How do The Pardoner’s Tale, The Clerk’s Tale, and The Miller’s Tale compare in The Canterbury Tales?
The tales the pilgrims tell in The Canterbury Tales reflect their personalities. What ties these tales together--how they compare--is that each involves trickery and a trickster.
The Clerk is a seemingly otherworldly young man and his story of the ever patient and long suffering Griselda seems to suggest that women be submissive in the extreme. The Clerk shows Griselda giving up her children to her sadistic trickster husband who says they must be killed. Her husband then forces Griselda to arrange his remarriage when he tricks her by telling her that their marriage has been annulled. The story itself, however, is followed by a twist. Griselda may represent wishful thinking about how some men want women to be, but the Clerk adds a short afterword to his story in which he advises women to speak up boldly rather remain passive like Griselda.
The drunken Miller also tells a trickster tale that reveals his bawdy personality—and shows that he understands that even clerks (and women) in the real world can be adulterers and pranksters who enjoy a good time and a good joke. In this story, the carpenter's wife Alisoun and Nicholas, a clerk, have an affair, and trick both the carpenter and another clerk, though Nicholas also gets a return joke with a hot iron played on him.
The Pardoner tells an trickster tale as well. His is about three men who decide to kill Death, get distracted by greed when they find gold coins and are outsmarted by Death when they kill each other over the coins. In this case, Death is the trickster, and we learn that the wages of sin (greed) are death—which may be a comment on the greedy Pardoner himself.
The Clerk of Oxenford can be viewed as an early feminist. He is chided for looking like a “maiden” and he attempts to convince his audience about the value that women hold in society. He maintains that women deserve happiness and decries the notion of “a suffering wife.”
To add a complex counterpoint to the Clerk’s idealism, the Pardoner seems to serve as a vessel for Chaucer to expose the Catholic Church’s hypocrisy. The Pardoner claims that he would take money from a vulnerable widow and her children. This implies that the church believes women are weak and deserve to suffer so that powerful institutions (run by men) can accumulate wealth.
In contrast to the Pardoner, the Miller weaves a comic tale that celebrates women’s autonomy. The Miller seems to support the Clerk’s message and warns against attempting to control women’s behavior. John, the Miller’s Tale protagonist, attempts to control his wife and finds himself cuckolded and humiliated for trying to unearth “God’s secrets” and “his wife’s.”