“I Wol Yow Nat Deceyve”: The Pardoner’s Virtuous Path in The Canterbury Tales
By Lindsay Stephens
Proceedings of the National Conference of Undergraduate Research (2012)
Abstract: The Pardoner of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is usually perceived as terrible and morally bankrupt. As a result, he is often categorized as an evil and one-dimensional character. In fact, a dim view of the Pardoner is common among scholars. However, this convenient dismissal of the Pardoner is dissatisfying and does not, for example, address the enigma of the Pardoner’s honesty with the other pilgrims. The conventional interpretation also fails to address the layers of paradox surrounding the Pardoner’s insistence upon preaching against avarice, despite his own admission that gaining wealth is his sole focus in life. Therefore, another interpretation is called for. The Pardoner is, after all, a ruined human being. He is a eunuch, and this unfortunate condition results in the Pardoner’s perpetual devastation and isolation. He inhabits that peculiar state which demands that a human being must function in daily life regardless of the extreme desperation coloring his every move. Therefore, the Pardoner is in terrible emotional straits. In fact, he is so isolated that his mental landscape is a place where the ethics governing humankind no longer apply. Here, in his misfit world of one, the Pardoner is forced to create his own code of ethics so that he may function. Therefore, the Pardoner of The Canterbury Tales is a virtuous being. First, the Pardoner believes that greed, if practiced correctly, is not the root of all evil. Next, despite his claim that he doesn’t care about his audience, the Pardoner hopes to rescue people with his artful sermons. Also, the Pardoner believes that hopefulness must be maintained in the face of adversity and extreme isolation. Finally, the Pardoner does know that truth, when it is called for, is indeed valuable. This paper explores the virtues of the Pardoner, using textual evidence from The Canterbury Tales, as well as secondary support from Oscar Wilde, Plato, Carolyn Dinshaw, Arthur W. Hoffman, and Frank V. Cespedes, among others.
Introduction: At first blush, the Pardoner of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales appears to be a terrible, morally bankrupt person. This dim view of the Pardoner is common. For example, in the essay “Chaucer the Pilgrim,” scholar E. Talbot Donaldson calls the Pardoner a “rascal” and goes on to say that “except in Church, every one can see through him at a glance.” This charge, however, is somewhat light. The eminent Chaucerian expert George Lyman Kittredge goes further, calling the Pardoner “an abandoned wretch” [who is] “the one lost soul among the Canterbury Pilgrims.” After all, the Pardoner’s crimes are staggeringly awful. He passes off a jar of swine bones as holy relics to the unwary. He also sells fake pardons to sinners and keeps the money. Worst of all, he is a hypocrite. He preaches against avarice in his sermons, yet he is unbelievably greedy. Yet despite his many faults, dismissing the Pardoner as merely corrupt is convenient and dissatisfying. Such a dismissal relegates certain aspects of the Pardoner to a dustbin reserved for the enigmatic and the unexplainable. If the Pardoner were completely corrupt, his honesty about his dishonesty makes no sense. In addition, such an interpretation demands that the layers of paradox surrounding the Pardoner’s insistence upon preaching against avarice must remain unexplained.