At the end of the prologue, Harry Barry proposes that “whose story is best told/That is to say who gives the fullest measure/ Of good morality and general pleasure” (lines 816-819) will get a post-pilgrimage supper paid for by the others.
In Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, both the Wife of Bath’s tale and the Pardoner’s tale are stories that present us with a good moral message. The moral in Wife of Bath’s tale is that real beauty can’t be judged from just looking at the outer appearance, and in the Pardoner’s tale it is that excess of any thing, especially greed, is disastrous.
Let us look at the Wife of Bath’s tale first. We notice that the tale arrives at its actual moral message rather adventitiously at the end. The Knight feels miserable after marrying an old and ugly woman, but then, things change to “happy ever after” upon the transformation of the old woman into a young, beautiful woman. Instead of helping us get to know that the nature of outer beauty is ephemeral, worthless and hollow; the story advocates this fact indirectly. Had the old woman not undergone this transformation, there wouldn’t be eternal harmony and happiness in the marriage. Besides, the correct answer given by Knight to the old woman doesn’t highlight his true knowledge or wisdom. It seems that he has just learned to tackle women in general now. The Knight committed a heinous crime of using his authority to rape a young maiden, but he isn’t actually given a punishment. And the fact that women in the court avert his punishment doesn’t impress us either. Besides, the answer to the “life saving” question to be found out by the Knight in a year’s time is very subjective.
There is, however, an element of surprise in the story when the Knight discovers the true answer to the question just at the eleventh hour that will save him and also when the old woman transforms into a young maiden. Things like these hold the audience’s attention. This technique adds the elements of folklore also. There are magical elements in the story like the transformation of the old, ugly woman into a beautiful, young maiden that are equally fascinating and reveling. There is also a short mention of Ovid’s tale. In terms of general pleasure, I think the Wife of Bath’s tale deserves to win.
The plot of the Pardoner’s tale is rather predictable, but the careful use of the “death” metaphor makes it interesting. Young, rebellious men looking for “Death” is ironical. Though the men are outraged by “Death” who seems to have killed one of their friends, we see none of them is, in actual terms, sensitive and loyal to each other. Upon the discovery of huge amount of gold, no one is in favor of equal distribution. Excessive amount of material greed brings death to everyone in the end. While the end is overwhelming, it brings a moment of deep and sound reflection. So, if we talk about the tale that presents a good moral message in the best way, it will be the Pardoner’s tale.