Whilst death is one of the central themes explored by the Pardoner in the General Prologue and Pardoner’s prologue and tale, it is clearly one amongst many others, such as gambling, swearing and sin. The sins are all alluded to in avarice, gluttony, sloth, wrath, pride, sloth, and perhaps more indirectly, envy. However, death is perhaps the most immediate effect of these other themes, and is central to the plot, the characters and the audience. Chaucer creates these themes using the irony between what appears and what is, religiously charged imagery and the position of he who should practise what he preaches but does not, in the Pardoner. Some critics suggest that the Pardoner does not fear the death he frightens other with in his sermons, because he is already spiritually dead.
The first point that the Pardoner makes is that his theme is always one – that the love of money is the root of all evil. It is ironic that while he preaches that, he seeks monetary returns for his homily; his efforts should be driven by the desire to do good, but instead are more immediate and material.
“My theme is alwey oon, and evere was –
Radix malorum est Cupiditas” (47-48)
“But first, quod he
I wol both drinke and eten of a cake” (35-36)
The use of the conjunction ‘both’ before a tale is told signifies the priorities in the mind of the Pardoner – that his own carnal indulgence precludes any spiritual efforts. This is also the Pardoner’s own marked admission and Chaucer uses the effect of the rhyming couplets to enforce this (winne/sinne).
“For myn entente is nat but for to winne,
And nothing for correccioun of sinne.” (117/118)
It is all of this contempt for what he preaches that shows the Pardoner’s complete indifference to death. It would appear that this lack of consideration comes from the knowledge that everyone will eventually die, and particularly the more immediate eventuality of death within a medieval context. It would therefore follow that the Pardoner himself is spiritually dead, and no longer has the conscience of though which allows him to scrutinise his behaviour. He is so far into damnation that he gives up on trying to escape it, and instead commits himself to the enjoying of the flesh and material life.
“I preche nothing but for coveitise” (147)
The Pardoner’s inability to know death first surfaces openly in his prologue when he says that the souls of those damned by his false pardons may go blackberrying in Hell for all he cares. His false consciousness prevents him from detecting the enormity of his sin, and this coincidentally enrages the murderous instincts of Harry Bailey, who has previously told the pilgrims he fears he one day will kill because of his wife’s nagging. In this instance, his ire is aroused precisely because the Pardoner’s failure to realize the terrible danger he is in.
“I rekke nevere, whan that they been beried,
Though that hir soules goon a-blakeberied” (119-120)
The potentially tragic outcome, in which both the Pardoner and ‘Oure Hoost’ would come to know death, is prevented by a pilgrim we have been told knows death very well: the knight. This man’s war experience appears to enable him to detect the necessity for his intervention, and that intervention lays the spectre of death’s imminent arrival among the pilgrims. However, by inducing the Host to kiss the Pardoner, he brings both men into direct contact with that which would have been deadly to them a moment before. This socially innoculates them against the threat that they will bring death to the pilgrimage.
Before moving into his tale, the Pardoner digresses into a long sermon on sin, particularly the kind of dreadful acts caused by drunkenness, quoting authorities such as Seneca, Lot and Herod and using exclamation within his rhetorical homily.
“…drinken over hir might
Thurgh which they doon the devel sacrifise” (182-183)
“Corrupt was al this world for glotonye” (218)
The Pardoner’s attack is on gluttony, of which drunkenness is a part stems from an argument that the sin of Adam and Eve arose from their wish to eat the apple from the tree of knowledge thus creating all sin from gluttony. Like a salesman, the Pardoner wants to qualify why the audience needs what is for sale before it is offered. Food and drink is also ironically has connotations of the Communion with wine and bread. It is the eating of what was forbidden that caused sin and therefore death in the first place, and it is the death of Christ that brought the redemption of others. The mention of death raises the tale of the three rioters, which is about death. “In essence it is that type of tale, favorite in folk-lore, which depends on a trick, in this case a double meaning for death which we understand but the rioters do not.”1 The rioters seek death, ironically to kill ‘him’.
They succeed in the first part of their task and find death, yet it is ‘he’ who kills them. Based on the premise that they are guilty of killing each other, it is sequitur to conclude that death resides in all three of the rioters. This is of course spiritually true. The three rioters are already spiritually dead, drinking before the first belle “clinks” and showing disrespect to the elderly. The only life within them is that of the material world around them in food and drink. It would also seem, therefore, that the Pardoner is suggesting here that one dies when they are spiritually devoid.
“No lenger thanne after Deeth they sougbte” (486)
The old man that points the rioters in the direction of death is the single developed character in the story, a grotesque figure who waits to die out of extreme weariness for life. When he tells the rioters that he wishes to die, he claims that he walks on the ground, his ‘mother’s gate,’ and asks to return to the earth (in the form of a decayed corpse). This conforms to the idea of rebirth, as the old man asks to return to the earth (his mother’s womb) presumably to be born once again. However, for the old man this is only his second choice. He would prefer to exchange bodies with a young man, but can find no man willing to trade. He suffers the misery of a man who does sees no hope for redemption. He does not consider the possibility of heaven and Christian redemption, but rather adheres to ideas of earthly reincarnation. Quite significantly, this is the only expression of any spirituality contained in the Pardoner’s Tale. The Pardoner has little concern with actual religious matters and makes no real reference to Christianity. His concern is money, and the Christian religion is only the means to achieve this end.
“Which I am wont to preche for to winne” (175)
“Lo how I vanisshe, flesh and blood and skin!
Allas! Whan shul my bones been at reste” (446-447)
The death that the rioters find is no more than the physical enactment, of the spiritual death that they have already undergone. The rioters’ attempt to go out in search of death in order to slay him is not the act of public-spirited vigilantes, but a sign of moral deadness, as well as a grotesque parody of Christ’s struggle to overcome Death, which brought about, of course, not the elimination of physical death, but the release of man from the certainty of eternal damnation.
“Til Crist hadde boght us with his blood again!” (215)
The accumulation of detail, particularly the old man, serves to bring increased irony, even poetic and religious depth to the exemplum that then follows its familiar course to the disaster. The story is an exemplum illustrating both that ‘Radix malorum est cupiditas’ and ‘the wages of sin is death’.
The Pardoner’s Tale is rife with allusions to the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, and conversely to the association between the unredeemed dead and the corruption of the body. One way of looking at the quest of the three rioters may be as a search for eternal death, that is, death without any possibility of resurrection through the addition of physical death to their already dead spirits. Such a death represents the triumph of body over spirit, or the reduction of man to his bodily component alone, not susceptible to resurrection. As Lidridge points out, “The bodily resurrection of the dead was one of the doctrines that most concerned theologians from the origins of Christianity throughout the middle ages.” 2
The tale’s actual characterisation of sin stresses spiritual corruption and this is especially represented, as so often was so in Medieval times, through the body. The rioters indulge the senses and rhetoric (through apostrophe and exclamatio) depicting cycles of eating and drinking in terms of excrement, urine and therefore physical alongside spiritual degradation. Again, as was so in Medieval England, a quest is sought to conquer the ultimate corruption of death (the cadaver tombs and exempla of death bed scenes), but the purpose of the rioters is to slay death in order to allow them to pursue a life of self-indulgence.
“And we wol sleen this false traitour Deeth.
He shal be slain, he that so many sleeth” (413-414)
Thus, the plot of the tale; characters in their relation (the old man, the young boy and the innkeeper); the characterisation of death through the spiritual death of the Pardoner himself, the spiritual and actual death of the three rioters and their friend; are all synonymous with death – the moral of the story being the triumph of death over sin. Throughout, the use of diction and imagery with either implicitly or explicitly restates spiritual and incorruptible values and the truth above any other emphasise the only real way to destroy death, as Christ did. It would therefore seem that whilst Chaucer within the Pardoner explores a number of different themes, each of them returns to death and thus death is the central theme which the Pardoner explores.