Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale,” a relatively straightforward satirical and anti-capitalist view of the church, contrasts motifs of sin with the salvational properties of religion to draw out the complex self-loathing of the emasculated Pardoner. In particular, Chaucer concentrates on the Pardoner’s references to the evils of alcohol, gambling, blasphemy, and money, which aim not only to condemn his listeners and unbuckle their purses, but to elicit their wrath and expose his eunuchism.
Chaucer’s depiction of the Pardoner in “The General Prologue” is unsparing in its effeteness; he has “heer as yelow as wax/ But smoothe it heeng as dooth a strike of flex/ By ounces heenge his lokkes that he hadde…But thinne it lay, by colpons, oon by oon” (677-681). The pale, lanky qualities of his hair relate to his androgynous makeup, and the repetition of “heeng” ironically foreshadows his castration. Further hints of the Pardoner’s being a eunuch, such as “A vois he hadde as smal as hath a goot/ No beerd hadde he, ne never shold have,” are interspersed between description of his “feined flaterye and japes” that accompany his selling of false relics (707). The assumption can be drawn that the Pardoner’s status as a man is also one of “feined flaterye and japes,” that he relies on words to compensate for what he considers a body as fraudulent as his relics. In this sense, the relics become a substitute for the Pardoner’s loss of masculinity, yet also a symbol of his incompleteness. The Pardoner’s need to flaunt them corresponds with his desire to boast of his hypocrisy, a preemptive, self-deprecating strike that ensures future resentment from his audience: “Thus can I preche again that same vice/ Which that I use, and that is avarice./ But though myself be gilty in that sinne,/ Yit can I make other folks to twinne/ From avarice, and sore to repent / But that is nat my principal entente/ I preche no thing but for coveitise” (139-45). The duality of his relics symmetrizes itself at the end of his tale, but not before he speaks of the oppositions of religion and sin that directly criticize his audience and, subconsciously, his own hypocrisy.
The Pardoner consistently brings up the redemption of Christ and God throughout his tale. He polarizes original sin and Christ: “O glotonye, ful of cursednesse!/ O cause first of oure confusion!/ O original of oure dampnacioun,/ Til Christ hadde brought us with his blood again!” (210-3) He moves on to gluttony, and his nuanced technique of delivering subconscious critique becomes more apparent: “‘They been enemies of Cristes crois,/ Of which the ende is deeth wombe is hir god!/ O wombe, O bely, O stinking cod,/ Fulfilled of dong and of corrupcioun!’” (244-7) His tale takes place while the Pilgrims (and the Pardoner) are drinking at an inn, and his further attacks on alcohol reveal his blatant hypocritical values: “A lecherous thing is win, and dronkenesse/ Is ful of striving and of wrecchednesse./ O dronke man, disfigured is thy face!/ Sour is thy breeth, foul artou to embrace!” (261-3) The Pardoner’s moralistic statement condemns himself more than his audience, as he is the “dronke man” of the group; he is the lecherous drunk who “wil drinke licour of the vine/ And have a joly wenche in every town” (164-5). Thus, the exclamations, “O dronke man, disfigured is thy face!…foul artou to embrace!” can be read as self-flagellating rather than moralistic.
The Pardoner’s further examination of sin unveils more attempts to tear down the walls of his self-esteem. He connects gambling to blasphemy, and this presages his epilogue. He pronounces gambling’s dangers to one’s reputation: “Now wol I you defende hasardrye:/ Hasard is verray moder of lesinges,/ And of deceite and cursed forsweringes,/ Blasphemes of Crist, manslaughtre…/ It is repreve and contrarye of honour/ For to been holden a commune hasardour,/ And evere the hyer he is of estat/ The more he is holden desolat” (301-305, 307-10). When he delivers his con-man speech to the Pilgrims at the end of the tale, however, he warns them that chance may deal them a bad hand on the trip, and his relics metamorphose into gambling tools: “For aventures whiche that may betide:/ Paraventure ther may falle oon or two/ Down of his hors and breke his nekke atwo/ Looke which a suretee is it to you alle/ That I am in youre felaweshipe yfalle” (646-50). Even the story of king Demetrius and the King of Parthes reminds the Pardoner of his castration, as it relates the sin of gambling to the loss of one’s manhood as perceived by others: “The King of Parthes…/ Sente [Demetrius] a paire of dees of gold in scorn,/ For he hadde used hasard therbiforn,/ For which he heeld his glorye or his renown/ At no value or reputacioun” (335-8). This thrusts him into his attack on profanation, which he role-plays as a gambler: “‘By Goddes armes, if thou falsly playe/ This daggere shall thurghout thyn herte go!’/ This fruit cometh of the bicche bones two” (366-8). The coupling of an appendage with an accusation of fraudulence again recalls the image of castration, and provides further evidence of the Pardoner’s self-conscious and -deploring hypocrisy before he even begins the narrative portion of his tale.
The description of the three “riotoures” borrows heavily from the Pardoner’s previous listings of sin, and point a finger at the Pilgrims. Placing the characters “in a taverne to drink” when they hear news about their slain friend who was also “[F]ordronke as he sat on his bench upright” forces the other travelers to consider their similarities to the fictional anti-heroes (375, 386). When one of the rioters decides to meet Death, he exclaims, “Ye, Goddes armes,” which repeats verbatim the Pardoner’s role-playing example. Clearly, they exhibit all the worst sins of which he spoke, and the Pardoner strains to divulge the root of their problems: money. From this point on in the narrative, “gold” is mentioned six times. Instead of finding death, they encounter gold under an Edenic tree, and the allusion to original sin crystallizes. Immediately, selfishness enters the rioters’ minds, as evidenced by the “worst of hem” who “spak the first word,” thereby connecting false words to sin in the Pardoner’s mind: “But might this gold be carried fro this place/ Hoom to myn hous or elles unto youres / For wel ye woot that al this gold is oures” (488, 496-8). The pile of gold is itself gluttonous, as one rioter suggests: “And here is gold, and that ful greet plente” (523). The plan of the two rioters to kill the third, which will assure them of being able to “playe at dees right at [their] owene wille,” entails that one “rive him thurgh the sides twaye” (546, 536). This picture of deception resembles that of castration, and the Pardoner’s self-condemnation reaches its subtextual conclusion: he is as guilty of avarice as these alter-egos he has crafted.
The Pardoner wraps up his tale by confiding to the Pilgrims what he normally tells his audience: that only Christ “is oure soules leeche” and that they should “offre nobles or sterlinges” for a pardon (628, 619). When he then offers to grant the Pilgrims absolution for their sins in the form of relics, it is clearly a self-defeating act that is intended to rouse this trenchant insult from the Host: “‘I wolde I hadde thy coilons in myn hond,/ In stede of relikes or of saintuarye./ Lat cutte hem of: I wol thee helpe hem carye./ They shal be shrined in an hogges tord” (664-7). The Pardoner is speechless, and his repressed motive to expose the direct connection between his relics and his testicles is finally made by someone else. After the knight restores tranquillity, it leads one to wonder whether the Pardoner’s underlying intent may have been to expiate his guilt and face his shame.