Throughout The Pardoner's Tale, one of his greatest works, Chaucer portrays a vast selection of different characters, themes and narrative techniques to present a moral, yet gothic tale. Being one of the few Tales that Chaucer actually completed, The Pardoner's Tale is one of his best-known works: Chaucer explores both personality and motive throughout this complex and distinct work of creative fiction. Generally being placed about halfway through the incomplete Canterbury Tales, The Pardoner's Tale essentially reflects on everyday medieval England, allowing the Chaucerian audience to relate to and be drawn into the world Chaucer creates. Chaucer successfully seems to combine the macabre with a sermon on avarice as he preaches against a group of three habitual sinners. Having predated the gothic era The Pardoner's Tale may not necessarily be understood as a gothic text; however Chaucer seems to echo some of the later gothic elements that dominated the 18th century. The Pardoner's Tale presents a sermon on avarice that effectively combines with Chaucer's particular emphasis on the macabre: Chaucer reveals a Tale with both moral and essentially gruesome qualities.
When considering the complex structure of The Pardoner's Tale it would appear that both the Prologue and the Tale fit together in such a way that much is centred on the actual character of the Pardoner as well as the Tale he tells. Beginning his tale with a lengthy sermon on the sins he claims the three riotous characters commit, the Pardoner presents the idea of sin from a universal perspective. This deliberate universalising may be linked to the Pardoner's decision to set the Tale "in Flaudres", a foreign country: one he could be almost certain that none of the congregation he preaches would have visited. The Pardoner appears powerful yet deceiving as he creates a detached, fairytale setting. He focuses on drunkenness and gluttony as he draws attention to sins that are present in everyday society, yet the detachment he creates with the setting allows him to ensure he doesn't criticise his audience. A detached, non-naturalistic and vague setting seems to support gothic tradition: the Pardoner is demonstrating his sermonising skills to the pilgrims, yet in contrast to his distant setting the Pardoner creates anticipation among his listeners as he leads up to his strong moral message. Chaucer effectively creates a fine balance between what the audience already understand the Pardoner to be from his confession; confident yet corrupt, and the moral side of the tale he is to tell. Ironically, the Pardoner is guilty of the exact same sins he preaches against, however he presents his sermon in a way that shocks and repels and essentially supports his character.
The Pardoner proves that he can speak powerfully and at length against a range of sins as he focuses on the sins that the men excess in: drinking, eating, sexual indulgence and gambling. The Pardoner automatically presents his disapproval and condemnation of what they are doing as he refers to "the devel sacrifise". The mention of the devil also links to later on when the Pardoner suggests that women "blowe the fyr or lecherye". While 'lecherye' refers to sexual excess, the reference to 'fyr' connotes the idea of hell and the devil: it is women that do the devils work and conduct men to indulge in sexual fantasy. The Pardoner is preaching to his audience as he creates a world or symbolic excess with archetypal characters that will suit the moral purposes of his Tale. There is shock quality to what the Pardoner reveals that proves both thrilling and obnoxious as the tone darkens.
From line 199 the Pardoner demonstrates the sins of drunkenness; he uses detailed references and allusions to biblical sources and also people from civilisation to support the sin of drinking. The Pardoner starts with a reference to "Loothe" who "Lay by his doughtres": Lot was believed to have been drunk when he slept with his daughter, however while this may have been unwittingly the Pardoner highlights the fact that Lot was drunk. The Pardoner continues his tirade against drunkenness when he mentions "Herodes...Whan he of wyn was repleet at his feeste...To sleen the Baptist John". The Pardoner suggests that Herod only ordered the head of John Baptist, a follower of Jesus, because he was drunk. The Pardoner seems to balance out his own personal views with that of learned references such as Biblical and classical allusions; his references authenticate what he is saying and in turn make him look more wise and trustworthy. While these references may support his moral tale and highlight the sinfulness of drinking, it is also a chance for the Pardoner to show just how effective he is at preaching to deceive. He is clever and manipulative and in revealing such effects of drinking the Pardoner captures both the attention of his pilgrims and the Chaucerian audience; allusions would engage the audience and were a key part of the tone and style of the language. Chaucer seems to combine his sermon on avarice with the darker and thrilling character of the Pardoner in order to shock and provoke his audience.
The Pardoner moves onto the sin of "glotonye" and when talking to the audience he wouldn't just be thinking about the immediate consequences of the sin but also the idea of eternal damnation. The Pardoner refers to "Adam oure fader...Eet of the fruit defended on the tree..." as he suggests that Adam is cast out of the Garden of Eden because of Gluttony. The Pardoner has distorted this traditional story to support his tirade against gluttony. Traditionally the sin would have been of temptation; the Pardoner changes the sin to gluttony on behalf of Adam, not Eve, in order to support his own purposes. Chaucer uses a very powerful and vivid attack on gluttony as it is suggested that if men knew of what suffering would come from gluttony then "He wolde been the moore measurable". Chaucer presents the Pardoner as a hypocrite, we know his audience would be terrified at what he says, yet ironically the Pardoner is guilty of the exact same sin. The theme of malicious corruption is a rife here, giving the text a darker, gothic atmosphere.
The Pardoner makes three references to St. Paul which provide a contrast with the earlier angry and graphic imagery: after the Pardoner's second reference it would appear that the Tale is rapidly gaining momentum. The Pardoner uses rhetoric, triple structure when exclaiming "O wombe! O bely! O stinking cod". These graphic, descriptive words strengthen the Pardoner's argument: he finds gluttons disgusting, focusing on physical disruption and decay. Chaucer also includes humour within the Pardoner's tirade against gluttony as he refers to the sounds that are made from the gluttons' body: "At either ende of thee foul is the soun" creates a comic effect, and although it is considered to be Chaucerian humour, this would also powerfully display the Pardoner's disgust and revulsion towards the gluttons. Chaucer uses graphic and repellent descriptions that link to the sin of gluttony. As the sermon progresses, the Pardoner is advancing upon starting the actual Tale; Chaucer delivers a sermon on avarice, with seemingly moral undertones as the Pardoner condemns such sins. However the sermon is told in a way that the Pardoner explicitly tells of such gruesome consequences resulting from gluttony, including very earthy and vivid imagery of physical effects of over indulgence.
The theme of corruption, physical decline and decay is also evident throughout this section; Chaucer, through the Pardoner, creates awareness of the physical decay of both objects and people. The Pardoner reminds the pilgrims that "Attilla, the grete conquerour, Deyde in his sleepe, with shame and dishonour" The Pardoner seems to focus on past tragedies to support and authenticate his argument as well as engage his pilgrims. He focuses on death and humiliation as he highlights that dying whilst asleep is no way for a hero to die