What Is the Central Irony in “The Pardoner’s Tale?”

The central irony of “The Pardoner’s Tale” is that the three young men who set out to kill Death end up killing one another out of greed. Both noble and vainglorious, their failed quest proves that those who seek death find it, often quickly.

“The Pardoner’s Tale” demonstrates the literary form extended exemplum. In this case, three mortal sins – avarice, gluttony and pride – are examined at length. The three men in the tale are fools and hypocrites for pretending in their drunkenness to a noble act then proving their venal nature by plotting to kill each other so they don’t have to share gold they find. So says the Pardoner, an even bigger hypocrite.

Chaucer is very deliberate in his pairing of characters with their tales. In order to discuss hypocrisy in the Church, for instance, he chooses a corrupt Pardoner, a church official who is essentially a fundraiser for the Church and its pet projects. One of the more venal sinners in “The Canterbury Tales,” Chaucer’s Pardoner instead sells indulgences, which remit punishment for sinning, as well as forgive sins outright for money. The Prologue his tale is a confessional, similar to others in “The Canterbury Tales,” that demonstrates his own rank hypocrisy.