In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, how does the Pardoner's appearance reflect his inner depravity?
It is instructive that the Pardoner is one of the last of the pilgrims introduced by Chaucer in the General Prologue. As the characters are introduced in a strict social hierarchy, we can tell immediately that the Pardoner occupies a position near the bottom of the social scale. His lowly position is further reflected by his physical separation from the other pilgrims as he rides at the back of the group.
In addition to his repulsive personal appearance, the Pardoner's odious character is revealed by his behavior. He sings, or rather bellows, a bawdy love song, something completely inappropriate for a religious pilgrimage. The fact that he sings "Com hider, love to me!" with the Summoner, another deeply unsavory character, reinforces suspicions of his depravity. The Pardoner's loutish behavior also confirms his total lack of piety. His official position within the church, as with the equally hateful Summoner, is simply a mask for his own greed, corruption, and hypocrisy.
The narrator also makes the Pardoner's sexuality suitably ambiguous, slyly suggesting that perhaps he is gay:
I trowe he were a geldyng or a mare.
In other words, Chaucer the narrator is unsure whether the Pardoner is a eunuch or just an effeminate man. In any case, his appearance is decidedly "unmanly." Homosexuality in Chaucer's day was deemed not just socially unacceptable, but a mortal sin against God. In drawing attention to the Pardoner's indeterminate sexuality, Chaucer is further emphasizing his outsider status, making him both less sympathetic to his audience and more depraved by virtue of his official position in the church.
The Pardoner is a man of ambivalent appearance because he is a somewhat feminine man with thin long blond, waxen hair, hanging "like rat-tails," which suggest slyness. He does not wear his hood as most of the religious order do; instead, he wears a little cap in which he sews a relic. He sells indulgences and, in so doing, he represents the rampant corruption in the medieval Catholic Church.
The Pardoner, who has taken a vow of poverty as one of a religious order, wears a little cap in which he sews a relic, suggesting his religiosity, but, in contrast, he rides in the latest style. In addition to his somewhat contradictory physical appearance, his gender is also uncertain because he can grow no beard:
Smoother than ever chin was left by barber
I judge he was a gelding [neutered stallion], or a mare...
His wallet lay before him on his lap,
Brimful of pardon come from Rome all hot.
He has the same small voice a goat has got.
That the Pardoner puts his wallet on his lap so he can see it suggests that he is avaricious; in contrast, as a man of the cloth he has taken a vow of poverty. Here again he demonstrates his moral corruption.
The Pardoner's voice sounding like a goat also suggests the contradictions and corruption attached to the Pardoner himself because the symbolism of the goat varies from evil to good. For instance, in mythology the goat was the image of the pagan god Pan, who was the god of all things in Crete and Greece. With the advent of Christianity, however, the image of Pan with his cloven hoofs and horns became symbolic of the devil.
The Pardoner's appearance reflects his inner depravity in several ways. He had hair "yellow as wax" that hung "lankly" on is head, "thin and droopy" which reflected his spiritual state: "thin and droopy." He is "disheveled" and his eyes are "shiny" and are compared to a rabbits eyes. Again this reflects his inner state: he is like an animal, not a human. His voice "bleated like a goat." Sinners and those serving Satan are often compared to goats in the Bible and I believe that Chaucer is using a similar comparison to again show the Pardoner's depraved spiritual state. Finally, he had no beard and seemed to be not a true man; but a "gelding or a mare." This again shows his inner state. He is not a man; and has not the spirit, courage, or integrity of a man. Chaucer uses the physical description of the pardoner to draw a picture of one with no true spiritual life and no real connection to the God he claims to serve.