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The Pardoner - a Preacher of Irony

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The Pardoner, a Preacher of Irony

Geoffrey Chaucer's work The Canterbury Tales is a collection of tales located within a frame. At the urging of their host, Harry Bailly, the pilgrims who have gathered at the Tabard Inn agree to tell two stories each, one while going to and one while returning from Canterbury (McGalliard/Patterson 2047). This collection of tales is told with the help of many ironic elements that coincide with remarks regarding irony made by Chris Baldick and Claire Colebrook.

Irony, as Chris Baldick has remarked, can involve "a subtly humorous perception of inconsistency, in which an apparently straightforward statement or event is undermined by its context so as to give it a very different significance" (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms [New York: Oxford UP, 1990] 114). According to Claire Colebrook, "Irony, even at its most obvious, is always diagnostic and political: to read the irony you do not just have to know the context; you also have to be committed to specific beliefs and positions within that context. Irony must be partial and selective. . . . In order for the irony to work there must be some possible speakers who would believe or intend what is being said" (Irony [New York: Routledge, 2004] 12). In "The Pardoner's Tale," Geoffrey Chaucer masterfully incorporates ironic elements in a way that follows these observations, or definitions, of what should constitute irony. This tale told by the Pardoner includes many of these observations such as the "humorous perception of inconsistency" mentioned by Baldick as well as the condition set by Colebrook that requires "speakers that believe what is being said." The complex psychology of the Pardoner provides an inconsistent character, both in his actions and his morality, while at the same time committing to specific beliefs and positions in a way that allow for the reader to believe him.

Chaucer incorporates these conditions through the use of irony, in which he is able to accentuate the moral characteristics of the Pardoner. The essence of the story is exemplified by the blatant inconsistency that surrounds the Pardoner, the storyteller, and the message of his story. By looking at this contrast, the reader finds himself amused by the humor and, as Chris Baldick remarked, with regard to the story told by the Pardoner has "an apparently straightforward statement or event is undermined by its context as to give it a very different significance." This straightforward statement, being a preacher telling of the dangers of sin, in undermined by the prologue in which you find that the Pardoner does not practice what he preaches. In the Prologue of the tale, the Pardoner clearly admits that he preaches for nothing but for the greed of gain:

I must have money, wool, and cheese, and wheat,

Though I took it from the meanest wretch's tillage

Or from the poorest widow in a village,

Yes, though her children starved for want. In fine,

I mean to drink the liquor of the vine

And have a jolly wench in every town (Par. lines 118-123).

The Pardoner states his desire to get material goods such as money, wool, cheese, wheat, and liquor as well as women.. His sermons revolve around the biblical idea that the love of money is the root of all evil. Ironically, however, the Pardoner condemns the very same vice that he lives by, as he proclaims that he will take from the poorest widow in a village, even if she has starving children. His greed serves as both the substance of his sermons as well as the mechanism upon which he thrives. He clearly states that repentance is not the central aim of his preaching, by mentioning:

Avarice is the theme that I employ

In all my sermons, to make the people free

In giving pennies-especially to me.

My mind is fixed on what I stand to win

And not at all upon correcting sin (Par. lines 72-76).

Rather, his foremost intention is to acquire as many shillings as he can in exchange for his meaningless pardons. The Pardoner's actions clearly conflict with his words and what his title stands for but his psychological state is not as clear.

The psychology of the Pardoner is actually

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