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Analyzing the "Merchant's Tale" and the "Pardoner's Tale" in Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales"

Luke Holm earned bachelor's degrees in English and philosophy from NIU. He is a middle school teacher and a creative writer.

"The Canterbury Tales"

"The Canterbury Tales"

Repercussion in The Canterbury Tales

Many tales in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales focus on the payback theme. The payback theme is often used when one character feels wronged by another character’s tale.

Then, more often than not, in the following tale, the character who felt wronged in some way will take judgment into their own hands by telling their own tale in a way that avenges their hurt feelings or slandered estate. While this childish form of quarrel rarely reveals anything aside from the characters’ inner morality, it still does so in an openly suggestive way. What then would happen if a character told a tale and did not receive a payback tale?

While the Merchant’s Tale is commonly told in juxtaposition with other marriage tales, and the Pardoner’s Tale is commonly known as a hypocritical tale told by a man with a hollow soul, I believe both tales represent one large theme in common: repercussion.

Tales of Deception

The Merchant's and Pardoner's tale share an epiphany of two types of repercussions--that which comes from deception and that which comes from allowing oneself to be deceived.

The first is the ultimate repercussions of the deceiver. In the Merchant’s tale, the Merchant’s wife is the deceiver. She ends up associating with a being that possesses a demonic name, Damian, and the tale later suggests that she pays a severe price for her actions. The second comes about when juxtaposing Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales with Dante’s Inferno. This epiphany suggests that the Pardoner’s greed led to deceit of man which was bad, but his deceit toward God would make him pay the ultimate price. The second form of repercussion comes to those who allow themselves to be deceived, also known as blind faith.

In light of those gullible enough to be deceived in such ways as the Merchant’s and Pardoner’s tale, I believe Chaucer also provides subtle warnings to those who do not think for themselves by satirizing blind faith and unintelligence. In the Merchant's tale, the Merchant was once blind, cured of his blindness, but ultimately continued to see blindly by suggestion from his wife. In the Pardoner's Prologue, the Pardoner tells a story about those who blindly follow anything in the name of religion. In the Pardoner’s tale, he tells of a man who was blinded by his greed, but paid the ultimate price for his plot against his friends and was deceived to his death. In each tale, there are repercussions for both the deceiver and the deceived.

Deception occurs in the Merchant's Tale

Deception occurs in the Merchant's Tale

Deception in The Merchant's Tale

Even though the Merchant’s tale typically epitomizes unfaithfulness and stupidity in relationship to the other marriage tales, I also saw it as a tale where Chaucer punishes the deceiver not by satire within the next tale, but by subtle hints of repercussions soon to follow. In the Merchant’s tale, the Merchant tells a story of a sixty-year-old blind man named Januarie who decides to finally get married. “Ther as a wedded man in his estaat, / Liveth a lyf blisful and ordinaat, / Under the yok of mariage y-bounde. / Wel may his herte in joye and blisse habounde” (Merchant’s Tale 1283-86). Aside from the initial slur about the foolishness, or possibly brilliance as suggested by his friends, of an older gentleman taking a young bride as his wife, the Merchant ends up taking a girl named May in wedlock.

When the tale turns its focus on the Merchant’s wife May, Chaucer again reflects upon an inevitable outcome that arises from forcing a woman to marry anyone, let alone an older man such as the Merchant himself. Even though January and May are freshly married, Chaucer’s inevitable antagonist comes into the picture to steal the wife’s virtue from herself and her husband. “Now I wol speke of woful Damian, . . . / Eeek if thou speke, she wol thy wo biwreye. / God be thyn help–I can no bettre seye” (1866, 1873-74). In the Merchant’s tale, Damian symbolizes Satan who in the Garden of Eden strays Eve away from her original faithful servitude of her master, Adam, her husband.

Since Damian is often a literary name for a being with an innate presence of evil about it, one could easily infer what is about to happen. Just like Eve in Eden, May is taken under Damian’s spell and she begins to plot against her husband January. “And privee signes, wiste he what she mente, / And she knew eek the fyn of his entente” (2105-06). May, knowing full well what both Damian’s and her own intentions were, devised a plan to let Damian into January’s garden so that Damian can make love to her.

By the end of the tale, Chaucer suggests the ultimate repercussion of May’s deceit against her husband. In the garden several symbolic elements signify May’s ultimate price for trickery and deceit. “I moste han of the peres that I see / I telle yow wel, a womman in my plyt” (2331, 2334). When January’s eyes are opened by Pluto, he sees May and Damian she claims, “I have yow holpe on bothe your eyen blind. / Up peril of my soule I shal nat lyen: / As me was taught, to hele with your yen / Was nothing bet to make yow to see / Than strugle with a man upon a tree” (2370-74).

Even when clearly caught, May continues to deceive her husband. By the end of the tale, it seems that her repercussion is to carry and bear a demon child. Symbolically, the affair with Damian suggests an affair with evil. The affair taking place in a pear tree in the master’s garden suggests the analogous tone comparable with Eve taking the forbidden fruit in Eden. Also, the pear symbolizes fertility, in which at the end of the Merchant’s tale, Damian suggests that he impregnated May. “And on hir wombe he stroketh hir ful softe” (2414).

What deception occurs in the "Pardoner's Tale"?

What deception occurs in the "Pardoner's Tale"?

Deception in The Pardoner's Tale

In the Pardoner’s tale, Chaucer displays the deceiver in two ways: as the Pardoner outside of his tale, and as two out of three of the characters within the Pardoner’s tale. During the Pardoner’s prologue, he tells of his deceit toward man. “My theme is alwey oon, and evere was– / Rasix malorum est Cupiditas” (Pardoner’s Tale 333-34). Even though the Pardoner openly states that he knows what he is doing is wrong, “For myn entente is nat but for to winne, / And nothing for correccioun of sinne” (403-04), he does not repent his trespasses against his fellow man. Some critics suggest that even though deceit against self and fellow man is a crime punishable in hell, the Pardoner’s ultimate repercussion is something much greater.

When the Pardoner is juxtaposed with “Canto XI” of Dante’s Inferno, it seems that his trespasses have surpassed that of being against man or self, and are ultimately deceit against God himself. Since the Pardoner is a member of the clergy, he is bound to a life working in the light of God and the Church. While the Pardoner knows he is being hypocritically deceitful in his preaching to man, it was suggested that he is also being deceitful toward God because of his continuous fraud in the name of God.

If the Pardoner was subjected to Dante’s Inferno and its multiple levels of hell, we arrive at the conclusion that the Pardoner would end up in a deeper realm of deceit, not deceit against man which was fraud in the eighth circle, but deceit against God himself, which was considered betrayal. This level of hell is envisioned by Dante in “Canto XI” as the ninth circle of punishment for sinners. In this circle, the Pardoner would pay for his sins of betrayal against God, whether he realized consciously what he was doing or not.

Dante then asks Virgil why usury was a sin. Virgil explains to Dante that usury goes against God's will because a usurer makes his money not from industry or skill, but by other people’s money just as the Pardoner did. Because of his ultimate deceit against God, we conclude that the Pardoner would pay a bigger price than if he were to only deceive man. However, while Chaucer shows that the implications of being a deceiver are severe, he also subtly suggests that the implications of a blind believer could be just as bad.

In the Merchant’s tale and the Pardoner’s tale, Chaucer satirizes those who are gullible, unintelligible, and easily swayed to believe things that clearly are not true.


Blind Faith in The Merchant's Tale

The second type of repercussion Chaucer exemplifies is that of blind faith, or that of being deceived. To those who allow themselves to be deceived, those who believe what they are told without taking into consideration their own thoughts, and those who are fearful of losing their easy lives as blind sheep led by untrustworthy shepherds, Chaucer suggests foolishness in the minds of the deceived. Chaucer states that those who have characteristics of unintelligible conclusions in matters that are clearly defined will never change their ways. These foolish people who allow themselves to be deceived are fearful of a life outside of their lifelong deceit. They do not want their “bubble” popped, so they continue along the same path, unwilling to see the truth, even though it is literally right in front of their eyes.

In the Merchant’s tale, Chaucer physically makes “January, as blind as is a stoon” (Merchant’s Tale 2156). Aside from January’s initial foolishness of taking a young maiden as his bride, he also either tricks himself into believing or is too unintelligible to know the truth of his wife’s affair in the garden with Damian. While May and Damian are “wrestling” in the pear tree, the god Pluto takes pity on January because January is physically blind, meaning he cannot see the clear deceit of his wife directly above him. In an attempt to make January see the truth, Pluto open’s January’s physical eyes so that he may see better in his mind. “And whan that Pluto saugh this grete wrong, / To Januarie he gaf agayn his sighte / And made him see as wel as ever he mighte. / Up to the tree he caste his eyen two / And saugh that Damian his wyf had dressed” (2355-57, 2359-2360).

Just as Chaucer has suggested all those who live a life deceived do, eventually January is swayed into believing that his wife was merely wrestling so that he may gain his sight once again. Clearly, January looked up into the symbolic fertility of the pear tree and saw that his wife’s dress was up and that she was fornicating with Damian. “‘Ye, sire,’ quod [May], ‘ye may wene as yow lest; / But, sire a man that waketh out of his sleep, He may nat sodeynly wel taken keep / Upon a thing, ne seen it parfitly” (2396-99). Obviously deceived by his wife, January disregards all that he saw.

Even though Pluto opened up his physical eyes so that his mind could see the trickery that was displayed before him, January did not succeed in seeing past the blindness of his mind. By the end of the Merchant’s tale, Chaucer clearly shows how even though a man can see the truth clearly with his own eyes, the man will most likely disregard such truths so that he may continue living his life as a lie within a constant dream. In the end, the Merchant’s repercussion for allowing himself to be deceived is to have an impure wife who now holds the spawn of a demon within her. This demon child will be his son whom he thinks is of his own blood, but is in fact not.


Blind Faith in the Pardoner's Tale

Finally, Chaucer dovetails January’s gullibility with the gullibility of those living a lie in the Pardoner’s prologue and tale. In the Pardoner’s prologue, he very clearly states what he does in life. “By this gaude have I wonne, yeer by yeer, / An hundred mark sith I was pardoner. / I stonde lyke a clerk in my pulpet, / And what the lewed peple is doun y-set, / I preche, so as ye han herde bifore, / And telle an hundred falso japes more” (Pardoner’s Tale 389-394). The Pardoner’s goal in life is to live off of the ignorant public. He claims that those who are deceived can clearly be told that they are being deceived, but ultimately they will continue to live a life as a sham and a lie.

By openly stating what the Pardoner’s plans of deceit are, but having the people still believe in the original lies they were told, Chaucer satirizes those who are deceived by false preachers. Chaucer reflects that those who live by false terms will live a life like January, blinded by faith and thus blinded in the mind. It seems that these people are worse than the Pardoner, because not only can they clearly see the false testimonies, they are also told of the false testimonies by the preacher giving the testimony.

In the end of the Pardoner’s tale, he reverts back to his old ways and attempts to sell holy relics and false religious ideals to the very same people he just admitted his deceit to. “But sires, o word forgat I in my tale: / I have relikes and pardon in my male / As faire as any man in Engelond, / Whiche were me yeven by the popes hond” (919-922). Here, we see the repercussion of those who are deceived. It seems that only the Host is bold enough to stand up against the misdoing that the Pardoner clearly just displayed. As for the rest of the group, they sit quietly, still believing things such as “Offren and han myn absolucioun, / Cometh forth anon, and kneleth heer adoun, / And mekely receyveth my pardoun” (924-26). The repercussion is that of allowing for one’s self to live a life in blind faith. Many wonder that if what the Pardoner says about his tricks is true, what ultimate meaning does this give to their life? For many, the answer is little to no meaning. Just like January in the Merchant’s tale, this lack of meaning results in a continual dream state where the people know the truth, have seen the truth, but continue to live a lie.


There is No Cure for a Blind Mind

In conclusion, throughout Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer marks subtle hints of the repercussions for those who deceive and those who allow themselves to be deceived. Obviously, just like in Dante’s Inferno, those who deceive reap greater repercussions than those who allow themselves to be deceived. But, while the implications for those who have wronged others resides with evil, such as May’s association with Damian and the Pardoner’s ultimate deceit in self in the midst of a fraudulent life with God, those who allow themselves to be deceived must also pay a price. The price of the deceived is an untrue life. Their life is filled with the nagging and justified suspicion that like the scams they allow themselves to believe, their life has also turned into a scam of self deceit.

Chaucer reflects that you can tell a person the truth all you want, just as the Pardoner does in his initial preaching of his own hypocritical fashion, but, ultimately, people will believe what makes them feel most secure and untroubled in life. People enjoy the false illusion that they are deceived into believing. When they are told of this deceit, they push the truth out of their minds and continue to live in a bubble-like fantasy land where all is good and there is no wrong that has been taught in their life.

© 2018 JourneyHolm