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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Is The Pardoner in The Canterbury Tales hypocritical or honest?

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The Pardoner is honest and hypocritical.

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The Pardoner in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is honest to his immediate listeners (the other travelers), and dishonest and hypocritical to his usual listeners (the people he usually preaches to when he makes his money).

He tells the travelers that he always uses the same tale that he tells them,...

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to fool his usual gullible listeners so they will give him offerings.  That's how he earns his living.  He is very straightforward with his immediate audience.  He does not hide his motives when speaking to the travelers.

But, as he tells the travelers, when he uses the story to preach he uses it to hammer home the point that greed is the root of all evil, therefore they should give their money away--to him.  He pretends to be a man of God and to offer forgiveness of sins and salvation, but he really is just greedy himself, and is out to make money.  This makes him hypocritical. 

Of course, this irony makes "The Pardoner's Tale," as well as other writings in The Canterbury Tales, the high quality that they are--or at least the irony is one of the characteristics that does so.  Without it, the story the Pardoner tells would be just another church-related allegory

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In my opinion, the Pardoner is really very hypocritical.  Chaucer seems to see all of the clergy (except the parson) as hypocrites who do not really care about people.

The Pardoner says that he always preaches his sermons on the idea that the love of money is the root of all evil.  He expounds on this idea so as to make the people buy pardons from him.  But he also tells us that he really doesn't care about the people.  All he wants to do is get money.  He is willing to manipulate people in any way he can so as to get their money.

This seems hypocritical to me because he is supposed to care about people's souls and because he is doing exactly what he preaches against.

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Do you view the Pardoner as hypocritical or honest?

Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' is full of barbed comments on the society in which he lived. Chaucer had experienced the world of court and war and had many opportunities to view people's vanity and hypocricy. Some of his views echoed the attitudes current at the time, for example that Monks enjoyed eating.

The key, when reading Chaucer, is to separate 'Chaucer the poet' from 'Chaucer the pilgrim'. In his poem, Chaucer has created an innocent and gullible observer ('Chaucer the pilgrim') who comments on the characters he meets in 'The General Prologue'. This observer is easily impressed and comments without judgement. However, Chaucer, and his audience, are more knowing - this creates irony as we know that some of the things that 'Chaucer the pilgrim' comments on are not positive. An example of this may be seen in the portrait of the Prioress who feeds white bread to her dogs and has a brooch with the inscription 'Amor vincit omnia' (Love conquers all) - hardly the behaviour we would expect from a senior nun.

If we keep these points in mind when we look at the portrait of the Pardoner, we can see that Chaucer was calling him a hypocrite. He does this from the start of the portrait by calling the Pardoner 'gentil' (noble) and then demonstrating that he is not.Chaucer does this through his use of irony and description. Examples of this are:

  • He is a religious character on a pilgrimage and yet sings 'Come hider, love to me!'
  •  He carries a 'pilwe-beer' (pillow-case) which he claims to be 'Oure Lady veyl' (Our Lady's veil) - suggesting that all his religious artifacts are fake, he sells these fakes to people wanting to be pardoned for their sins
  • Chaucer includes 'he sayde' (he said), suggesting that what he says is not the truth
  • His physical description is unpleasant - his hair is 'thynne', he has a voice like 'a goot'. Chaucer also suggests that he is not a 'real' man by comparing him to 'a geldyng or a mare'
  • Chaucer's final point is that the Pardonner sings loudly to 'wynne silver' suggesting that it is greed, rather than religion that motivates him. The reference to 'silver' would also link to Judas.

Unlike some of the earlier portraits, where the criticism is suggested, this is a very openly critical one. It is worth comparing this portrait with that of the Parson, a truly good man. Finally the position of the Pardonner's portrait, at the end, following a group of corrupt men, suggests that Chaucer views him as the worst.

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