20: The Pardoner's Tale Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 694

The Host finds the Physician's story terribly touching. Teasing the Physician, he begs the Pardoner to cure the pain caused by the Physician's narrative by telling a gay story immediately. The Pardoner, denied a drink before launching his tale, punishes the company by making them wait while he thinks of a suitably moral story.

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That greed is the root of all evil, the Pardoner tells the travelers, is always his theme when he preaches. He boasts openly of his corrupt practices and manipulative methods of getting money out of the gullible. He brags boldly of how little he cares for humanity. He also states that he enjoys the creature comforts humanity's guilt and stupidity afford him. The terrible man is also aware that he preaches against what he himself practices. He launches his story by remarking that his wickedness does not prevent him from telling a moral story.

Early one day, three very debauched and evil companions are drinking together in a tavern. These young men have been totally ruined by the sins of gluttony, avarice, and sloth, against which sins the narrator interjects a short sermon.

The three hear a bell tolling a funeral and a boy tells them that a friend of theirs, killed by a thief called Death, is about to be buried. The tavern keeper says this fellow, Death, has slain a whole village about a mile from there.

The three drunks swear an oath to find Death and slay him before nightfall. They head out for the town the tavern keeper mentioned. Shortly, they meet a very old man who points them to an oak tree where he says they will meet Death.

Off rushes the besotted trio, but when they reach the oak tree, it is bushels of gold they find there. All thoughts of Death leave them as they plot to get the money back to their own village. The young men draw straws to see which of them will go back to the town for food and drink to sustain them during the day while they guard their treasure.

The youngest of the three draws the short straw; he sets out for the town at once. As soon as he is gone, the other two conspire to murder him when he returns so that they can keep the wealth all for themselves.

In the meantime, the youngest one has determined to kill the other two. He buys strong poison in the town and adds it to the wine he buys for his companions. However, as soon as the youngest gets back with the supplies, the two companions pounce on him and murder him. They then sit down to drink and make merry, but die immediately when they drink the poisoned wine.

This story is followed by another sermon against avarice and the beginning of a sales pitch for the relics the Pardoner carries, but here the Host interrupts. He refuses to go along with any more of what he perceives as the Pardoner's duplicity and sacrilege and says so very coarsely. The Pardoner becomes infuriated at the Host's insults and the Knight has to intervene. He insists that the two kiss and make up, which they do.

Discussion and Analysis
The wicked practices of the Pardoner were, unfortunately, widespread in the medieval Catholic Church. However, the Pardoner is so openly and gleefully and unashamedly wicked that he himself serves a sermon against these practices. His tale is totally in keeping with his character.

The form of The Pardoner's Tale, an allegory, is one with which medieval audiences would have been completely familiar. In an allegory, the characters personify abstract qualities; the plot is meant to teach a moral lesson. In this case, Avarice, Gluttony, and Sloth meet Death at their own hands; in other words, these vices lead invariably to spiritual death.

This particular allegory had many versions in Eastern and in Western literature and was frequently enacted as a morality play. Therefore, it is not attributed to any single source. Chaucer's version is the one that has survived. It has become one of the most widely read and best loved of The Canterbury Tales.

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