Ironic Contradictions in the Pardoner’s Prologue and the Pardoner’s Tale
The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer can be seen as an outstanding example of a jape. The shrewd Pardoner thinks he is able to play a game of confidence with the other pilgrims. According to the Middle English Dictionary, the noun “japerie” can also contain the meaning of irony, which is also true for the Prologue and the Tale. At the heart of the definition of irony lies incongruity or contradiction. The Oxford English Dictionary defines irony as:
firstly, “[a] figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used; …. [secondly a] condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things (87).
The Pardoner’s Prologue and the Pardoner’s Tale provide many facets illustrating ironic contradiction. Particularly interesting is to analyze the Pardoner himself, as he is definitely contradictory in his behaviour as well as in his statements. An analysis of the Pardoner’s presentation in his Prologue reveals the contradictions and the irony in the exemplum he chooses for his tale. The exemplum’s characters and actions not only mirror the ambiguous and complex character of the Pardoner, but also contain several instances of irony. Based on that, one can see how the Pardoner’s leitmotif, “Radix malorum est Cupiditas” (l. 334) unifies the ironic contradictions of the Prologue and of the Tale.
First, the ambiguous figure of the Pardoner as narrator of a moral tale is ironic because his own character is extremely immoral. The Host’s description of the Pardoner, a church official of “Rouncivale” (l. 670), in the General Prologue gives a first insight into his character and personality. Harry Bailey underlines the Pardoner’s excellent “craft” (l. 692), which distinguishes him from other pardoners. The Pardoner’s craft gets authorization from the Pope, permitting him to sell people indulgences, which are supposed to correct sins. The Host’s description already points to the real intention the Pardoner has in selling indulgences, namely accumulation of profit and wealth: “[u]pon a day he [the Pardoner] gat hym moore moneye / Than that the person gat in monthes tweye; / And thus, with feyned flaterye and japes, / He made the person and the peple his apes” (l. 703 – 706). The Host creates an interesting antithesis as he presents the corrupt and greedy character of the Pardoner in contrast to the honorable and frugal character of the Parson. Consequently, the Pardoner’s ambivalent personality, which appears to contradict the values of the church, is emphasized. Apparently, he contradicts the requirements of his ecclesiastic profession. In other words, the Pardoner is a hypocrite in his profession, as he is neither interested in the correction of sins nor in the people’s sense of confession, but instead in selling the greatest amount of indulgences and pardons for profit.