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Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale

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1 Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale
(an “exemplary” Canterbury Tale)

2 The poem’s “box” structure revisited
The tale (itself often a retelling of a known tale) (The tale’s relationship with other tales: “quiting”) The teller (a “Canterbury Pilgrim”) The “inscribed” audience (the pilgrims in general; the Host in particular; sometimes specific pilgrims) The scribe who inscribes them (Chaucer the pilgrim) The author of the poem (Chaucer the author) The poem’s reader (us; also, in a real sense, God)

3 General Strategies Chaucer places all the relationships that would normally govern the telling of a tale under systematic stress. The tale is a “moral” tale (a sermon “exemplum”), but it is told by an immoral man for declaredly immoral purposes. The teller (the Pardoner) does not have the confidence of his audience of fellow pilgrims. Indeed, he breaks the “story-telling” contract by trying to turn these fellow pilgrims into his victims, objects of his avarice, even as he describes his strategies to them. Thus we see the “social glue” that holds the pilgrims together threatened. On the face of it, this structure should destroy the tale as a “moral” entity. Yet in practice this may not be the case. For if the teller subverts the tale, so does the tale subvert the teller. Arguably, the teller becomes part of the moral of his tale. Thus: the tale is an example of how Chaucer produces “irony” or dislocation, at the structural level. We’ll see that it also exemplifies the “blasphemous” relation much of the poem has to its ostensible religious function; and asks loudly the questions about useful versus useless narrative entertainment coded in medieval culture by the distinction between otium and otiositas.

4 Specific Strategies: 1) Tale
A sermon on the “theme”: “radix malorum cupiditas,” love of money is the root of all evil. Sermon is given as an example of teller’s preaching, and focuses on a narrative, known as an “exemplum” in formal terms: a vivid, exemplary story. This story has clear folk tale elements (pattern of threes, old man at the style), but is set in the near past, at the time of the Black Death, and a near land, “Flaunders,” across the channel from England. This lifts the “theme” out of its biblical context into the modern world. Ostensible moral function of tale is as a warning against love of money. However, the attack on “cupidity” takes form of attack on a specific lifestyle: that associated with the “tavern sins” of drunkenness, dicing, gluttony, lechery, etc. These attacked through a series of brief, biblical and classical “exempla.” “Love of money,” though dramatically illustrated in the tale, thus also functions as a symbol of a larger moral confusion, found both in the ancient past and in the present. Main tale is also elaborately blasphemous: the three rioters and the Holy Trinity. Tale emotionally effective. Does its obvious lack of realism detract from this or enforce it? (That is, there are legitimate questions about the tale as a piece of “moral telling.”)

5 The Three Living and the Three Dead
An “analogue” for The Pardoner’s Tale

6 Specific Strategies 2): The Teller
This “teller,” like all of them except Chaucer himself, identified by profession, not primarily as an individual. Thus his presence on the pilgrimage, and his tale, necessarily function as modes of social analysis. (More on this next week.) This aspect of the poem requires us to undertake social analysis ourselves: to work out a context for the poem’s, often satirical, representation of different social types. In order to read well, we need to establish a “horizon of expectation” for tellers (a term from Hans-Robert Jauss). The pardoner is described very directly in General Prologue as the figure he later describes himself to be: a conscious fake, a hypocrite, something of a low life; also one of several minor church officials on the pilgrimage (the Summoner is another). Behind this: a great deal. Pardoners as fund-raisers (as this one is), trafficking in the forgiveness of sins. Chronic financial problems of late-medieval church; pardoner as ministering to a chronic credibility problem arising from fund-raising strategies. Our pardoner arrogates to himself powers he does not have: represents himself as able to preach, as possessing sacred relics (like an itinerant church), and, above all, as able to absolve sins, like a priest, which he apparently is not. Our pardoner also describes himself, explicitly, as a hypocrite: as preaching the sin he himself commits. His own “entente” is not that of his tale but is instead in an ironic relation with that tale, one he knows about and uses to his advantage. The pardoner is thus at once some sort of figure/symbol for the contemporary institutional Church and an interesting psychological portrait in his own right: also a paradox: the “open hypocrite.”

7 Specific Strategies 3): The Frame
The pardoner’s relation to the “inscribed audience” (the other pilgrims) is apparently fraught from the start. Asked to tell a tale by the Host as comic relief, he arouses outraged protestations before he’s even started, from the “gentils,” putting the pilgrimage under social strain. Evidently the pardoner is a “figure” of some sort for improper tale-telling, for otiositas as distinct from otium. An interesting sign of his low cultural and social prestige. The pardoner complicates this relation, first, by laying claim to a high degree of authority (as a pulpit preacher); second, by inventing a further “inscribed” audience, the congregation of his exemplary sermon. He invites his fellow pilgrims to admire his strategies with relation to this audience. However, at the end of the poem he collapses this audience with his “actual” one. This collapse is very damaging, as the Host reacts violently to the situation, and has to be calmed down by the Knight. Apparently, the whole project of the poem, and of the pilgrimage, is under threat at this point. Key questions about how to “read” this final scene, to which we’ll return in later weeks.

8 Experiment: The Pardoner as Artist
The pardoner is a word-artist who lies for a living: a hypocrite, a contemptible figure from a formal moral viewpoint. A figure on the margins of the institution he works for, the church, he uses the commercial opportunities, and the literary genres, this institution makes available to him, mainly for his own benefit but also, perhaps, for that of the church itself. Yet his verbal art, though used corruptly, is not necessarily ineffective. Arguably, he does have the very effect he pretends to have, improving others as he enriches (and, presumably, damns) himself. As a figure, also, for the “literary,” therefore, the Pardoner might be taken as a way for Chaucer to think about the relation between the literary and the morally improving, between otiositas and otium, and about the necessary moral ambiguity entailed in the production of fictions.

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