Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Pardoner’s Tale is the discrepancy between the Pardoner’s character and the tale he tells. We tend to focus on the message of his tale, but it is the Pardoner’s immoral behavior that changes the emphasis of the moral.
Chaucer gives his reader a very unsavory description of the Pardoner. In Chaucer’s time, a pardoner was supposed to dispense “indulgences,” for contributions to the church (alms) through the use of relics (religious artifacts). These indulgences were often perceived as forgiveness for sins or a ticket out of a possible condemnation to hell. Of course, with so much money changing hands some pardoners became corrupt and took advantage of the people they were supposed to help.
The Pardoner himself admitted his own corruption, telling the pilgrims just before his tale that “I preach for nothing but for greed of gain.” He then goes on to tell the pilgrims a tale that, ironically, condemns the love of money as the root of all evil. Following the tale, the Pardoner has the temerity to actually try to solicit money from his fellow travelers:
I’ve some relics in my bale
And pardons too, as full and fine, I hope
As any in England, given me by the Pope.
If there be one among you that is willing
To have my absolution for a shilling
Devoutly given, come!
So, while it is common and correct to say that the Pardoner’s tale carries the moral that money is the root of all evil, the fact that the tale is framed by the Pardoner’s own admission of guilt and then his attempt to beguile the other travelers demonstrates another moral: Those among us who preach morality should be viewed with caution and judged more by their deeds than by their words.