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Essay on Verbal and Situational Irony in The Pardoner’s Tale of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

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The Pardoner’s Tale:  Use of Verbal and Situational Irony      

 

In “The Pardoner’s Tale,” Geoffrey Chaucer masterfully frames an informal homily.  Through the use of verbal and situational irony, Chaucer is able to accentuate the moral characteristics of the Pardoner.  The essence of the story is exemplified by the blatant discrepancy between the character of the storyteller and the message of his story.  By analyzing this contrast, the reader can place himself in the mind of the Pardoner in order to account for his psychology.

 In the Prologue of the tale, the Pardoner clearly admits that he preaches for nothing but for the greed of gain.  His sermons revolve around the biblical idea that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10).  Ironically, however, the Pardoner condemns the very same vice that he lives by, as he proclaims “avarice is the theme that I employ in all my sermons, to make the people free in giving pennies—especially to me”.  Thus, covetousness is both the substance of his sermons as well as the mechanism upon which he thrives. He clearly states that repentance is not the central aim of his preaching, by mentioning “my mind is fixed on what I stand to win and not upon correcting sin”. Rather, his foremost intention is to acquire as many shillings as he can in exchange for his meaningless pardons.  In this regard, one can argue that although the Pardoner is evil, he is not a dissembler.  His psychology is clearly not guided by hypocrisy because he does not conceal his intentions under false pretences.

 Chaucer clouds the genuine nature of the Pardoner’s psychology in ambiguity.  Upon reading the tale, the reader is left to wonder whether or not the pardoner is simply speaking out of drunkenness, or if he is truly of a malicious character.  With respect to the first condition, there is a possibility that the reason why he admits his intention in the Prologue is because he is drunk.  However, evidently, such behavior is a common practice for the Pardoner.  Thus, it is fair to say that he is prompted more by psychological tendencies than by drunkenness.  With respect to the Pardoner’s character, had he been truly vindictive, he would not have admitted his own greed at all.  Furthermore, he must possess some virtue because he understands the value of repentance.  Hence, the Pardoner’s psychology is neither tainted by drunkenness nor does it reflect an inherently evil character.

 The psychology of the Pardoner is actually directed by immoral habits.  Because he is so used to wheedling money out of people, it comes automatically for him.  Psychologically, the Pardoner is a clever man.  Essentially, the Pardoner envelops his sermon on avarice around a subliminal message, urging his audience to purchase his indulgences.

 The psychology of the Pardoner is defined by his unyielding love of money. He confesses that his morals are distorted when he states “I can denounce, indeed, the very vice I practice, which is greed”.  Yet, his impurity is not so much a result of his sins as it is a result of his reluctance to change his ways.  He, himself, needs to seek repentance and absolution from his pursuits.  The church was merely his instrument for obtaining money.  As Chaucer notes:  “Best of all he sang the offertory, for he understood that when that song was sung, then he must preach and sharpen his tongue to rake in cash, as well he knew the art, and so he sang out gaily, with full heart”.

   Hence, one can note that the mind of the Pardoner is replete with subtle, contradictory nuances.  Analyzing the machinations of his thought processes, it is clear that the Pardoner does not practice what he preaches.  It is ambiguous, however, as to whether the Pardoner believes what he preaches, but just doesn’t follow his preaches or whether he doesn’t believe what he preaches at all.  It is evident, though, that the Pardoner has an astute mind.  He is highly effective in what he does.  Although he exploits the church for his own personal designs, he succeeds at obtaining that which he pursues.  The efficacy of his strategy is confirmed by Chaucer’s description of the Pardoner as being a “noble ecclesiastic” and as being unmatched in his trade .  Thus amidst all of his flatteries, there exists a spark of genius that complements his minimal level of ethics.  This intellectual finesse is the riverbed from which all of the products of his mind flow.

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