What moral qualities or personality traits do the characters in "The Pardoner's Tale" and "The Wife of Bath's Tale" represent?in The Canterbury Tales

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amy-lepore eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both stories identify qualities of their story tellers--this is Chaucer's main purpose since he repeatedly tells us that he is only reporting what he sees and hears, so "don't be mad at me."

In "The Pardoner's Tale," the Pardone is employed by the church to give pardons to those who have sinned.  As a church employee, one would expect him to be honest, humble, and full of a servant's heart.  However, as Chaucer loved to point out, the church was full of hypocrisy, and this Pardoner was no exception.  He sold fake trinkets to innocent and ignorant people, robbing them of what little money they had.  He also was not as pure as he seems in his description since he uses his looks, his position, and his singing voice to de-flower pretty little maids...although he finds them husbands later. 

In his tale, he preaches against the vice of greed as well as rebukes young people who do not respect their elders.  Three young men have been drinking, and decide to get revenge on Death for killing their friends in the plague.  They are rude to an old man who tells them where to find Death.  Under the tree, instead of Death, they find money.  They decide to keep it, and send the youngest for refreshments.  While he is gone, the other two plot to kill him and divide his share; he is also plotting to keep the money for himself.  In the end, they all die under the tree (thus finding Death after all).  Greed doesn't pay; and perhaps if they had been more kind to the elderly gentleman (whom some critics believe is Death in disguise), they would have ended up in a happier place.  It is ironic that the Pardoner preaches against the very vices he possesses as a person--greed, disrespect, dishonesty just to name a few.

The Wife of Bath is a colorful character who has married many times.  Some critics hint that perhaps she has murdered her husbands as she tells us in her prologue that one beat her, one cheated on her, etc.  She married them "at the church door" because of the company she "kept in her youth."  She was not allowed to marry in church due to her lack of purity.  However, she likes to travel and be considered an equal in her marriage.  She is very wealthy as a result of all her marriages, and presumably, she is on the trip looking for husband number six.

Her tale is exactly what we would expect from her as an independent woman.  The Knight rapes a young virgin, and is brought to the court for judgment.  The King decides to put him to death, but the Queen asks to be allowed to deal with him.  She and her ladies tell him to find "what women really want" and return in one year and a day to give his answer.  He travels the world and can't find two women to give the same answer.  Finally, he discovers an old woman who promises to help him if he will grant her what she wants.  He agrees.  She tells him that women want control--the Queen agrees.  The old woman wants to marry the knight.  Begrudgingly, he does so without the usual pomp and circumstance.  The woman rebukes him for being cold and judmental.  She tells him he can choose--she can be lovely and unfaithful or ugly and faithful to him.  He gives her the choice; because he does this, she decides to be lovely and faithful...his reward for giving her the control.

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The Canterbury Tales

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