The Pardoner's Tale

by John Wain

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What is the significance of the number three in "The Pardoner's Tale"?

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One could argue that the three greedy rioters in "The Pardoner's Tale" represent a perversion of the Trinity, the three-personed Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Although the three young ne'er-do-wells pledge loyalty to each other, there is no honor among thieves. No sooner has the youngest of the three men drawn the short straw to go off and fetch some food and drink than the other two plot to kill him, unaware that he's planning to kill them himself with poison.

The sending of the youngest man on an errand to fetch food and drink could be interpreted as a reference to Christ's sacrifice in the Eucharist. Though again, one should point out that this is a parody of the Lord's Supper by three greedy, evil men. The conjunction of death and the consumption of the sacrificial meal that forms the basis of the Eucharist can be seen most clearly when the young man is brutally murdered on his return by his two partners-in-crime, who themselves end up dead, poisoned by the food and drink that their late partner brought them.

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Interesting question. If we think about it, the number three is immensely significant for Christianity and other religions for the way that it implies perfect completeness and unity. This of course is most obviously seen in the idea of the Trinity, in which the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are united. Let us also remember that the first three numbers are the basis for all other numbers. However, I am not too sure if it would be pushing things too much to try to argue that this is the case in this excellent tale. Perhaps we would be better just to observe that having three points or groups of ideas in threes is a well known rhetorical device or strategy (used by Obama in his speeches as well as by others) that helps us to remember what is being said and reinforces the impact of the speech or story. Perhaps, therefore, this is why the series of different groups of threes in this brilliant story (the three friends and so on) adds to its narrative force and makes it distinctive.

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