Verbal Irony In The Pardoner's Tale

What are three examples of irony in The Pardoners Tale?

Expert Answers
karaejacobi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"The Pardoner's Tale" both includes examples of irony and stands as an example of irony itself based on the prologue given by the pardoner himself. 

The tale itself is meant to be an exemplum that proves why greed is the root of all evil. The main characters are three drunk men who vow to "kill death," which is an example of irony and oxymoron. In this same early section of the tale, they also vow to treat each other as brothers. This is ironic because they end up killing each other in the hope that killing one or two of their "brothers" will allow them to keep more money for themselves (hence the adage that greed is the root of all evil). After the drunk men set out from the pub to "kill death," they meet a strange, wizened man who tells them that they can find death under a tree that he points them toward. When they approach the tree, they discover gold and become completely distracted from their original mission. Their individual greed for a greater share of this gold is what leads them to stab and poison each other. Accordingly, the tree is where each man finds his death. 

In addition to these examples of irony, the tale itself is ironic at a sort of meta-level. The pardoner tells the other pilgrims that he gives this sermon on greed to inspire his parishioners to donate more money to him. After all, who would want to hoard his money after hearing how dangerous and immoral greed can be? This is ironic because the pardoner is, of course, profiting off of these naive parishioners. His own greed motivates him to preach against greed. The pardoner's prologue and tale expose him as a proud, avaricious hypocrite. 

amymc eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Irony is rampant in "The Pardoner's Tale."  Three basic types of irony are verbal, situational, and dramatic:  all of these refer to a discrepancy between what is anticipated or what is known and what actually occurs or is said.


The rioters are carousing until early morning in a local tavern when they are informed of the death of an acquaintance.  Drunk and antagonistic, the men vow to find and kill death.  There is a double irony here.  First the verbal irony in which the idea of killing a personified death is impossible, then the second, which is dramatic.  The boys seem to actually think they are looking for a person while the audience understands that this is not the case.

The old man who cannot die sends the rioters up the trail to a tree, which he reveals to be the location of Death.  The rioters expect to find a physical entity beneath the tree, but instead they find gold.  Of course they do not see a connection between greed and death: "No longer was it Death those fellows sought," (Chaucer 166).

 The three best friends, who had pledged loyalty and undying friendship to each other, immediately begin plotting against each other.  The older two devise to kill the younger while he has gone for wine; the younger similarly plans to kill the older two.  They never dreamed their plans would work so well, that all three would end up dead by their own treachery.  Thus these two murderes received their due, so did the treacherous young poisoner, too..." ((289-290) In fact, they were looking for Death, and they found him!

Read the study guide:
The Canterbury Tales

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question