Chaucer's new invention

Prologues, introductory passages, have been common in many kinds of writing throughout the centuries. Many of Chaucer's pilgrims introduce their tale with a prologue. The lengthy Pardoner's Prologue, however, is a kind of prologue Chaucer invented, where a character talks about their own behaviour, revealing in particular their faults, tricks and sins. 

It is not a realistic type of writing: no con-man would really reveal his tricks, methods and wickedness in this way. It is, rather, a device constructed by Chaucer to satirise abuses by exposing them and presenting that exposure as if it is coming from one of the abusers. (Another example of this kind of prologue is the Wife of Bath's Prologue.) 

The effect of a first-person narrative

Though The Pardoner's Prologue can't be read as realistic speech by an individual, the first person narrative device (the Pardoner says, ‘I do this' and ‘I do that') is particularly effective. We apparently hear the man himself admit that his relics have absolutely no powers and his whole aim is to dupe people. This seems to prove completely the argument that such practices are wicked and without religious merit.  

Presenting the Pardoner's actual salesman's ‘patter' helps us understand how effective his promises would appear to a gullible audience. The use of the first person in the Prologue thus:

  • Dramatises the accusation that such abuses happen, in a very amusing way
  • Makes the accusation seem incontrovertibly true. 

These two effects would weaken if Chaucer had simply described such a man in the third person (‘he does this' and ‘he does that').

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