The Rich Diversity of Meanings of the Pardoner's Tale
Chaucer’s innovation in the Pardoner’s performance tests our concept of dramatic irony by suggesting information regarding the Pardoner’s sexuality, gender identity, and spirituality, major categories in the politics of identity, without confirming that information. Our presumed understanding of the Pardoner as a character lacks substantiation. As we learn about the Pardoner through the narrator’s eyes and ears, we look to fit the "noble ecclesiaste" (l. 708) into the figure shaped by our own prejudices and perceptions, as any active reader must do. But the Pardoner, ever aware of his audience, does not offer clear clues to his personality. This break between what the other characters say about the Pardoner and what the Pardoner says about himself has been a major source of tension for all readers of the Tales and especially critics who search for substantiation of their views beyond the Chaucer’s own language. The general tone of the Canterbury Tales is comic. After all, the pilgrims are traveling to the shrine St. Thomas Beckett in a public act of holy reverence, but the Tales take a darker turn when the Pardoner is brought to the foreground. The whole Canterbury Tales is a collected set of performances, stories told about telling stories. As Joseph Ganim has written, theatricality, by which he means "a governing sense of performance, an interplay among the author’s voice, his fictional characters, and his immediate audience," is "a paradigm for the Chaucerian poetic" (5). This paper shall endeavor to show that the major effect of the Pardoner’s presence in the Tales is to focus the reader’s attention to questions of performance and performativity, literary perception, and the unstable relations between language, and more specifically art, and the self. This essay will be as much a critical discussion of Chaucerian criticism as an interpretation of the Pardoner for much of our current understandings of the Pardoner and his performance come from nearly six hundred years of scholarship on the subject.
What exactly do we now about the Pardoner? Much of our understanding of him as a literary human being rests on several key descriptive statements in the text, most about his appearance. They fail, however, to paint as full a portrait as we would like, but these descriptions amount to a generally negative picture. The General Prologue offers a first impression of the Pardoner which has affected his interpreted characterization to this day. The narrator, having met with each of the pilgrims and learned something of their characters, offers a portrait of each of them before the tales begin. In his description of the Pardoner, the narrator notes his traveling companion, his most prominent physical features (including his questionable sexuality), his "newe jet" fashion (l. 682), his relics, and his professional status.
One focus of much criticism of the past fifty years has been the...