The Canterbury Tales Questions and Answers
by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Irony In The Pardoner's Tale

How many layers of irony can you identify in "The Pardoner's Tale"?

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To fully appreciate the layers of irony in "The Pardoner's Tale," consider the Prologue to the tale as well as the tale itself. In the Prologue and in the first 200 lines of the story, the Pardoner preaches against vices while at the same time admitting and revealing that he has those very vices. 

First he makes it clear that he preaches against the love of money as being the root of all evil, but he preaches only for gain, not out of concern for people's souls. This is ironic on three levels: first, that he would openly reveal his own sinful motives; second, that he preaches most against the vice he practices most; and third, that he is able to actually make men repent of greed despite his own blatant hypocrisy. Here's how he puts it:

Thus can I preach against that same vice

Which I use, and that is avarice.

But though myself be guilty of that sin,

Yet can I maken [sic] other folk to twin

From avarice.

Another irony is that although the Pardoner is full of vice, he is able to tell a highly...

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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.