dead Sea, that look like true apples but turn to 'wynnowande askes" when touched.14 His moral being has undergone a total atrophy, and in this state he exists, speaking but not understanding.15 The association of this atrophied state with his profession by no means accidental. The reduction of the system of indulgences, conceived of first as a solace to man in his sinful state -- providing he looks inward to his sinful state -- into a form of mercantile exchange,16 not only encourages but actually requires an atrophy of the moral sensibility on the part of its professional practitioners. In this respect it is like all forms of human activity which substitute monetary values for human values: it leads to an unawareness of and an inability to distinguish between good and bad, true and false, real and illusory. Even the Pardoner's cynicism is only skin-deep, since it exists only as a demonstration of the triumph of his will. He is, both theologically and in ordinary human terms that need no gloss, dead.

The mention of death brings us at last to his tale of the three rioters, which is about death. It is a brilliantly told tale, and there would be little point in trying to find flaws in it, or features of expression which would reveal the character of the Pardoner. In essence it is that type of tale, favorite in folk-lore, which depends on a trick, in this case a double meaning for death which we understand but the rioters do not. They go in search of death in order to kill him, and they find death and die: "No lenger thanne after Deeth they sougbte" (772).17 The tale bears a strange affinity, as narrative, to Langland's dream of the search for Dowel: just as they find death in dying, so Langland's dreamer finds Dowel in doing well. The mixture of planes of reality, the way in which real people behave as if they were characters in an allegory, creates the same surreal effect as in Langland.

But the trickery of the narrative is only the simplest level on which it works. The context provided for it by the Pardoner's prologue and homily, and by his very profession, makes it resonate with a much deeper note. For the death that the rioters find is no more than the physical correlative, an allegorical enactment, of the death that they have already undergone: "For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the spirit you put to death the needs of the body you will live" (Rom. 8:13). This has already been alluded to in the homily (547-48, 558-59). The rioters' attempt to go out in search of death in order to slay him is not the act of public-spirited vigilantes, but a sign of moral deadness, as well as a grotesque parody of Christ's struggle to overcome Death, which brought about, of course, not the elimination of physical death, but the

Page 363


release of man from the certainty of eternal damnation. Physical death is by no means to be regarded as an enemy: in Piers Plowman Conscience calls Kynde to send Death to help man in his battle against the Seven Deadly Sins led by Antichrist, since Death, as a reminder of necessary mortality, is a stimulus to the life of the spirit.18 Likewise, in Lydgate's Dance of Death, the Carthusian and the monk both welcome death as a friend who has been a long time coming.19 Death in this sense is thus the physical enactment of the death to the world which is the life of the spirit: "You must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 6:11). Death is the only means to life, ,whether considered as the dying into life which is the act of abnegation of sin, or the dying into immortal life which is physical extinction.

Some of these underlying meanings are focussed in the figure of the Old Man,20 to whom Chaucer has given some of his most unforgettable lines, and a part in the story quite different from that of the corresponding figure in the analogues, and quite gratuitous if we consider only the needs of the narrative. The Old Man seeks death, and is prepared for death: he is dressed already in his grave-clothes, it seems. He does not seek it in any spirit of presumption, and he recognizes that he must live out his days, "As longe tyme as it is Goddes wille" (726), but his weariness of the world makes him see life as an exile, an imprisonment in which his soul is restless: "Thus walke I, lyk a restelees kaityf" (728). Here he is echoing Paul (Rom. 7:24), as translated by Chaucer in the Parson's Tale: "Allas! I caytyf man! who shall delivere me from the prisoun of my caytyf body?" (I 344). On the other hand, the Old Man, though he may derive from the hermit of the analogues,21 is not a truly contemplative figure: there is some ambiguity about him, and his regret at his inability to find any young man to exchange his youth for his age suggests some unappeased yearning after life, or maybe after spiritual life, since it is by putting off the old man -- crucified with Christ on the cross (Rom. 6-.6) -- that he may be reunited in life with the new man (Col. 3:9, Eph. 4:22).

I dismissed earlier the possibility that the Pardoner's Tale might be thought of as "the Pardoner's Tale," that is, a tale thought out and conceived and written by Chaucer as an expression of the Pardoner's character. But it is still the tale told by the Pardoner, and it is impossible to forget the context in which it is told, and the person who tells it. The effect of this continued awareness is to strike a chill in us at the gulf that exists between his words and his understanding. The smoothness of his performance, though it may compel a reluctant admiration of the power of his will, is all the

Page 364


more shocking in relation to his reptilian deadness to all that he says. And though he may have seemed an unusual portrait in his day and perhaps the suggestions of physical deviancy are intended to explain or rationalize his unusualness -- he is only unusual in being rarely portrayed, for his kind is ubiquitous, and his inheritors are all around us, in our own day, in salesmen and politicians and all other public traffickers in words for profit.

Finally, if we believe that Kittredge's instinct was right, and that neither we nor Chaucer could bear a vision' of a totally depraved human being without redeeming features, there is the glimpse of the stirring of spiritual life in the Pardoner which is given in the portrait and words of the Old Man. It seems appropriate that this obscure and ambiguous movement of inner life should be made apparent, not in his own words about himself -- since these after all are part of the carapace of oblivion that be has allowed to grow around himself -- but in the self-revelation prompted by the imaginative act of telling a story.22 Only thus can the Pardoner uncover his consciousness of his outcast state.

University of York, England


1. C 915-18. All citations are from The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957).

2. George Lyman Kittredge, "Chaucer's Pardoner," The Atlantic Monthly, 72 (1893), 829-33; reprinted in Chaucer: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. E. Wagenknecht (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1959), p. 123.

3. W. C. Curry, Chaucer and the Medieval Sciences (Oxford, 1926; revised ed., New York, 1960), pp. 54-70.

4. Robert P. Miller, "Chaucer's Pardoner, the Scriptural Eunuch, and the Pardoner's Tale," Speculum, 30 (1955), 180-99.

5. CT, 1 907-09. This idea is not new, but it achieves its fullest exposition in a recent article by Monica E. McAlpine, "The Pardoner's Homosexuality and How It Matters," PMLA, 95 (1980), 8-22.

6. McAlpine, pp. 12, 14.

7. McAlpine, p. 14.

8. For an account of such views, see G. G. Sedgewick, "The Progress of Chaucer's Pardoner, 1880-1940," MLQ, 1 (1940), 431-58; J. Halverson, "Chaucer's Pardoner and the Progress of Criticism," ChauR, 4 (1970), 194-202; also J. L. Calderwood, "Parody in The Pardoner's Tale," ES, 45 (1964), 302-09.

9. For an account of these views, see Sedgewick, pp. 448-56; Halverson, p. 198.

10. In Chaucer's translation, lines 6135-7296 (see especially 6837ff.).

11. This is the argument put forward in an interesting essay by Gerald Morgan, "The Self-Revealing Tendencies of Chaucer's Pardoner," MLR, 71 (1976), 241-55.

12. C 435-53: "the litany of 'I wol,"' as it is called by Charles Owen, Jr., Pilgrimage and Storytelling In the Canterbury Tales (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press,3.

16. For an account of the perversion of the system of indulgences by professional pardoners, see Alfred L. Kellogg and Louis A. Haselmayer, "Chaucer's Satire of the Pardoner," PMLA, 66 (1951), 251-77.

17. For a particularly good account of the multiple implications of "death" in the Tale, see Ian Bishop, "The Narrative Art of The Pardoner's Tale," MÆ, 36 (1967), 15-24.

18. Piers Plowman, C-text, ed. D. Pearsall, York Medieval Texts (London: Arnold, 1978), XXII. 76-109.

19. The Dance of Death, ed. Florence Warren and Beatrice White, EETS, OS 181 (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1931), pp. 46-49, 72-74.

20. For the Old Man, see especially Miller, and Halverson, pp. 192-93.

21. See W. F. Bryan and Germaine Dempster, Sources and Analogues of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1941), pp. 415ff.

22. See Lee W. Patterson, "Chaucerian Confession: Penitential Literature and the Pardoner," M&H, 7 (1976), 153-73.


[From THE CHAUCER REVIEW, Vol. 17, No. 4, 1983. Published by The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park and London. Reprinted with permission of the author.]