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The Canterbury Tales | The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale | Summary

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Summary

Before he begins his story, the Pardoner describes his preaching methods. He says frankly that he puts on quite a show, and all for the purpose of manipulating people to give money rather than any true concern for their souls. He uses the same text each time and preaches often about avarice—the sin of greed—while living a very greedy and selfish life. After describing how corrupt he is, he reassures the company that he is still able to tell a moral tale: "For though I am a wholly vicious man/Don't think I can't tell moral tales."

He begins his tale by introducing the characters and setting: In Flanders, there lived a company of young men given to every kind of vice, including gluttony and drunkenness. Having introduced them, he launches into a tirade against gluttony, saying it is the main cause of human grief and misery. He supports this claim with several examples from the Bible and from history. This leads to similar warnings against gambling, lying, and swearing in God's name.

Now the Pardoner gets back to his story. The three young men are drinking in a tavern when they notice a coffin go by. They learn from the tavern boy that the dead man is someone they used to know and that he had been stabbed in the heart by a thief named Death. The boy mentions that this same thief has killed many people in the present plague and warns them to be ready to face Death if they should meet him. Another man adds that this thief likely lives in a nearby town. The three young men decide to pursue the thief and kill him. In their "drunken rage," they start out.

On the way they meet an old man who says he has lived a long time because Death will not take him. The young men think the man knows Death's whereabouts, so they threaten him. Eventually the old man directs them to a tree in a nearby grove.

They find the tree but become distracted by coins beneath it. They believe that Fortune has given them a treasure and decide to wait until it is dark to sneak away with it. They draw lots to see who will go get food and wine for them while they wait, and the task falls to the youngest of the three. While he is away, the other two conspire to kill him and take the money for themselves. The younger man has a similar idea and poisons two bottles of wine, intending to give it to the others. When he gets back they kill him; but then, drinking the poisoned wine, they also die.

After his tale the Pardoner offers his services to the company—for a fee, of course. Harry Bailey insults him, making the Pardoner angry. The Knight attempts to make peace between them.

Analysis

The Pardoner is very conscious of himself as storyteller. Before he begins his story, he gives a surprising amount of information regarding his own preaching style. Most of this information is rather unflattering, as he describes the various ways he manipulates people into giving him money. Yet he clearly sees himself as a wordsmith capable of influencing his listeners through his language.

He then gives the listeners a taste of his preaching. The story of the three young men is embedded within this sermon as a sort of sermon illustration, or exemplum. He prefaces this tale by saying it is a story he would "often preach when out for winning" (in other words, motivated by greed, he would preach about the folly of greed). He ends the story by saying, "That, sirs, is how I preach," and then he attempts to make money off the pilgrims. The Pardoner's tale is integral to understanding his character and his stated goals, emphasizing the connection between story and storyteller that is an overall theme of The Canterbury Tales.

The lessons of the embedded story itself are fairly clear: Sinful behavior—gluttony, drunkenness, greed, murder—ultimately results in death; its moral is "You reap what you sow." The men's goal of setting out to destroy Death is tantamount to blasphemy, as the men presume to equate their own power with that of God.

Questions surround the role of the old man in this story. Chaucer could have written the story without this mysterious character because his effect on the plot is fairly minimal and could have been accomplished other ways. So why is he there at all? One explanation may be that the old man's literal quest for Death highlights the young men's foolishness in their quest for Death, whom they envision as a human thief and murderer, not as each man's inevitable fate. Another explanation may be that the Black Plague, which raged at the time the story was written, was known for its tendency to kill the young and healthy while the old and frail lingered on. Yet another explanation is that the young men's disrespect for old age further condemns them.

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