Character Analysis The Pardoner


In his descriptions of the pilgrims in The Prologue, Chaucer begins with a description of the most noble, the Knight, and then includes those who have pretensions to the nobility, such as the Squire, and those whose manner and behavior suggest some aspects of nobility, such as the Prioress. Then he covers the middle class (the Merchant, the Clerk, and the Man of Law, for example) and ultimately descends to the most vulgar (the Miller and the Reeve). The reader must ask why the Pardoner is placed at the very end of the descending order.

From his prologue and tale, the reader discovers that the Pardoner is well read, that he is psychologically astute, and that he has profited significantly from his profession. Yet Chaucer places him at the very bottom of humanity because he uses the church and holy, religious objects as tools to profit personally. In the other great classic of the Middle Ages, Dante's Divine Comedy, Dante arranges hell into nine concentric circles. The first circle is reserved for the least offensive sinner, with each subsequent circle holding ever more evil sinners, finally ending in the most pernicious and vicious sinners, including betrayers such as Judas Iscariot and Brutus.

In the ninth circle of Dante's Inferno, the circle just above the betrayers, are the simonists, those sinners who make a practice of selling holy items, sacraments, or ecclesiastical offices for personal profit. The punishment for such perversion of holy objects was very severe. Consequently, in the hierarchy of the medieval church, the Pardoner and his sin are especially heinous. The other pilgrims recognize the sins of the Pardoner, and their antagonism toward him is expressed by the Host at the end of the Pardoner's tale when the Pardoner has the effrontery and hypocrisy to try to sell one of his "pardons" to the Host.

Thus, while the Pardoner is the most evil of the pilgrims, he is nevertheless the most intriguing. The most provocative thing about the Pardoner is his open revelation about his own hypocrisy and avarice. Some critics have called him the most thoroughly modern character in The Canterbury Tales, especially in his use of modern psychology to dupe his victims. Likewise, his self-evaluation makes his character noteworthy: He maintains that, although he is not moral himself, he can tell a very moral tale. This concept alone makes him a character worth noting.