The Old Man

Good art creates images that are rich in multiple meanings. Chaucer's Old Man is a brilliant example. It would probably be a mistake to look for one meaning or message. Instead, how many different ideas can you, personally, find suggested in the writing?

The literal Old Man

The figure of the Old Man certainly has symbolic significance, as well as important literal meanings. In relation to the three ‘rioters', he is old, dignified, simple and modest, and he tries to help and advise. They treat him with coarse contempt, showing no respect for an older person. By contrast, Chaucer uses the Old Man's speech to voice the way the old should be treated. He speaks blessings on them, while the youths can only swear at him.

A didactic device

Chaucer uses the Old Man to teach about certain truths:

  • Respect for others / the old. By behaving so loutishly to him, the three youths provide a reminder about the moral duty of the young to pay respect to the old
  • Evil equates to stupidity. Whereas Chaucer's audience correctly understand what the Old Man is saying about death and the warnings he is giving, the young men are depicted as being completely mindless and blind to dangers. They heedlessly rush on their thuggish, greedy way, towards disaster.

The symbolic Old Man

The figure of the Old Man makes us question the text at a deeper level. For instance:

  • The text says that he represents something that can't die. What could this be? What things could be described in those terms? Death itself? Human life? Sin? Many other things?
  • It is also said that Earth is this figure's mother. How might that be interpreted?
  • What should be made of the man's longing to die? And the Earth refusing to accept him?

In artistic terms, this puzzling kind of writing, in which we feel there must be a meaning beyond the literal, is symbolic writing, not just allegory. Allegory is translatable into just a single meaning; a symbol holds multiple resonances.

So is there one ‘right' answer to what the Old Man represents? It seems not. The symbol is capable of inspiring readers to so many interpretations. Certainly one approach is to see him as a figure that cleverly suggests many ideas about materialism.

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