What looks at first to be a rather disjointed story-within-a-story turns out to be, when studied more closely, almost a tissue of connectives. Nearly everything is connected with nearly everything else in an attempt to explore the relationship between art and life. Each of the characters seeks through art some sense of order in a chaotic world: Giles (through his writing), Helen (through her reading and her discussions with Giles), Diana (through her music and sexuality), Gus (through Julia, the actress), Julia (through marriage to an actor).
The title itself plays on some of the ironic possibilities Wain establishes in the interplay between art and life. Every novelist in his way is a pardoner, dispensing or denying hope to his characters as the Pardoner in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) peddled indulgences for the Pope. Wain, no doubt, had this in mind in naming his story-within-a-story. Yet he may have had more in mind as well.
Perhaps Giles is a pardoner: Certainly, he brings about the resolutions of Gus’s story in a spirit of forgiveness. In the light of Giles’s search for death, the reader remembers that Chaucer’s tale was also about a search for death. Chaucer’s Pardoner, however, was a “full vicious man” who could tell “a moral tale,” and he accused others of sin so that they would guiltily buy his pardons. Might not Helen be the pardoner of the title? Perhaps she is as vicious as Chaucer’s Pardoner when she tells the story of her life: Certainly, she has no spirit of forgiveness. Helen is a victim of despair, hopelessness, the occasion for which is ultimately her affliction, setting her apart from the rest of humanity. Afflictions borne in patience lead to acceptance and to love of God and neighbor; afflictions borne impatiently lead to resentment and to hatred of God and neighbor. Helen is, indeed, full of hate, and she turns her gift of great intelligence into a weapon with which to attack the man whom she hates. However the reader chooses to interpret the title, the centrality of despair and the ways Wain develops it remain a basic part of the book’s power and richness.