Dishonesty and Hypocrisy in The Physician's and Pardoner's Tales
Chaucer presents characters in the Physician's and Pardoner's Tales who are very similar to each other in one important way. Although the characters seem on the surface to be mirror images of each other, they have an important underlying similarity: both the physician and the pardoner are not what they appear to be to most people. Both are hypocritical, although they show this hypocrisy in different ways.
One way of seeing this hypocrisy, in the case of the physician's tale, is to examine the way the similarities and differences between the knight Virginius and the physician himself in terms of what he sees as moral actions. It seems fairly clear that the physician identifies himself with Virginius during the telling of the tale. One of the main ways in which the physician identifies with Virginius is by sharing his concern for Virginia's future state of virtue. He shows his concern with Virginia's future by speculating on whether she will continue to be "a thousand foold moore vertuous" than she is beautiful -- as she is at the beginning of the tale -- when she "woxen is a wyf" (VI.40; VI.71). Virginius shows his concern for his daughter's virtue by killing her rather than allowing her chastity to be compromised; the physician shows that he believes it necessary for a father to guard his daughter's virtue in a long comment (VI.71-104) describing a father's duty to have his daughter watched over by governesses, or "maistresses" (VI.71).
The most important way in which Virginius differs from the physician -- and the physician clearly does not see this -- is in the moral application of the tale. The physician clearly intends for the tale to stand as a moral example, as can be seen from the biblical references (to the story of Jephtha, for instance, in VI.240) and the fact that the tale ends with a moral borrowed from a proverb: "Forsaketh synne, er synne yow forsake" (VI.286). The tale as told by the physician, however, is problematic as a moral example, because (although Virginia may have had to submit to the judge's rule that he live with her), there is nothing in Apius' ruling that would have forced her to yield her chastity to him. She would still have had a moral choice when she submitted. It may be that the choice would have come to nothing but consentual or nonconsentual sex with Apius. This is still a very important distinction in Christian terms, because without yielding her consent, Virginia would have been guilty of no sin. It may have been that she would have been dishonored in the eyes of society if she was to live with the judge, but she would have committed no moral transgression. By identifying himself with Virginius, by drawing on a similar story in the Biblical book of Judges to provide moral backing for his own story, and holding the tale up as a moral example of Christian behavior, the physician re-frames it in terms of Christian...