Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Commentators have noticed that The Pardoner’s Tale clearly belongs to the main tradition of Wain’s fiction and has a value apart from its subject and technique. Yet in helping to define that tradition, its dark agonies make it his best and most serious achievement. Although several reviewers had reservations about its tedious, somewhat forced combination of two narratives, they all recognized its genuine power. Through Giles, Helen, and Diana, the reader gains a sense of contemporary England as a wasteland. It is a world in which the action of the novel—wasted lives, debased sexual encounters, and destroyed moral selves—reflects a tragic vision of futility and sterility. Such traditional certainties as love, faith, and the capacity for regeneration have become remote and inaccessible. Alienation is the result. It is alienation in many forms: isolation from the community, estrangement from those who were once closest to one, and loneliness in the midst of the universe itself.

At the same time, Wain is also close to offering one of the major twentieth century solutions to the chaos of life: salvation through art. Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf all offered this as an answer to the conditions Wain presents in The Pardoner’s Tale. Giles’s theory is an artistic vision for ordering experience similar in nature to Proust’s vision in the last volume of Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927), when the narrator of that novel decides that only by re-creating his experience in a work of art can he make it meaningful. It is tragic that Wain’s narrator has not had, and never will have, this final vision.