To fully appreciate the layers of irony in "The Pardoner's Tale," consider the Prologue to the tale as well as the tale itself. In the Prologue and in the first 200 lines of the story, the Pardoner preaches against vices while at the same time admitting and revealing that he has those very vices.
First he makes it clear that he preaches against the love of money as being the root of all evil, but he preaches only for gain, not out of concern for people's souls. This is ironic on three levels: first, that he would openly reveal his own sinful motives; second, that he preaches most against the vice he practices most; and third, that he is able to actually make men repent of greed despite his own blatant hypocrisy. Here's how he puts it:
Thus can I preach against that same vice
Which I use, and that is avarice.
But though myself be guilty of that sin,
Yet can I maken [sic] other folk to twin
Another irony is that although the Pardoner is full of vice, he is able to tell a highly moral tale, which he proceeds to do: "For though myself be a full vicious man,/ A moral tale yet I you telle [sic] can."
Besides greed, other vices that the Pardoner preaches against even as he practices them himself are drinking, gluttony, swearing, laziness, and revenge. He waxes eloquent about gluttony and the horrors of strong drink, but he would not begin his tale until he had eaten and had some "corny ale."
He concludes his lecture against swearing by saying, "Now, for the love of Christ that for us died,/ Leaveth your oathes [sic] bothe [sic] great and small." Ironically, "for the love of Christ" is often an oath, but in a preaching context, it could be a valid statement, so a listener who wanted to accuse the Pardoner of swearing here could himself be accused of not appreciating a true appeal to the Savior's love.
The story the Pardoner tells decries the laziness of the rioters who want to gain money without working for it, yet the Pardoner admits, "I will not do no labor with my hands." As the rioters seek to take revenge against Death for killing people wantonly, so the Pardoner seeks revenge against anyone who has offended him or his fellow pardoners (l. 416). The rioters act as if they are on a noble mission, when in fact they are merely drunk and trying to show off. In the same way, the Pardoner disguises his revenge with fine phrases: "Thus spit I out my venom under hue/ Of holiness."
Other examples of irony surface when we consider how the Pardoner tells his tale. First, although he says he is beginning his tale at line 462, he actually only barely starts the story before lapsing into a 200-line sermon. He says he will tell a tale to the company's "liking," yet he takes his good time getting to the story. And after he finishes, even though he was supposed to be telling a story for entertainment, he launches into a full-scale sales pitch for his pardons and relics, telling the Host to open his wallet. It's ironic that he has the gall to do so after he has disgusted them all with his honest confessions about the kind of person he is--and when he knows that his job was to entertain.
Ironic Contradictions in the Pardoner’s Prologue and the Pardoner’s Tale
The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer can be seen as an outstanding example of a jape. The shrewd Pardoner thinks he is able to play a game of confidence with the other pilgrims. According to the Middle English Dictionary, the noun “japerie” can also contain the meaning of irony, which is also true for the Prologue and the Tale. At the heart of the definition of irony lies incongruity or contradiction. The Oxford English Dictionary defines irony as:
firstly, “[a] figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used; …. [secondly a] condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things (87).
The Pardoner’s Prologue and the Pardoner’s Tale provide many facets illustrating ironic contradiction. Particularly interesting is to analyze the Pardoner himself, as he is definitely contradictory in his behaviour as well as in his statements. An analysis of the Pardoner’s presentation in his Prologue reveals the contradictions and the irony in the exemplum he chooses for his tale. The exemplum’s characters and actions not only mirror the ambiguous and complex character of the Pardoner, but also contain several instances of irony. Based on that, one can see how the Pardoner’s leitmotif, “Radix malorum est Cupiditas” (l. 334) unifies the ironic contradictions of the Prologue and of the Tale.
First, the ambiguous figure of the Pardoner as narrator of a moral tale is ironic because his own character is extremely immoral. The Host’s description of the Pardoner, a church official of “Rouncivale” (l. 670), in the General Prologue gives a first insight into his character and personality. Harry Bailey underlines the Pardoner’s excellent “craft” (l. 692), which distinguishes him from other pardoners. The Pardoner’s craft gets authorization from the Pope, permitting him to sell people indulgences, which are supposed to correct sins. The Host’s description already points to the real intention the Pardoner has in selling indulgences, namely accumulation of profit and wealth: “[u]pon a day he [the Pardoner] gat hym moore moneye / Than that the person gat in monthes tweye; / And thus, with feyned flaterye and japes, / He made the person and the peple his apes” (l. 703 – 706). The Host creates an interesting antithesis as he presents the corrupt and greedy character of the Pardoner in contrast to the honorable and frugal character of the Parson. Consequently, the Pardoner’s ambivalent personality, which appears to contradict the values of the church, is emphasized. Apparently, he contradicts the requirements of his ecclesiastic profession. In other words, the Pardoner is a hypocrite in his profession, as he is neither interested in the correction of sins nor in the people’s sense of confession, but instead in selling the greatest amount of indulgences and pardons for profit.