Youth and age

Attitudes to age

Chaucer presents both positive and negative aspects of youth and age. The dialogue between the three youths and the Old Man they meet in l.425-479 seems to have symbolic significance regarding the position of the young and the elderly in society. Through the portrayal of the youths' negative behaviour, Chaucer asks his readers to examine how society should operate, given the example of the Old Man.

The portrayal of the elderly

The Old Man establishes the social and religious requirement to treat the elderly with respect, Old man and youth, by Leonardo da Vinciquoting Leviticus 19:32 and Ecclesiasticus 8:6 from the Apocrypha (‘Despise no man for being old', here interpreted as ‘treat the elderly as you want to be treated once you are old') in l.454-9. His discourse is gracious and full of holy references (blessings, biblical allusions etc). He represents the wisdom and dignity of experience. When he looks carefully into the young man's ‘visage' it seems to be a penetrating and perceptive gaze.

The portrayal of the young

The young servant boy is a model of politeness. He speaks respectfully to the rioters despite their brusque commands. He is shown to be up and ready to work in the early hours (two hours before prime is 4am!) and is commended by the publican as a truth-teller. Most importantly, he honours the advice he has received from his mother, which echoes church teaching about being prepared for death.

However, the dominant portrayal of youth comes from the impact of the three young men. They are shown to be self indulgent, focusing only on the present, without acknowledging the eternal consequences of their action (see Themes > Sin and stupidity). Their time is spent in gambling, swearing (see Themes > Blasphemy), eating, getting drunk and visiting prostitutes (l.176-85). It is their desire to live only for the moment that provokes their drunken quest to kill the figure of Death which stalks the land. He has already taken one of their (presumably young) companions.

The rioters do not want to contemplate the reality of death, or old age, or accept that it will be their lot. They are proud of their vitality and arrogant in their opinions. When they talk roughly to the Old Man it is clear that they disregard the worth of a long life (ironically given that they will be denied it anyway).

The reality of aging

Although the Old Man commands honour from Chaucer's audience, there is also an element of pathos in his portrayal. He is described as poor and muffled up against the elements, meek, wrinkled and physically frail. He finds his age a burden and would willingly exchange it for either youthfulness or the release of death. Despite his desperation, both these are denied him and to the youths he is merely a pathetic ‘olde cherl' (l.462).

See Characterisation > The Old Man for a further consideration of the theme of age.

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