The narrative art of Chaucer finds its fullest expression in The Pardoner’s Tale. It is so gripping that it can be enjoyed on its own. Its story is compelling and has been narrated with a powerful and terrible force. It arouses our curiosity at every step, arrests our attention and binds us with its spell. It is interesting, it is fascinating. It possesses God’s plenty, suspense, thrill, melodrama, sensational element, humour, pathos and unifying irony.
The Prologue and the Sermon Interlude: It has been told that the Prologue and the Sermon are digressions and retard. The free flow of the action, but it is not so. The Prologue has nothing to do with the story proper. It precedes the story and does not come in between to retard the free flow of the action. It. however, is related to the tale with one aspect-the avarice which brings about the downfall of the Pardoner and the destruction of the Three Rioters. The Sermon-Interlude seems to be a digression but it is the integral part of the Tale. The Sermon is the offshoot of the Tale, and grows and develops out of it. We can also say that the Sermon is illustrated by the Tale. As the Prologue is related to the Tale with avarice, the Sermon is related to it with the vices of drinking, swearing and gambling of the Rioters had not been drunk they would not have chased Death and had they not been avariciously addicted to gambling they would not have broken the ties of brotherhood. would not have killed each other. Thus the Sermon is relevant to the story which it seems to interrupt. Ian Bishop has observed that the free and unimpeded flow of action has been made possible only because the author has contrived to introduce into the earlier part of his narrative much of the required information.
Moreover, the Sermon is never tedious. It is marked by variety, eloquence, dramatic quality and rhetorical flourishes. Chaucer makes the Sermon interesting by the examples of Lot. Herod, Attila, Adam and Eve, Stilboun, Matthew, Jeremicb, the King Demetrius and other Biblical and historical references. There is variety in the style also. Sometimes the style is marked by rhetorical flourishes, exclamations and personification and sometimes it is marked by simplicity and colloquial turns. Then again the variety is produced by the unifying irony, fantastic comic effect, and the brilliant, entertaining comedy.
The Story: A brief description of the story will show how interesting and gripping the story is.
The Tale opens with the morning scene which is fresh and entertaining. The Three Rioters have started drinking even before the Church bell rings to summon the Christians to prayer. There is then the telling of the bell. the carrying of the dead body, the dialogues between the Rioters and the tavern-Boy and between the Rioters and the tavern Keeper. All this arouses our curiosity. The Rioters are so much enraged that they swear brotherhood and resolve to kill Death. Then there is their meeting with the Old Man, their dialogue with him, which is functional and moves the story ahead. The Old Man’s humility and wisdom are contrasted with the arrogance and folly of the Rioters. When the Old Man is threatened with death in case he does not tell them the whereabouts of Death, he sends them on the crooked path to the Oak tree in a grove nearby.
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Our attention is arrested by curiosity and suspense. On reaching there the Rioters are mad with joy. They forget their resolve to seek Death and sit by the treasure of the gay golden florins which they suddenly find under the Oak tree. Now there is drama in store with thrill and suspense. One of the Rioters is sent to bring bread and wine while the other two guard the treasure. Now they are tempted by Covetousness. They want the treasure all for themselves. The remaining to plot the murder of the younger Rioter who has gone to town. The sworn brotherhood is changed to sworn enmity by greed. The younger Rioter wants to poison the other two so that he may possess the whole wealth. He buys poison little knowing that he will die first. So when he returns with wine and bread, the other two fight with this younger Rioter as if in game and stab him. The other two ironically enjoy now felicity. They celebrate the death of their brother over wine and bread. Postponing his burial till the time they enjoy, little knowing that they will be buried along with him. They drink the poisoned wine. Writhe in agony of pain and die. Thus the story is powerfully told and is marked with curiosity, suspense. Thrill, drama, dramatic irony. Blood. Murder melodrama, sensational material and the unifying dramatic irony.
A Well Knit Story:
The story is well organised, well knit together. The tale reads easily. Flows freely and smoothly. The comedy and tragedy, the knavery and villainy, the mystery and bafflement are perfectly organised into orderliness. The different parts of the Tale are closely interlinked and form an organic whole. The story is bound not only by the thematic unity but also by the unifying irony and by a whole some pattern of parallelisms and contrasts which runs throughout the tale. There is a sort of architectonic quality in the Tate. The interdependence between plot and character. There is a sort of relentless inevitability in the tale. The catastrophe results as a result of the interaction between the characters and the events. The Rioters bring their deaths upon themselves as a result of their sins. B.A. Windeatt observes about the structure of the Tale in the following words.
It will always seem difficult to write about The Pardoner’s Tale of Chaucer. The story is so compelling and Chaucer presents it with such terrible force. That many a reader will feel that its main pleasure communicates itself in the act of reading and that modern writing about the tale can only clear up points of detail. It is true that the story of the three young men’s search for Death has this terrifying simplicity in itself. The form and structure of the story are its meaning and leave little more to say. But the story of the search for Death is only part of the total structure of The Pardoner’s Tale. Although it does from what the Pardoner would himself call his tale. It forms only a part of the whole. While the story is the climax which completes the unity of the tale in meaning and form, we also have to consider the larger framework of preaching by the Pardoner within which the tale of the search for Death is presented.
There is in the story no digression. There is nothing irrelevant about it. There is here no diffuseness, no prolixity, no superfluity, no dilatoriness. The narration is swift and straight forward, with little to distract the attention of the reader. There is in the Tale the concentrated movement, the breathless rapidity and the terrifying suddenness. Critics have criticised the Sermon-Interlude as superfluous. But this, like the Prologue precedes the story proper. The Prologue may be distracting, though it is not. However, once the story, starts the action moves forward with the relentless speed to the inevitable conclusion. Here are two examples from the Tale to evidence the economy. The murder of the younger Rioter has been planned in detail but Chaucer is brief about the actual murder.
What nedeth it to sermone of it moore?
For right as they hadde cast his deeth bifoore
Right so they han hym slayn, and that anon.
The reason behind this brief description of the immediate murder is that Chaucer attaches no significance for the bodily death, once they are dead spiritually.
Another example of the economy is that after the two Rioters drink poisoned wine they suffer intensely but Chaucer does not give the prolonged description of their agony because this would have aroused sympathy for them in the hearts of the readers. He gives only four lines to their suffering:
But certes, I suppose that A vycen
Wroot nevere in no canon, ne in no fen;
Mo wonder signes of empoisonyng
Than hadde thise wrecches two er hir endyng,
The dialogues in the Tale impart a dramatic quality to the Tale. The whole story reads like a play of Shakespeare with the impersonality of characters and the inevitability of the catastrophe. The dialogues are functional and help to develop the story as much as the narration does. There are dialogues between the Three Rioters and the tavern-Boy, the Rioters and the tavern-keeper, the Rioters and the Old Man, and between the Rioters themselves which moves the story ahead. The characters. as in a drama. have been drawn impersonally and presented psychologically. Chaucer reads the inner motives of the two elder Rioters and reveals their foul motives and schemes as perfectly as Shakespeare reveals those of Antonio and Sebastian in The Tempest. Thus, Chaucer is a perfect story-teller and The Pardoner’s Tale is one of his finest tales. B.A. Windeatt observes in this respect.
Chaucer is presenting The Pardoners Tale within two frames. It is part of the larger unity of The Canterbury Tales, but within that large frame the tale itself must be seen as framed by the character of the Pardoner who is telling it. The tale does not exist for itself, as it did in the folk-tale versions in which Chaucer probably knew it. It exists as part of a performance by the Pardoner in which he demonstrates his preaching skills. The whole structure of introduction, Prologue and Tale is designed so that the tale reflects back on its teller.