The Pardoner’s Tale
The existence of an afterlife is a central theme in the film The Seventh Seal, The Pardoner’s Tale from The Canterbury Tales, and The Mortal Remains from the film, Buster Scruggs. The obscurity, uncertainty, and fear surrounding death and the afterlife impact many of the characters and highlight their vulnerabilities.
The quote from The Seventh Seal that the Squire wants to “feel, to the very end, the triumph of being alive’ connects the characters in the three stories based on their views of the afterlife and whether or not they are perceived as decent or sinful. Through understanding the characters’ personal experiences, one can understand how their views on morality, death, and the afterlife affect their present life and what their roles are in each story. In the movie The Seventh Seal, directed by Ingmar Bergman, the character Squire Jöns is very straightforward in regards to religion and doesn’t believe in an afterlife. He believes in maximizing the present life and wants to “feel, to the very end, the triumph of being alive.” He thinks one should live life without concerns or expectations of an afterlife. His practical views are based on having spent many years in a crusade, where he witnessed death and destruction all for the sake of religion. Upon returning to his native country, Denmark, he sees that it got hit and ravaged by a plague that has spared no one, young or old. Squire Jöns, finds out that mobs of people are punishing themselves with flagellation because they feel God is angry with them. The Squire is not at all convinced that God is responsible for the horrors of war, death, and the plague. He takes a very practical view of religion and life. He isn’t scared that his actions, good or bad, will have any effect because he does not believe in an afterlife. These experiences have shaped his views that one’s current life should be their triumph, and the focus not be on the afterlife.
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In Geoffrey Chaucer’s, The Canterbury Tales, The Pardoner is a deceptive trickster who takes advantage of people’s fears and beliefs of the afterlife to profit for himself. He uses dramatic sermons to appeal to people’s ethos and take their money in exchange for a Church pardon to revoke their sins to get a direct route to heaven. All the while, in his sermons, the Pardoner speaks disdainfully about greed and mentions the Latin saying, “Radix malorum est cupiditas” (Chaucer 243). This translates to ‘greed is the root of evil.’ The Pardoner then tells his tale about “three rioters” (Chaucer 250). These men drink, dance, sing, and indulge in sin that the Pardoner previously mentioned. The Pardoner warns that the three men cursed, told lies, and gambled, all considered to be sins of the Church, and all died at each other’s hands by the end of his tale as a result of greed. The Pardoner himself is guilty and aware of all of these vices, specifically greed, but doesn’t appear to be worried about his own ultimate fate. He tells his fellow pilgrim’s “I preach against the very vice I make my living out of – avarice. And yet however guilty of that sin myself with other I have power to win them from it, I can bring them to repent; But that is not my principal intent. Covetousness is both the root and stuff of all I preach…” (Chaucer 243).
The Pardoner is proud of his strategy and clearly is aware of his ability to take advantage and profit off of people’s fear and confusion of the afterlife. He relies on the notion of the triumph of the afterlife and ridding your sins to get there in contrast to the Squire’s triumph of being alive. In The Mortal Remains, a short tale from the movie Buster Scruggs, directed by the Coen brothers, a group of three unrelated strangers is accompanied by two bounty hunters, traveling to “the other side” (Coen). They are very judgemental of each other, and, as they interact, their differing views on people and morality become apparent. The Trapper believes “people are like ferrets and all the same” (Coen). Mrs. Betjeman, a moral hygienist, meanwhile strongly disagrees and believes that people fall into two categories — namely “upright or sinning” (Coen). It is clear that her moral views deeply affect how she lives her life, as she is appalled by the lifestyle choices of the other travelers. René, the Frenchman, is a gambler and believes that people are hard to predict or understand fully. He challenges Mrs. Betjeman on her moral views and tries to convince her that people (including her husband) may not be as decent as she perceives. The two bounty hunters listen and then watch as all three travelers are surprised to learn of their morbid profession. It becomes clear through the interactions of the characters that each has a different moral compass and has had different joys and triumphs in their past lives. However, they become united as they are all apprehensive and embark on their journey together to their designated afterlife. It raises the notion that regardless of one’s past actions, morality, or beliefs, all the characters end up in the same place.
While the Squire focuses on the triumph of the current life because he does not believe in the afterlife, the Pardoner takes advantage of people’s belief in the triumph of the afterlife. The Pardoner emphasizes that people are sinners who can be pardoned through a monetary payment to ensure a beneficial afterlife. The Mortal Remains is an amalgamation of the two views. While the characters reminisce about their past life triumphs, they are also aware and apprehensive about their journey into the afterlife. The differing lifestyles and morality of each passenger highlight the fact that regardless of how each chose to live their life, they all end up in the same place as they embark to the afterlife. In The Seventh Seal, The Pardoner’s Tale, and The Mortal Remains, the themes of life after death, whether or not morality, and the way one chooses to live affects the afterlife are explored. Through contrasting the Squire’s view that one should “feel, to the very end, the triumph of being alive’ to the other two stories, one can see the various perceptions, vulnerabilities, and beliefs of the characters and question what, if anything, really affects the afterlife.