Chapter 13

The Pardoner and the Word of Death

THIS BOOK concludes with an analysis of The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale, for several reasons, some more obvious than others. Most obvious is that the Pardoner of all Chaucer's posers is the most skillful, theatrical, and elusive. Only slightly less obvious is the connection in the Pardoner and his discourse between language and money. He is obsessed with both and uses the one as a magnet for the other: "`Of avarice and of swich cursednesse / Is al my prechyng, for to make hem free / To yeven hir pens'" (PardP C 400-402; emphasis added). Then there is the emphasis on "entente," this word so insistent in Chaucer's vocabulary: not only does it occur three times (lines 403, 423, 432), but the problem which revolves around it is vivid in the Pardoner's claim that "`though myself be a ful vicious man / A moral tale yet I yow telle kan'" (lines 459-60). Here is an open breach between intent and content, and the emergent crisis of reference demands attention and scrutiny. Next, less obvious but no less important than these other reasons, is the insistence on buying and especially on the buying of the Redemption. On three occasions the Pardoner recurs to the "buying again" which Christ's sacrifice effected, and twice he uses the exact phrase "boght agayn," as if the etymology of "redemptio" held some sort of magical power for his own personal redemption (PardTC 501, 766, 902). Answering to this insistence on the Redemption is Harry Bailly's pointed remark, just before he calls on the Pardoner, about Virginia of the Physician's Tale: "`Allas, to deere boughte she beautee!'" (Phy-PardL C 293; emphasis added). In addition, there is the large and almost oppressive fact, if also usually implicit, that the Pardoner's audiences as a rule "buy" his words-- his, so to speak, "pitch"--when he wins pence from them (see PardP C 403-404). The Pardoner's desire for personal redemption, I think we can suggest, is, in fact, displaced and materialized in the purchase of him which his audiences make when they buy his words.{211/212}

The manner of this displacement is crucial to understanding the Pardoner and the crisis of reference; in fact, it relates to the final and perhaps most important reason for concluding this book with the Pardoner, or the agon in his prologue and tale between the literal and the allegorical. Commentary on this and related matters is by now very extensive. 1 Here I make no pretense to the last word and certainly no attempt at a summary of all the previous words. I do propose, however, to open the question of the letter and the spirit from the position which this book has so far mapped out. In particular, I will argue that, if the Merchant's allegory is counterfeit, the Pardoner's is, on the contrary, true; and the truth in which he deals, I will go on to argue, is what makes him so dark and ominous a figure. He is a liar, a consummate liar, who nonetheless deals in the truth, and deals in it even to the point of truly confessing that he lies. This mixture of truth and lies resembles the mixture of life and death in the Pardoner. For a lie is the word of death. Recall that the Father of lies (John 8.44) brought death into the world (Sap. 2.24); and "when the Devil speaks a lie, he speaks from his own" (John 8.44), and just so the Pardoner "from his own speaks" (from his own "proper") when he lies. But when he lies, his word of death is a very live word, having its own strange efficacy. Hence the word of death (a lie) is the death of the word--but while it still lives. And is this not the Pardoner? A living death?


The Pardoner recurs to the Redemption twice in his own voice, once in that of the Old Man. The first time he is castigating gluttony (PardT 500-504):
O original of oure dampnacioun,
Til Crist hadde boght us with his blood agayn!
Lo, how deere, shortly for to sayn,
Aboght was thilke cursed vileynye!
Corrupt was al this world for glotonye.

The second time, at the end of the tale, he is attacking the "cursed synne of alle cursednesse" (lines 900-903):
Allas! mankynde, how may it bitide
That to thy creatour, which that the wroghte
And with his precious herte-blood thee boghte,
Thou art so fals and so unkynde, allas?

Finally, the Old Man, as he directs the revelers to Death, says (lines 765-67):
"Se ye that ook? Right there ye shal hym fynde.
God save yow, that boghte agayn mankynde,
And yow amende."
{212/213}

Note in passing that in the first example the Pardoner uses "bought" twice ("Aboght was thilke cursed vileynye"); and I suspect that the point he is suggesting is that, as Adam dearly bought damnation, so Christ in turn bought us back from damnation, just as dearly. In good homiletic fashion he is alluding to the doctrine of first and second Adam, so emphasized by Saint Paul. 2 But whether or not he is, in fact, flourishing his preacher's skill in this way, certainly the notion of buying holds some special importance for him. And we can trace this importance to its source in his longing for personal redemption, a longing which is part of a personality at once desperately incomplete and unbearably brilliant.

That the Pardoner's personality is incomplete should need no arguing: he is a "geldyng" or a "mare" (GP A 691). But the amount of ink spilled in arguing anyway over these words and their implications cannot go unnoticed. Some say that the Pardoner is a eunuchus ex nativitate; some say that he is a homosexual; some say that he is a hermaphrodite; some say that the question is open; and Donaldson says that "the fact seems to be that there is good evidence that the Pardoner is and is not homosexual, and you may read him either way you please, with perfect confidence that you are probably wrong." 3 I say that all this is beside the point, the point being that the Pardoner's identity is a question to others, such as Chaucer the pilgrim, and therefore almost certainly a question to himself. To this extent, then, he is incomplete.

That the Pardoner is also an unusually brilliant man would seem evident from his skill with words: he delivers a sermon which is a model of rhetorical finesse. 4 An incomplete but brilliant man is likely to suffer wrenching emotions and as a consequence to be abnormally sensitive. Chaucer has a number of ways of suggesting this abnormal sensitivity. At this point I want to call attention to the one which I consider most important, the Pardoner's position in The General Prologue.

He comes last among the portraits. To be sure, Harry is described after the Pardoner (at lines 751-57), but in introducing the last five of his "compaignye," the last of whom is the Pardoner, Chaucer goes out of his way to remark, "there were namo" (line 544). Hence, obviously, Chaucer must have consciously placed the Pardoner last. Now in itself the Pardoner's position might indicate some special emphasis but no more. In opposition to the first position, however, and the figure who holds it, the Knight, it does considerably more than that. The Knight and the Pardoner form a polarity of far-reaching significance, especially since it is the Knight who attempts to reconcile Harry and the Pardoner at the end of the latter's sermon. 5 The Knight, in contrast to the Pardoner, enjoys the highest social status of the pilgrims; {213/214} moreover, as a crusader, he is a valuable servant of the church, though he has taken no orders as far as we know and obeys no direct mandate from Rome; his great piety seems obvious from his haste to go on the pilgrimage; and he is presumably masculine since he has fathered a son. All these characteristics, and doubtless others one could name, suggest a positive to which the Pardoner is a negative. And yet Chaucer never leaves anything so simple as that. From the tale which the Knight tells--where order is so stifling it is a kind of disorder, where a soldierly Stoicism fills out an ostensibly Christian mold, where an old man's weary wisdom disconcertingly recommends a bloodless and a dubiously Christian resignation, where the highest human achievement is the pagan and heroic, hardly Christian, ideal of good fame after death (KnT A 3047-49), and where passion is cynically laughed at (KnT A 1785-1814)--from all this it is possible to conclude that the Knight is one of the least passionate and most rigid men whom Chaucer ever imagined. 6 To this negative the Pardoner is a certain though highly problematic positive, and this is principally why Chaucer positions his portrait last. With his vivid imagination, powers of projection, and ability to identify with roles, the Pardoner could never, for example, take such a mechanical and coldly matter-of-fact position on Arcite's death as does the Knight when he describes the dissolution of the latter's body (KnT A 2743-60, especially 2759-60: "And certeinly, ther Nature wol nat wirche, / Fare wel phisik! go ber the man to chirche!"). The Pardoner would give as vivid a description, if not one more vivid; but he would entertain none of the Knight's clinical pedantry or any of his soldierly brusqueness--he would feel more of what he was saying and communicate more of that feeling. Thus he and his position counterpoise the Knight and his in order to suggest the significant difference between them, or the Pardoner's capacity for feeling.

The Pardoner's capacity for feeling, I perhaps should note, is hardly the same thing as sympathy; it is, quite the contrary, more like abnormal sensitivity. And in this condition the Pardoner suffers his mutilated personality morbidly. He is not whole, and he knows it; moreover, the community in which he must live can include him only by ostracizing him. 7 And yet, brilliant as he is, he must have an abstract appreciation of what it would be like to be whole and to belong-- he can imagine it, for imagination is supremely if also pervertedly his gift. And in his imagination would be borne the longing for personal redemption, such as Christ holds out to man, and thence would arise the obsession with buying. He keeps coming back to that possibility which he knows he can never enjoy (cf. Patterson 1976:153-73).

It is important to this argument that Christianity, both before and during Chaucer's day, emphasized the element of "purchase" in the Redemption. 8 {214/215} Saint Augustine may be considered representative: "Behold, Christ has suffered; behold, the Merchant shows us the payment; behold the price which he paid: his blood is poured out." 9

This example could be supplemented by many others from the patristic and later medieval periods. 10 More important for the moment, however, is to set the emphasis on purchase and debt in its wider scriptural context. It goes back to Paul (1 Cor. 6.20, for example) and ultimately to Christ himself (Matt. 13.44-46, for example). Christ and Paul are also responsible, in different ways, for the fundamental notion supporting the Pardoner's vocation, or the selling of pardons. For these pardons derive ultimately from the treasury of merit which Christ's sacrifice and that of his saints established in and for the church. 11 Strictly speaking, the church dispenses to the Pardoner merit from its superabundant store, and he, in turn, sells this merit in the form of pardons for a profit which is indisputably illicit in his case. Buying and selling, credit and debit, merchandising, are structured into everything the Pardoner says and does (Scheps 1977:107-23); and they are as much a part of the legitimate church as they are a part of his illegitimate desires and deeds.

A ravaged personality, mutilated; a brilliant mind, unbalanced; abnormal sensitivity; a probable desire to be saved, to be redeemed, precisely for these reasons; a profession which involves merchandising out of the store of the Redemption and the treasury of Christ. The pattern of the obsession should be clear by now.


According to Saint Augustine, men "were able to sell themselves, but they were not able to redeem themselves." 12 The Pardoner, I am suggesting, is well aware of this. He sells himself, his act, every day in his profession; but, to judge from the pattern of his obsession, he knows because he regrets that he cannot buy himself back. Only the Other can redeem. Hence his unmistakable but also nervous delight in duping his audiences: by means of his poses and impostures he wins their pence. In a very "literal" or "carnal" or material sense, they purchase him, and this purchase is a surrogate for the Redemption he can never otherwise have. Although I have used the word "literal" here, its precise application is problematical; and we will need to return again and again to the problematic of the "literal." Already we can see one element in it. If the Merchant is a "proprioloquist," always seeking his own meaning of meaninglessness, the Pardoner, on the contrary, is an "alieniloquist" because he needs and he craves the Other and others:
What results is the "vertige du même," the fear or the blank awareness that comes when you realize that you are only one, that you do not have the {215/216} colorful interest of variety about you, that there was only yourself to deal with all the time. With this recognition, with the lack of a genuine "other," you collapse into nothingness. Hence the myth of the suicide of Narcissus, the meeting in sameness that extinguishes the tautological consciousness (Massey 1976:116).

In order to escape his "tautological consciousness," the Pardoner desperately seeks the Other: hence the coruscation, the torrent, of meanings he releases in his prologue and tale--he never stops talking until Harry shuts him up.

But at the same time, all the meanings, we suspect, do somehow serve the letter; somehow they are carnal and material. Instead of the blood with which Christ redeemed man, the Pardoner desires the coin of his audiences. Instead of the sacrament which "effects what it signifies" because the blood of Christ instituted it, 13 the Pardoner desires "real" money whose tangibility and materiality solace him and whose efficacy is visible and present. For the efficacy that is invisible and intangible, the Pardoner substitutes the materiality of purchasing power. Where the pardon he preaches is sacramental, immaterial, and invisible, but efficacious for the faithful, the Pardoner himself is relentlessly carnal and material. And this because his faith, like his body, is sterile: it exists, but it bears no fruit.

My concern here is the connection between the Pardoner's sexual and spiritual conditions. Whatever the former is said to be, there seems to be little doubt that the Pardoner is physically sterile. Now from this condition, some have reasoned that he is also spiritually sterile. 14 And I agree that he is, even as I also doubt such reasoning. I doubt it because the Pardoner does in fact produce (PardP C 429-34; emphasis added):

"But though myself be gilty in that synne,
Yet kan I maken oother folk to twynne
From avarice,
and soore to repente.
But that is nat my principal entente;
I preche nothyng but for coveitise."

The Pardoner saves souls, or at least he claims that he does. He is doubtless boasting, but boasting is usually an exaggeration of fact, and given the Pardoner's powers at preaching, it is not difficult to concede the probable fact that he has saved some people from avarice. The Pardoner does, then, probably produce fruit, or good works, through the seminal power of his verbal art. But he is himself, as has rightly been said, sterile because he does not believe in this fruit; he has no faith in its efficacy--he has, as he says, a different intent. The Pardoner has no faith, though he certainly knows in the abstract what faith is, because his intent is "nothyng but for coveitise." Be- {216/217} tween him and the efficacy of the word, blocking that efficacy for him, is a covetous intent, like a dead body across the way.

The Pardoner does good works; he is sterile and faithless. So much is in keeping with his role of actor or poser or impostor: nothing in himself, he can play anyone or anything. Between his act and his "self" falls his "yvel entencioun" (line 408) to "wynne gold and silver" (line 440). Hence, of any simplistic theory of the instrumentality of words the Pardoner will make a mockery. His words are almost always duplicitous. And in the "yvel entencioun" where this duplicity arises is the failed reference of the Pardoner's "dead" or sterile body.

The Pardoner lives in a body that has no referent. He is not really a man, not really a woman, and if he is both, he is neither- -in fact, as we say of animals, he is neutrum, or neuter. And this I take to be the importance of Chaucer the pilgrim's doubt, "geldyng or a mare" (GP A 691; emphasis added)--the Pardoner is neither this nor that. In his body, consequently, the Pardoner can refer to all sorts of things; with his body, however, he can refer to nothing (not even to pleasure, I suspect, since a man who could enjoy pleasure would not dirty it the way the Pardoner does). Sterile and thus without reference with his body, the Pardoner must rely on the surrogate seed of language, in something like the same way an actor relies on the costumes and props attending a role. This surrogate seed is obviously as much a fishwife's or a sailor's or Harry Bailly's as it is the Pardoner's; and this must gall him, wound his pride. Nevertheless, it is fertile; it does produce. It produces, however, not the Pardoner's property but the converted souls of others. And the Pardoner is dependent on this creativity. Without it, he could not fulfill his "yvel entencioun." With it, he works roughly as follows. He lets the seed of language (or the seed of the signs which are his relics) inseminate others with conversion, but he charges them for it so that, as language converts them, they convert language or seed into money which then "inseminates" and "fertilizes" as it "redeems" the Pardoner and his "dead" body. 15 Words become seeds, seeds become money, and money becomes seeds to fill the Pardoner with the sexuality and fertility which he otherwise lacks. Hence the "yvel entencioun" and duplicitous reference can accurately be said to originate in the Pardoner's "dead" body. The desire to "quicken" that body gives rise to them both.

Because of his sexual anomalousness, the Pardoner indulges an "yvel entencioun" which eventuates in a "literal" or "carnal" acceptation of signs. Instead of spiritual redemption, he desires the "literal" purchase which audiences make when they pay him for preaching. But this "literalism," we can see, is peculiar: it depends, in fact, on metaphoricity. We must never forget {217/218} the Pardoner's manifest intelligence. He knows that he cannot be spiritually redeemed because he is in a state of sin. He also knows (he is too self-conscious a poser not to know) that he is playing a game with his audiences and their pence. Hence he probably also knows that he wants and accepts their hard cash because metaphorically as well as literally it is redemptive. The Pardoner knows his metaphors--every poser must. And if he takes Christ's redemption "literally," reducing it to "real" coins, he covets "real" coins in part because of their metaphoricity in the theology of Redemption: their lure for him in part is that metaphoricity. Because Christ's saving work is understood in terms of purchase, merit, treasury, wealth, and so on, these and related concepts and objects hold a special appeal for the Pardoner, who desires even as he resents and resists Christ's saving work. The Pardoner is a "literalist," yes, but to be a "literalist" in his case is to take metaphors very seriously. The word of death, to repeat, is a very live word.

Hence, one can argue that the Pardoner has a sort of faith--he takes metaphors seriously, and he believes that words are creative- -and one can argue that he produces good works. But, and this is at the center of the tragedy he suffers and the terror he inspires, the works are not the product of the faith--they are the product rather of his "yvel entencioun" to "wynne gold and silver." Hence the Pardoner's faith is without works, and "even as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead" (James 2.26). The Pardoner's faith is like his body, his body like his faith--there but sterile, alive but dead, neuter and ready for any position. Neuter and ready for any position, the Pardoner obviously has no position of his own. Rather, he takes his position from the available cue. And in the present case, Harry Bailly provides the cue. He not only anticipates the Pardoner's obsession with buying but also suggests to him the two fundamental themes of his sermon, or Fortune and Nature (Bartholomew 1966:9-57). In "the wordes of the Hoost to the Phisicien and the Pardoner," Harry exclaims of Virginia, "`Allas, to deere boughte she beautee!'" and then proceeds immediately to pontificate (Phy-PardL C 293-96; emphasis added):

"Wherfore I seye al day that men may see
That yiftes of Fortune and of Nature
Been cause of deeth to many a creature."

Just so, the Pardoner proceeds to deliver a sermon whose central exemplum is a story very much involving the "yiftes of Fortune and of Nature." Moreover, and this is as important though perhaps less noticeable, these "wordes of the Hoost" begin with the statement that "Oure Hooste gan to swere as he were wood" (line 287), and, of course, the Pardoner goes on to attack the sin of {218/219} swearing in his sermon. Then, too, Harry introduces the "`draughte of moyste and corny ale'" (line 315), which spurs the Pardoner to abominate drunkenness. Finally, and of fundamental importance, Harry jargonizes with the Physician's profession (lines 304-306):
"I pray to God so save thy gentil cors,
And eek thyne urynals and thy jurdones,
Thyn ypocras, and eek thy galiones."

As Harry himself says, only too truly, he "`kan nat speke in terme'" (line 311). But by the attempt he inspires the Pardoner to pull out all the stops in his own jargon engine of preaching. Hence, when the "gentils" (line 323) protest: "`Nay, lat hym telle us of no ribaudye! / Telle us som moral thyng'" (lines 324-25), the Pardoner obliges them by drawing, like the parasite he is, on their Host.

A parasite, with no position of his own, an actor and an impostor ready for any role, a neuter who is sterile, the Pardoner is both alive and dead. In fact, this is the way in which the very theology he exploits would characterize and analyze him. He himself shows us the way (lines 542-43, 547-48; emphasis added):

for they /cooks/ caste noght awey
That may go thurgh the golet softe and swoote.
But, certes, he that haunteth swiche delices
Is deed, whil that he lyveth in tho vices
.

Every sinner, like the glutton, is dead while he lives in his vices (cf. Rom. 6.23). Of the Pardoner this is especially true since his body is "literally" dead as far as fertility is concerned. Hence theological analysis of the sinner and his condition realizes itself "literally" in the Pardoner: the metaphor, no less actual for that, of the sinner's living death is literal in the Pardoner. The Pardoner is literally a metaphor, the living death of sin--he is himself the word of death. At the same time, because the letter is not only dead but also "killeth" (2 Cor. 3.6), the Pardoner is metaphorically a letter: he figures in his body and in the use of his body the literalism which kills--he is also the death of the word. He is (once again the text draws us back to this formula) neuter: he is neither a metaphor nor a letter but a positionless mixture of both. He can pose as either and poses either as he will.

In fact, this--posing either indiscriminately--is the way in which he generates his sermon exemplum. It is a way much like the way in which cooks provide for a glutton's "wombe" (PardT C 534). He says (lines 538-39): {219/220}

Thise cookes, how they stampe, and streyne, and grynde,
And turnen substaunce into accident.

The Pardoner is himself a kind of cook: he boasts to the pilgrims that "`in Latyn I speke a wordes fewe, / To saffron with my predicacioun'" (PardP C 344-45; emphasis added). 16 His preaching is indeed a kind of stew of rhetorical sleights-of-hand. And he, like his culinary "scholastics," turns substance into accident: he reduces the substance of meaning into the accident of the letter or its carnal, material manifestation. The best brief example is his conversion of the Eucharist into its literal and material elements: "`But first...heere at this alestake / I wol bothe drynke, and eten of a cake'" (Phy-PardL C 321-22; emphasis added). Although ale is not wine, eating and drinking just before preaching are obviously gestures reminiscent of the Eucharist. 17 And the Pardoner doubtless intends to pose the materials of the sacrament (anything to eat and drink) as the meaning of the sacrament which most interests him.

So also with his exemplum. Here the best illustration is the revelers' boast that "this false traytour Deeth / . . . shal be slayn, he that so manye sleeth" (PardT C 699-700). While the text hardly needs scriptural exegesis to be interpreted, once interpreted, it profits from the context which exegesis provides. The revelers' words allude, of course, to Hosea 13.14, to which Saint Paul himself alludes in 1 Corinthians 15.55: "I will deliver them out of the hand of death. I will redeem them from death. O death, I will be thy death; O hell, I will be thy bite." The cry of the prophet, "O death, I will be thy death," exegesis consistently understands as the triumphant claim of Christ the Redeemer. 18 It is He who will conquer Death or Hell or the Devil (ultimately one from the theological perspective) during his "descensus ad inferos" when He will liberate all those whom Death or Hell or the Devil think to hold in their power. 19 The revelers, who number three probably in deliberate mockery of the Holy Trinity, are a drastically carnal version of the Triune Lord, and they are hardly likely to equal His victory in the struggle with Death. Indeed, they become the victims of Death instead of the victors precisely because they are so carnal. Scripture and its exegesis predict as much. In Hosea, after the outcry against death, the voice goes on: "Because he shall make a separation between brothers. The Lord will bring a burning wind that shall rise from the desert, and it shall dry up his springs, and shall make his fountain desolate; and he shall carry off the treasure of every desirable vessel." According to the commentaries, the one who "makes division among brothers" is the Devil or Hell or Death. 20 Just so, when the three revelers were four, Death divided them by taking their "old felawe" (PardT C {220/221} 672), whereupon the remaining three swore an oath of brotherhood together (as though each were the other's "owene ybore brother"; line 704). But this brotherhood is destroyed in just the way in which Scripture and its commentaries suggest that it would be. When the youngest reveler decides to betray the other two, "the feend, oure enemy, / Putte in his thought that he sholde poyson beye" (lines 844-45; emphasis added), and the result is precisely "division among brothers." The text consistently accords with what a contemporary would have expected from exegesis of this famous verse in Hosea. The Pardoner's allegory--almost, we might say, his allegorical method--is very neat and prim.

But he continues to serve the word of death. If his allegory reveals the fate of carnal men--of gluttons, gamblers, and oathtakers--it is, just so, an allegory about the carnal, about all those acts and features of carnality which so obsess the carnally frustrated Pardoner. Moreover, if his allegory is creative and fruitful, it nonetheless allows him once again to literalize the Redemption--if Christ's Redemptive work is the death of Death, the Pardoner's version of this work is the story of three youths who would literally kill Death. Once again the Pardoner has posed the metaphor of Redemption as literal: all the materials of the Redemption are here--a trinity, a tree, money (gold), death--to serve as the meaning of Redemption. And this pose is explicable, once again, in terms of his obsession. Himself "dead" and spiritually an "old man" (Rom. 6.6; Miller 1955:188-93), he longs precisely for the death of Death, but for the literal death of Death. If Death literally died, then the "death" (of sterility) in his body might also die. He knows full well, I hasten to add, that this cannot be, but once again he takes the metaphor seriously. And he mixes metaphor and letter indiscriminately in a story about the death of death. The death of Death is the promise to spiritual man: if a man dies to sin and the flesh, then he shall live (Rom. 6.3-11)--the life of the spirit. But the Pardoner does not want this life: he does not want to die--he is already dead. He wants rather the life of a virile, fertile body, and he wants the renewal of youth. Hence, necessarily, he longs for the literal death of Death. Just as his desire carnalizes or materializes the benefits of the Redemption, so it must also carnalize or materialize, literalize, the work of the Redemption, or the death of Death.

One other illustration of the Pardoner's "stew" of metaphor and letter will perhaps be of help. The Old Man directs the three revelers up a "croked wey" (PardT C 761) to a grove where he left Death "under a tree" (line 763). Now it was under a tree that sin entered the world--the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It was on a tree--typologically and according to legend, the same tree (Quinn 1962:76-78)--that Christ by His sacrifice conquered sin {221/222} and destroyed Death. The metaphoricity of the tree where the three revelers, carnal parody of the Lord, will struggle with Death is manifest, even ostentatious. But this ostentatious metaphoricity only serves the greater triumph of the letter. For when this unholy trinity dies under/on the tree, Death--which is to be equated with the letter-- consumes the metaphoricity itself as well as three foolish mortals. Death and its letter not only win the unholy trinity, they also win the holy Trinity. Death and its letter do not merely kill three men; they subvert the Crucifixion and the Redemption, "turning" their spiritual "substance" into the "accident" of three ordinary greedy men killing each other over "eighte busshels" (line 771) of gold florins. Even as the event sets up the meanings, the very banality of the event undermines the meanings, and this is the way the Pardoner intends it: for him, the closest men get to redemption is a brief glorying over gold, then daggers and poison.


And this because he has himself failed of redemption. It is probably obvious by now that in the debate over the Pardoner's sudden volte face at the end of his sermon, I will incline to the old--and, I suppose, most would say, sentimentalized--view of Kittredge (1939:217) that he suffers a "paroxysm of agonized sincerity." While I disavow the late-nineteenth-century characterology implicit in this evaluation, and while I am sympathetic with the more modern position that the Pardoner is not a character at all but an instance of the illusoriness of self, I still maintain that the text asks us to hear a sudden reversal of positions. The crux is the word "leche" (PardT C 915-18; emphasis added):
--And lo, sires, thus I preche.
And Jhesu Crist, that is oure soules leche,
So graunte yow his pardoun to receyve,
For that is best; I wol yow nat deceyve.

Of course, the first problem is the "I wol yow nat deceyve": given his "yvel entencioun" to "wynne gold and silver" and his confession of hypocrisy --"`Thus spitte I out my venym under hewe / Of hoolynesse, to semen hooly and trewe'" (PardP C 421-22)--it is difficult to believe that the Pardoner would ever will not to "deceyve"; it is difficult to believe that he would ever take a position--would ever expose himself as "himself" rather than as some imposture. But the same evidence--evidence of the lack of a self-- can suggest, quite humanly and understandably so, the opposite conclusion. For a man of "yvel entencioun" and gross hypocrisy who "`wol noon of the apostles countrefete'" (line 447) is necessarily a man of acute self-consciousness. A poser {222/223} always knows he is in a pose--that is the definition of a poser. And because of such knowledge, because of such self-consciousness, the Pardoner cannot but realize that he is sick, that he is moribund. His very obsession with Death and the Redemption also argues the same conclusion. Hence it only makes sense that he would at some point take that position, of all the positions in his neutrality he might take, which is the least possible, most tenuous, and yet desperately attractive to him--the position of "I want to be whole." So, for a moment, he admits, he poses (and takes the position) that Christ is the "leche" who makes whole, by means of his "pardoun." My point is not to sympathize with him but to understand him. He has enough intelligence to know the truth of what he has said. The actor or impostor can shift into truth just as easily as he can shift into a lie. Moreover, a neuter and a parasite who so desperately wants and needs healing would predictably refer to the Healer at some point, especially since he lives his life in carnal parody and imposture of the Healer--selling the latter's pardons to persons who are in fact from time to time healed. But the tragedy of such a poser is that he cannot hold this position for long; he knows his sickness too well--it has become almost comfortable for him. And so the Pardoner abandons "oure soules leche" and "his pardoun" so as to lapse back into the by now much more familiar role.

Hawking his pardons once again, the Pardoner confronts and affronts Harry Bailly (PardT C 941-45):

"I rede that oure Hoost heere shal bigynne,
For he is moost envoluped in synne.
Com forth, sire Hoost, and offre first anon,
And thou shalt kisse the relikes everychon,
Ye, for a grote! Unbokele anon thy purs."

Much attention has been paid recently to the Pardoner's sexual affront of the Host. 21 While I recognize the validity of this position, I am also intrigued by the truth of the Pardoner's accusation. Whether Harry is the most "envoluped in synne" we might want to debate, but that he is "envoluped in synne" we can hardly deny: he swears outrageously, drinks, indulges games of chance (the meal at his inn for which the pilgrims are contending), backbites his wife (MerT E 2427-29), and gives in to rage. The Pardoner has read Harry very closely and read him very well. His intelligence continues awesome. The measure of how well he has read Harry is Harry's very rage. Harry reacts not only or most importantly to sexual effrontery but also and crucially to the bitter, sharp sting of truth. The Pardoner has penetrated the "envelope" ("envoluped in synne") of Harry's position or role or act--interpreted the in- volucrum of his position (and pose) 22--and this penetration does threaten {223/224} Harry, not only sexually but also spiritually. Before the consummate actor his act is transparent. His envelope or covering or mask is like a set of easily decipherable codes for the master manipulator of codes.

Hence Harry's violence and attempt not only to penetrate the Pardoner's role but also to reduce him, to drag him down, to his positionless position, his sexless neutrality (PardT C 951-55):

"But by the croys which that Seint Eleyne fond,
I wolde I hadde thy coillons in myn hond
In stide of relikes or of seintuarie.
Lat kutte hem of, I wol thee helpe hem carie;
They shul be shryned in an hogges toord!"

Whatever the Pardoner's sexuality, Harry's threat to his "coillons" questions that sexuality and hence the Pardoner's identity. And the question is enough, enough to expose the pose of the consummate poser: "this Pardoner answerde nat a word; / So wrooth he was, no word ne wolde he seye" (lines 956-57). At this moment the Pardoner is fixed in wrath, and it is the only position in which he can be fixed. "No word ne wolde he seye": of course not--words are the stuff of poses, and all poses have just been disposed of.
As the Knight of all the pilgrims occupies the most fixed position, so the Pardoner occupies the least. Indeed, it might be said that the opposition between the two in The General Prologue is that between fixed position (knight, soldier, noble, etc.) and no position at all. Therefore, when the Knight reconciles Harry and the Pardoner, a massive discrepancy opens up which in itself defines the Pardoner's tragedy. The very security of the Knight's and Harry's positions must oppress the Pardoner, who can only submit to the Knight's will because he has no position of his own. Exposed, the Pardoner disappears. In a kiss.
The importance of the Pardoner to The Canterbury Tales, if they are understood as a collection of the possible positions of poets and poetry, is that, consummate impostor, he occupies the extreme of "irreference." The Pardoner's very "self" is "counterfeit." If he "`wol noon of the apostles countrefete,'" that is because they are apostles and not because he does not or is not "countrefete." If the Wife of Bath would substitute herself for the allegorical plenitude of Scripture and exegesis, like a heretic, if the Merchant would annihilate that plenitude because it accuses and condemns his own poverty, the Pardoner, on the contrary, revels in it because it is an inexhaustible supply of masks, feints, sleights-of-hand, and gimmicks--an inexhaustible supply of {224/225} counterfeit selves. Unlike the Wife, who has a self (and such a self) to sell, or the Merchant, who has no self, only his craft, the Pardoner has a multiplicity of selves whenever he wants them--he is a broken mirror whose fragments reflect a brilliant but forever incomplete identity. And everything the Pardoner says or does is a frantic effort to collect the fragments in the ultimately vain attempt to say, "I am."

Hence the insistent and finally pathetic "self"-referentiality, itself only imposture: "`for myn entente is nat but for to winne'" (PardP C 403). This declaration of his intent only proves the poverty of the Pardoner's content. In fact, it might plausibly be argued that the "character" of the Pardoner (understanding by the word "character" here the literary construct) is to be a character who has only a character. Chaucer, it may be, explores through the Pardoner the illusoriness of the boundary between inside and outside in phenomena so linguistic as "character." Any attempt to discover what makes the Pardoner tick, to get "inside" him, invariably meets with only more words, with only more "outside." The Pardoner seems continuously to transform content into intent, turning himself "inside out," through torrents of speech. Hence his "inside" is his "outside"; his "outside," his "inside." He is a "character" (itself only words) whose character is to be only words: we might subtitle his Prologue "`Character' and Its Dis/Contents." Where the boundary between inside and outside is pure illusion, where there are only words on words, where there is only "character," the character (and we as well) are dis-contented. Where there is no content, there is no meaning to content. Where there are only words on words, there is only endless reference, never meaning. If reference is the "gold" of signs (Chap. 1 above), then the Pardoner's gold is never minted. He never tells us what he means; or, if he does, as perhaps he does through the reference to Christ, "oure soules leche," he immediately takes it back--he is precisely avaricious. And just as the Old Man, probably a figure of avarice (Ginsberg 1976:91), is never understood, so is the Pardoner, "hoarding" his "meaning" or "content," never understood. And this because he only talks--it seems as if he could talk endlessly--and only talks so as to appropriate the coin of others to be his meaning, his content. His only content is his intent: coin, the coin of others--"`nobles or pens, whiche that be goode and trewe'" (PardT C 930). Hence his poverty (and the poverty of the avaricious). Just enough of the moral sense of "goode and trewe" lingers in the monetary and commercial sense that it is possible to hear the pathetic irony: "goode and trewe" coin is as close as the Pardoner comes to the good and the true. Meaning for the Pardoner is coin, and coin is meaning: this is both extreme literalism and extreme metaphoricity, a "stew" of language. More important, it is an appropriation of {225/226} meaning to the self and its desires which exploits community. The conversion of the substance of language into the accident of coin is a materialization of desire which exploits the community's need for media of exchange. It is a radical assertion of the priority of the private precisely there where the private should cooperate with the public if community is to exist and flourish. But the community, the household, of Christendom, unable to allow for the peculiar privation of the Pardoner, will win no mercy from his relentless desire to practice his privacy upon it.


And yet the poet, for whom the private is also prior, does not thrive without a community. It is merely a vanity of Romanticism that the poet writes only for himself. The poet writes to be heard- -and thus for a community. At the same time, however, it is true that the poem begins in the mind, "a fine and private place," and that "the mind, / In the act of finding what will suffice, destroys / Romantic tenements of rose and ice" (Wallace Stevens, "Man and Bottle"). The tremendous anxiety inscribed in the Pardoner is the anxiety that from the mind to the community there is no translation--that the priority of the private in the world of art is absolute, so that no reconstruction follows the destruction of the tenements. And this is the anxiety that motivates even as it frustrates the Pardoner's problematic confession. He goes out of his way to betray his act and his pose to the pilgrims because he wants to involve them in his act and his pose--he wants to establish with them a sort of community of imposters, on his own terms (cf. Josipovici 1971:89-93). The Wife of Bath wants to be an "auctoritee" in whatever community she happens to live in; the Merchant does not give a damn about community; the Pardoner wants a community of his own--and tries for it with the pilgrims. For if they participate with him in his act and his pose, they thus bestow upon him the self he otherwise lacks and cannot possess. They make it possible for him to say "I am your pardoner" (PardT C 931-34):
"It is an honour to everich that is heer
That ye mowe have a suffisant pardoneer
T'assoille yow, in contree as ye ryde,
For aventures whiche that may bityde."

I am not so naive as to think that the Pardoner's motives here are pure; they obviously are not. But I do believe that his impure motive is the desire for an identity as their pardoner. In this regard, consider the extraordinary word "suffisant": it suggests something more than just "legitimate" or "authorized"; it suggests something like "I really am adequate, you know," a sentiment in which conviction and self-doubt keep uneasy company. The response which the Pardoner is seeking is not only nor perhaps most importantly "nobles or {226/227} pens" but also something like "Yes, yes, well, tell us another--you really are quite good at it." What he gets instead, though, is violence-- violence because words do refer and refer, moreover, to the truth. In the agonized privacy of his unredeemed (and just possibly unredeemable) self, the Pardoner, consummate impostor and artificer of roles and master of words though he be, has forgotten that words always refer. Harry Bailly's reaction is sufficient evidence of that. The word, even the word of death, refers. But words do not always or necessarily translate unless and until the community understands their intentionality and thus also their instrumentality.

If all instrumentality is narcissistic, then the Pardoner's is a narcissism so drastic as to be incapable of even an echo. 23 He would have the pilgrims so completely suppose his pose that they can only oppose him. He would have them identify so far with him that they would end being he: he exposes his gimmick, works his gimmick, then asks them to buy his gimmick--all of which assumes that they are one with him, do not differ from him. But they are not one with him, and they do most certainly differ from him. The Pardoner, in short, has made no effort to translate. Rather he supposes that by exposing his pose he can impose upon the pilgrims a will to repose in him their trust. I recognize that this play of words is too much; I intend it so. It helps me to demonstrate the Pardoner's excess. To turn on the pilgrims, as he does, expecting them to buy his gimmick, the Pardoner must suppose not that they are his but that they are he. The Merchant, by contrast, supposes that the pilgrims will become his, his property--his creatures seeing the world as he sees it-- and Harry Bailly almost obliges him. The Pardoner, however, supposes that the pilgrims are so completely one with him that they will obey him even as he obeys himself. Such a supposition, of course, is psychotic. It precludes any effort of translation--of taking the positions of others so as to see how they see the world. It is the supposition of one so accustomed to posing and imposture that he has forgotten that people are more than their poses.

Something Chaucer never forgot. We revere Chaucer precisely because he was a master of taking the positions of others so as to see how they see the world. The Pardoner, in contrast, is exclusively about himself. The exemplum he tells is about the old man he meets everyday in his own body. The Pardoner does not translate. When he chooses Harry to begin his pardoning, it is not only the fact that his words refer to the truth that so distresses Harry but also the fact that he supposes that there is no difference between Harry and him. Truth and lie are horribly mixed. And the Pardoner is only talking to himself. Harry, of course, will have none of it--hence he fixes precisely on the most glaring difference between them when he talks back.

And people do talk back. Something else Chaucer never forgot. {227}