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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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MAJOR CHARACTERS

The PARDONER is his own main character, since it is in the context of his personality that the tale takes on irony. He prides himself on being a practitioner of all the sins he preaches against, and plenty others besides. No wonder he's often seen as Chaucer's best psychological portrait. But unlike the Wife of Bath in her introduction, he is not presenting a justification for his life-style. He's saying how proud he is of his own deceptiveness.

Why would he disclose all his sordid tricks? Certainly they're not something to brag about, even when you're drunk, as he is. Some believe that years of hypocrisy have created an urge in him finally to admit his guilt; some think he wants to show off his love of money, or has stopped caring what others think; while others think he's simply totally unaware of how much he is revealing of his inner self.

He certainly embodies the theory of evil. Remember the picture of him from the General Prologue: a thin goat's voice, a suspiciously effeminate nature, and the assumption that a part of him is missing (he is either "gelding or mare," eunuch or homosexual). To the medieval mind, an absent part is a clear indication of moral deprivation; the inward and the outward are connected.


Is there any good at all in the Pardoner? Think about how Chaucer treats his characters, even the nasty ones, as human, as real people. For all his faults, the Pardoner at least is honest and knows he's damned to hell for his conniving. He is able to turn the villagers he dupes away from their greedy ways. And he tells us that when he stands in the pulpit and tells his lies, his hands and tongue go so fast that it's a "joy" to see his "business" (line 71). You could see this as another example of his disgusting pride in himself, or as Chaucer's way of saying that even the lowest of the low can do something good. Also, there's a certain fascination in such an evil character. We wonder what makes him tick, and here he gives us an unusual opportunity to see behind the public mask he wears.

The THREE RIOTERS have been seen as representing three major divisions of sin-perhaps gluttony, drunkenness, and blasphemy-three of the sins the Pardoner preaches against at the start of the tale. They aren't real characters, yet we get a clear picture of the way they carry on and live their lives. They are more stupid than evil.

The OLD MAN has been a mystery for centuries. Who is he? Death himself, the mythical Wandering Jew, merely an old man? Whoever he is, he serves the purpose of pointing the young men to the place where Death waits.

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