Uncovering Chaucer's Pardoner (Paper Abstract) by Eric Tinsay Valles

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Presented at the Geoffrey Chaucer session of the Central New York Conference on Language and Literature at the State University of New York(Cortland) on October 29, 2001

THE performance of Chaucer's Pardoner of Rouncivale is characterized by doubleness. This fact has led recent Chaucerian criticism to diverge in portraying him as either blighted with a hideous physical defect (advocated by the likes of Curry and Patterson) or suffering an aberrant sexual orientation (McAlpine). I posit that his protean act can be better understood as a disguise that is, as a fictive technique that aims primarily to expose the characters moral fragmentation. I will present my reading of The Pardoner's Tale within the frame of the interpretive theory of St. Augustine of Hippo with the hope of extending and clarifying early pioneering work in this field. St. Augustine, who arose from a time of social and moral upheaval, can put in proper perspective the contrarieties that slide and scrape at the core of the Pardoner. Within that interpretive frame, the Pardoner can be revealed as a metaphorical figure that conceals an inherent nothingness behind his disguise. Moreover, a careful reading of The Pardoner's Tale shows that it is an apposite illustration of major Augustinian themes, especially those expounded in the early, obscure treatise On Lying. The Pardoner's avowal that his main theme is the Pauline aphorism Radix Malorum est cupiditas (334, 426, I Timothy 6:10) and subsequent description of his modus operandi have thrown many critics off the scent of what truly ails and peynes (330) his character.

In the Augustinian mindset, the Pardoner is in a parasitic state, dependent wholly on the truth that he parodies for an existential grounding. The prevailing truth system that the Pardoner seeks to thwart retains dominance over his version of the truth. His language slips to expose fealty to a transcendental signified. According to St. Augustine, the law of love is the ultimate standard and end of interpretation. Any writer or rhetorician, such as the Pardoner, however, may fall into error, which may degenerate into sin or the willful turning away from the invisible God, author of the law of love, toward the love of oneself. The Pardoner functions as an anthropomorphized emptiness, a radical Other that neither feels remorse for past transgressions nor gains acceptance from a society whose laws he has transgressed. His performance may be defined as a lie, which in the Augustinian sense is a kind of evil or privation of a good (or truth). His character, in turn, fits the Augustinian view of a liar as having a double heart that is, there is a double thought: the one, of that thing which he either knows or thinks to be true and does not produce; the other, of that thing which he produces instead thereof, knowing or thinking it to be false ( On Lying 458). Ironically, the Pardoner has ensconced himself in a career as a surrogate confessor remitting temporal punishment due to sins. He peddles phony relics that supplant the saving absolution of a legitimate priest. The Pardoner's exemplum is a clever device whose end is to establish his authority over a band of pilgrims. He seeks to turn his audience into copies of himself, a non-being trapped in material concerns.

A film reel; Actual size=240 pixels wide

Geoffrey Chaucer
(image from http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~chaucer/ )