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Irony permeates Chaucer's tale here. First, the prologue to the tale basically sets up one of the greatest ironies - the Pardoner's hypocrisy. As a high-ranking member of the church, the Pardoner is abusing the trust of the people for personal gain. This, however, he freely admits to his co-travelers, another instancw of irony, as one would not expect him to admit it!
Another example of irony is in the party-goers assumption that they can catch and kill Death, an abstract concept personified in the tale. The old man, who ironically wants death, can only lead the drunkards to a tree under which they find a wealth of gold.
One would think that the gold split three ways would be enought for them, but the older two devise a plan to kill the younger one and take his share while the younger one does the same. Ironically, both plans work.
The final irony? All the men find Death, in the form of greed.
As if that were not enough, the Pardoner then, after his tale is through, invites the listeners to give him money to save them from this same end. They already know his ruse, yet he tries it anyway. Of course, the Pardoner ends up shamed but not daunted.
How many layers is that? I count six or seven!
By using irony in the Pardoner's tale, Chaucer effectively criticizes the church system. The irony begins as soon as the Pardoner starts his prologue. He tells the other pilgrims that his sermons reflect how money is the root of all evil. He actually preaches against his own problems and sins. Pardoners who took money in return for forgiveness were supposed to use the the money for charity, but he, like many other Pardoner's in his time, used the money for his own satisfaction. The Pardoner makes a mockery of the entire church by fabricating stories about his phony relics. Chaucer shows how the Church is so corrupt that even a Pardoner who admits to his evil ways can still cheat the people out of their money. The Pardoner begins his story by condemning the common sins of society such as drinking and gluttony. The irony of his criticism lies in the fact that he has been drinking himself, and that he is an admitted glutton. There are also many ironic elements of the story itself. The rioters in his story, vow to set out and slay Death. In doing so, they promise to fight and die for each other. There are two ironies in their mission. First, Death is hardly a being that can be killed. Second, the three drunken fighters pledge to die for each other, but in reality they kill each other.
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