The Road to Hell:

A Literary Analysis of
Geoffrey Chaucer’s
The Pardoner’s Tale
Ryan Dell’Erba
University of Maryland Uni...
Introduction – The Teller of Tales
eoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343 – 1400) was born the
son of a successful wine merchant who was...
Introduction – The Canterbury Tales
he Canterbury Tales, which was probably first conceived of by
Chaucer in 1386, is a se...
Introduction – The Pardoner’s Tale and Prologue
he Prologue to the The Pardoner’s Tale
recounts how the titular Pardoner,
...
Introduction – The Pardoner’s Tale
he Pardoner’s Tale’s basic plot can be summed up as follows:
t is a symbolic story of t...
Literary Analysis of The Pardoner’s Tale
s with all of Chaucer’s tales, the person who tells it is part of the
key to unde...
Literary Analysis of The Pardoner’s Tale
ut why does the Pardoner not heed his own warning against
avarice?
ould it be bec...
Literary Analysis of The Pardoner’s Tale
s for the thematic concerns of The Pardoner’s Tale itself, what are
they?
bviousl...
Literary Analysis of The Pardoner’s Tale
he themes of old age, aging, and dying are all related to the most
fascinating ch...
Literary Analysis of The Pardoner’s Tale
o who is the Old Man who arguably holds the key to
understanding the entire tale?...
Literary Analysis of The Pardoner’s Tale
he Wandering Jew, who there were reported sightings of for a
number of centuries,...
Literary Analysis of The Pardoner’s Tale
ike The Wandering Jew, the Old Man in Chaucer’s story is a
wanderer, unable to di...
Conclusion
learly there are a few interpretations of The Pardoner’s Tale
which are widely accepted by different factions o...
Works Cited
Bushnell, Nelson Sherwin. "The Wandering Jew and The Pardoner's Tale." Studies in Philology 28.3 (1931):
450-6...
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Dell'erba, ryan authentic assessment (engl 309)

  1. 1. The Road to Hell: A Literary Analysis of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale Ryan Dell’Erba University of Maryland University College Medieval British Literature (ENGL 309) Prof. Carol L. Bellamy
  2. 2. Introduction – The Teller of Tales eoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343 – 1400) was born the son of a successful wine merchant who was a member of the burgeoning new middle class of Medieval England (Greenblatt 238). idely traveled and worldly from an early age, Chaucer heard several languages every day as a boy, learned French fluently, studied Latin, worked as a page for an aristocratic family, and traveled as a member of King Edward III’s personal household on diplomatic missions to Spain, France, and Italy, and probably all before he was thirty years old (Greenblatt 238). hese experiences undoubtedly shaped Chaucer’s worldview and oeuvre, including The Canterbury Tales (Greenblatt 238).
  3. 3. Introduction – The Canterbury Tales he Canterbury Tales, which was probably first conceived of by Chaucer in 1386, is a series of stories, the titular “tales”, told within an overarching story of a fictional religious pilgrimage to Canterbury, with this overarching story functioning as a framing device for the tales themselves (Greenblatt 241). haucer’s original plan was apparently to have written a total of roughly one hundred twenty tales, two for each pilgrim to tell on the way to Canterbury and two for each to tell on the return trip from Canterbury (Greenblatt 241). nfortunately Chaucer died having fully completed a mere twentytwo of the tales and having begun two others, and while the pilgrims never make it to Canterbury, Chaucer did write The
  4. 4. Introduction – The Pardoner’s Tale and Prologue he Prologue to the The Pardoner’s Tale recounts how the titular Pardoner, who is one of the individuals on the pilgrimage, discusses his abuse of his position of power as a pardoner which was a collector of charitable donations to the Catholic Church in the Medieval period (Greenblatt 310). he Pardoner then tells his story to his fellow pilgrims, which is a moral tale warning against the vice of greed and the trouble this deadly sin can bring to those who succumb to it (Greenblatt 311).
  5. 5. Introduction – The Pardoner’s Tale he Pardoner’s Tale’s basic plot can be summed up as follows: t is a symbolic story of three men who seek to kill Death, and on their way to find Death in order to kill him, they encounter an intriguing character, the mysterious Old Man, who tells them that he left Death not long ago under a tree just up the road (Chaucer). hen the men then find the tree, there is a huge treasure trove of gold at the base of it which the men then agree to split evenly amongst themselves, and it is decided that the treasure should be moved under cover of night, and that the youngest of the men should go into town to get bread and wine (Chaucer). he two other men plot to kill the third when he returns, and the third man, when he goes into town, buys a powerful poison and puts it in two of the three vessels of wine and then returns to the tree only to be
  6. 6. Literary Analysis of The Pardoner’s Tale s with all of Chaucer’s tales, the person who tells it is part of the key to understanding it, so one must examine the Pardoner himself as a character in order to fully understand his tale. big part of the ironic and dark humor of the Pardoner’s tale is present in the fact that the Pardoner himself is guilty of the very sin of avarice which his tale inveighs against, and yet he tells it and other such moral tales while attempting to bilk people out of their money for his own personal gain, which is both hysterically and darkly ironic and also extremely hypocritical on his part, as well as eminently unwise on his part for he does not heed the truly worthwhile warning against blind greed in his own moral tale even as he tell it, thus pointing out his own moral hypocrisy (Chaucer).
  7. 7. Literary Analysis of The Pardoner’s Tale ut why does the Pardoner not heed his own warning against avarice? ould it be because of something about him that is not perhaps readily apparent? erhaps it is after all the case that he behaves the way he does in spite of his own knowledge of the potential for greed to lead even to death because of his own nature. his may be the case because, interestingly indeed, it has been argued that the Pardoner is meant by Chaucer to be a eunuch, which might explain why he continues to be greedy in that one of his biggest sources of pleasure, since he cannot derive sexual
  8. 8. Literary Analysis of The Pardoner’s Tale s for the thematic concerns of The Pardoner’s Tale itself, what are they? bviously the main theme, or one of them anyway, as stated by the Pardoner himself in the prologue, is greed or avarice, which he says is the root of all evil in spite of him not seeming to care much about his own warnings of the evil to which the vice certainly can lead (Chaucer). nd of course it is true that greed or avarice is one of the central themes, but perhaps even more fundamental to the tale is the theme of death, who is also a personified and apparently unseen character called Death, and also the closely related theme of aging or old age itself (Bushnell; Chaucer; Hamilton; Owen).
  9. 9. Literary Analysis of The Pardoner’s Tale he themes of old age, aging, and dying are all related to the most fascinating character in the tale, the character of the Old Man. he character of the Old Man has been a hotly debated issue in the study of The Canterbury Tales in general, and this tale in particular for many years (Bushnell; Hamilton; Owen). ho is this man really? s he hiding something? hat does he represent in the story? ll of these questions and other have been of concern to many for a
  10. 10. Literary Analysis of The Pardoner’s Tale o who is the Old Man who arguably holds the key to understanding the entire tale? ne may quickly assume, and admittedly with good reason, that he I a messenger of Death or Death himself, and that he purposefully tricks the men into finding the treasure because he knows what will become of them and either wants this to happen or doesn’t care if it does at the very least (Bushnell; Hamilton; Owen). his is certainly a possibility, but a much more interesting proposition to many is the idea that the Old Man is meant to be an at least partly Biblically-based folkloric character known as The Wandering Jew (Bushnell; Hamilton; Owen).
  11. 11. Literary Analysis of The Pardoner’s Tale he Wandering Jew, who there were reported sightings of for a number of centuries, was as his name implies a Jew who wandered, but beyond that the details of who precisely he was often differed (Bushnell). ne thing that was widely agreed upon however, was that The Wandering Jew was a man who did something cruel to Christ during the course of the Passion and that he was condemned by Christ to live eternally until his return (Bushnell). hile no one will ever know for certain if Chaucer intended the Old Man to be The Wandering Jew, there is compelling evidence that it certainly would have been a distinct possibility (Bushnell).
  12. 12. Literary Analysis of The Pardoner’s Tale ike The Wandering Jew, the Old Man in Chaucer’s story is a wanderer, unable to die, old, world-weary seemingly even beyond his years even as old as he appears to be, and seemingly piously devout in his relationship with God (Bushnell). lso like The Wandering Jew he says he wishes he could essentially change bodies or at least conditions thereof with someone young, which can be interpreted as a reference to the generally agreed upon characteristic of The Wandering Jew wherein after reaching a certain age, usually said to be a level of of aging equivalent to being one-hundred or the end of the one-hundredth year, he would regenerate to the age he was at the Passion, and begin the cycle again, aging and wandering about until Christ’s return (Bushnell).
  13. 13. Conclusion learly there are a few interpretations of The Pardoner’s Tale which are widely accepted by different factions of literary analysts be they of professional or arm-chair variety. owever, what everyone should be able to agree upon is that The Pardoner’s Tale can only be understood by first understanding something of the teller of the tale, both the fictional teller of the Pardoner, and the real teller as well, namely Chaucer himself, and also that the themes of the tale and the central character of the Old Man, whatever one’s interpretation of him may be, must be as well.
  14. 14. Works Cited Bushnell, Nelson Sherwin. "The Wandering Jew and The Pardoner's Tale." Studies in Philology 28.3 (1931): 450-60. JSTOR. Web. 20 Oct. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4172104>. Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. Print. Hamilton, Marie Padgett. "Death and Old Age in The Pardoner's Tale." Studies in Philology 36.4 (1939): 571-76. JSTOR. Web. 20 Oct. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4172460>. Miller, Robert P. "Chaucer's Pardoner, the Scriptural Eunuch, and The Pardoner's Tale." Speculum 30.2 (1955): 180-99. JSTOR. Web. 20 Oct. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2848465>. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. Print. Owen, W. J. B. "The Old Man in 'The Pardoner's Tale'" The Review of English Studies ns 2.5 (1951): 49-55. JSTOR. Web. 20 Oct. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/511910>.

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