Medieval Lit, December 2017
The Old Man in the Pardoner’s Tale is a mysterious, vacuous character that stands out in a text otherwise crowded with rich and highly developed personalities. Serving the catalytic purpose of directing the three “riotoures” in The Pardoner’s Tale to their death, the Old Man appears only briefly, but in what Alfred David describes as “a passage that seems to demand a symbolic interpretation. One feels that there is a mystery about this old man, that something is being left unsaid” (David 39). Gudrun Richardson relays that the tale which Chaucer’s Pardoner tells to his fellow pilgrims is a rendition of earlier Italian and German texts in which the Old Man appears as a nondescript hermit. In rejecting the hermit portrayal, “Chaucer endows the Old Man with a character in his own right, giving him a centrality which can only mean that he has a particular point to make. What that point is, however, has eluded critics over the years” (Richardson 324). The demand for symbolic interpretation, though, has hardly gone unanswered. Over the years, scholars have identified the Old Man with a comprehensive catalogue of allegorical and scriptural figures ranging from Death and Old Age (“Elde”) to the Wandering Jew, Noah, and Judas (Kittredge 215, Richardson 324, Bushnell 450). The problem with such symbolic interpretation, Richardson explains, is that “as with any stereotyping, this inevitably narrows the perspective, preventing an analysis of the true scope of this complex figure” (324). David chimes in with an assertion that the “notion that we are obliged to choose only one of several symbolic interpretations, none of them entirely satisfactory” is “mistaken” (40). On the contrary, David explains that a recent movement to understand the Old Man in polyvalent terms, and to contextualize him in relation to his creator, the Pardoner, provides a more wholesome view of the character (41). I would extend David’s logic and suggest that the notion, apparent in the uniformity of existing criticism of the Old Man, that this character is best illuminated by reference to the allegorical and scriptural material of which he appears to be comprised is also “mistaken.” Rather, our understanding of the Old Man, especially as he relates to the Pardoner, can be greatly enhanced by comparison with other Creator and Creation duos of English literature, perhaps the best known example of which is Victor Frankenstein and his Monster. This scientist and his creature, conceived by Mary Shelley in the nineteenth century, obviously exerted no influence on Chaucer’s rendering of the Old Man. Yet the choice of Shelley’s Frankenstein as a framework through which to examine this most enigmatic of Chaucer’s figures can indeed yield important insight, and affirms the symptomatic nature of the Old Man. This character, mirroring Shelley’s Monster in his supernatural existence and miserable condition, also mirrors the Monster in the fact that this very existence and condition are expressions of his Creator’s actions and attitudes.
The parallels between the Creator and Creation duos of Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale and Shelley’s Frankenstein are abundant, and instrumental to me in linking these texts is the analysis of the Old Man provided by Gudrun Richardson. Most notable about the portrait which Richardson paints of the Old Man is that it succeeds in shedding new light on the Pardoner, and much of this light reaches the character of Victor Frankenstein with equal force and clarity. The fundamental correlation of these two texts concerns the emotional and ethical attrition which occurs within the Creator figures and the multitude of implications this has for the Creations. This is manifested primarily in the fact that as Creators, and hence fathers, both the Pardoner and Frankenstein fail to provide for the beings, corporeal or conceptual, which they have authored. Specifically, these Creators deny their creations access to the asset that they are themselves primarily sustained and nurtured by.
The Pardoner makes a living by granting people authorized religious pardons in return for donations to the Church. In Medieval society these transactions were a popular means of “reduc[ing] the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins” after death (Peters 13), and Chaucer immediately establishes that the Pardoner earns a comfortable income by them:
“of his craft, fro Berwik into Ware, / Ne was there swich another pardoner / For in his male he hadde a pilwe-beer / Which that he saide was Oure Lady veil…He hadde a crois of laton, ful of stones, / And in a glass he hadde piggies bones, / But with thise relikes whan that he foond / A poore person dwelling upon lond, / Upon a day he gat him more moneye / Than that the person gat in monthes twaye.” (General Prologue 694-706)
This passage, from the Pardoner’s portrait in the General Prologue, demonstrates that the Pardoner is so skillful a salesman that he can convince uneducated peasants and laypeople that his pigs bones and pillow cases are genuine holy objects—and that these peasants should part with far more money than such frauds are worth. It also attests to Medieval society’s hunger for spiritual resolution and for a clean passage from life, a hunger which the Pardoner handsomely benefits from.
The Pardoner withholds, however, this resolution and this passing from the character of the Old Man. In the Pardoner’s tale, the Old Man thus accounts for his appearance of “greet age”: “I ne can nat finde / A man, though that I walked into Inde, / Neither in citee ne in no village, / That wolde chaunge his youthe for myn age…Ne Deeth, allas, ne wol nat have my lyf” (Pardoner’s Tale 439). From this explanation we learn that the Old Man feels trapped within a life that he no longer wishes to live and of which his author, the Pardoner, will not relieve him: “thise riotoures r[u]n” off (PT 480), the narrative follows them, and the Old Man is abandoned permanently to wander in his unresolved condition. L.O. Purdon interprets this condition as the “second death,” a judgement theory expounded by Saint Augustine that defines a state of being not “after” nor “before” death (Purdon 343). Purdon demonstrates that the enigmatic statement that death will not take his life tells us simultaneously that the Old Man is not dead and that he is not either alive: obviously if death rejects him he is can not be dead, and yet this inability to die defies the very premise and defining characteristic of life—that is must end (Purdon 344). Purdon reasons: “if he is neither dead or ‘after’ death, nor living or ‘before’ death, then it must follow he is…dying or…in the state of being ‘in death’…suffering the grievous second death Saint Augustine says is not good for anyone” (344). The Old Man, then, resides eternally “in death” when all he desires is for his “bones to been at reste” (PT 445). He is denied, indefinitely, closure and release by a man whose occupation it is to provide these things.
Like the Pardoner, Shelley’s Frankenstein also creates a supernatural character, his in a scientific laboratory rather than a Christian exemplum, and like the Pardoner, Frankenstein denies his Creature access to the source of his own empowerment. Frankenstein is enabled to become the magnificent scientist he is thanks to the care of his family; though he primarily educates himself, Frankenstein’s parents provide him with the opportunities and resources necessary to do so. Of his upbringing Frankenstein rhapsodizes:
“with [a] deep consciousness of what [my parents] owed towards the being to which they had given life, added to the active spirit of tenderness that animated both, it may be imagined that while during every hour of my infant life I received a lesson of patience, of charity, and of self-control, I was so guided by a silken cord that all seemed but one train of enjoyment to me.” (Shelley)
Frankenstein here illustrates the pivotal role tenderness played in educating him, and it is evident he highly esteems this method of child-rearing when he notes that “when I mingled with other families I distinctly discerned how peculiarly fortunate my lot was” (Shelley) in possessing such gentle and encouraging parents.
Frankenstein denies such care and guidance, however, to his creature. On the dreary November night when his Monster comes to life, Frankenstein experiences “breathless horror and disgust…Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room” (Shelley). Thus abandoning his Creature, Victor compels the clueless being to learn from experience the sensations of hunger and thirst, the rhythms of nature, human customs and language. Frankenstein’s second refusal to furnish his Creature with love and companionship comes when he abandons his efforts to create the partner which the Monster so desires. It is in his improvised laboratory in Scotland, at work on his Creature’s bride, that Frankenstein definitively sentences his beast to solitude:
“I thought with a sensation of madness on my promise of creating another like to him, and trembling with passion, tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged. The wretch saw me destroy the creature on whose future existence he depended for happiness, and with a howl of devilish despair and revenge, withdrew.” (Shelley)
Thus we see that both Frankenstein and the Pardoner withhold from their Creations the resource to which they owe their successes. For Chaucer’s pair, this source is Christian faith, while for Shelley’s pair it is companionship.
These resources, however, somehow become intolerable to the two Creators who benefit by them, and at the time that we are first introduced to both the Pardoner and Frankenstein, they have rejected, and are living in estrangement from, God and society, respectively. The Pardoner’s disillusionment with faith is obvious in his marketing of false, blasphemous absolution. Richardson, however, imagines the Pardoner having once held true faith: “the passion with which he delivers his sermon and subsequent plea to his audience argues for him retaining, or at least once having held, some belief. He would not argue so cogently, nor mock so viciously, if he had no emotional involvement with the issue” (330-31). At the time he makes the Canterbury pilgrimage, though, the Pardoner is alienated from God because, Richardson asserts, he “perceives himself to be beyond redemption…If he cannot be redeemed it does not matter how many more sins he perpetrates because his fate of damnation is already sealed” (331). This fear of being spiritually beyond help is perhaps reasonable, considering some of the more chilling deeds the Pardoner claims authorship of. For far worse than his mercenary approach to Catholic indulgence, the Pardoner exhibits a malicious indifference to all lives but his own: “I wol have moneye, wolle, cheese, and whete, / Al were it yiven of the pooreste page, / Or of the pooreste widwe in a village— / As sholde hir children sterve for famine. / Nay, I wol drinke licour of the vine / And have a joly wenche in every town” (PT 159-63). Thus the salvation he provides, enacted with bogus relics, not only fails in its formal purpose of redeeming, but also implicitly defies some of the most basic tenets of Christian morality, as the Pardoner claims to lie, to actively injure those who come to him for help, and to debauch himself on the profits. And while the Pardoner’s boasts demonstrate a sneering contempt of the parishioners who’s blind faith he takes advantage of, the fact that he boasts of his misdeeds at all suggests an even greater contempt of self that prompts him recurrently to draw his companions’ attention to his flaws, even amidst the relative strangers with whom he makes the Canterbury pilgrimage. Punctuated with repeated assertions of his own avarice like a refrain (133-34, 139-40, 144-45, 171), the Pardoner’s entire prologue to his tale seems to be directed by this self contempt. We witness the struggle between his need to verbalize the burden that oppresses his conscience and his need to preen and pitch his services to an audience of potential repenters: “By God,” he exclaims, “I hope I shal you telle a thing / That shal by reson been at youre liking; / For though myself be a ful vicious man, / A moral tale yit I you telle can” (169-172). Richardson argues that the Pardoner does not confine his exposition of self to his prologue and epilogue alone, but that this unburdening continues in his actual tale—via the Old Man himself. As Richardson puts it, “the Old Man is a personification of the Pardoner’s ‘within’. As the Pardoner’s Tale is placed within the frame of prologue and epilogue, which extend the audience’s knowledge of the Pardoner on one level, so this is mirrored by the Pardoner’s revelation of his inner self through the medium of the Old Man” (332). If we accept this, we accept that the Old Man is a product of his Creator’s rejection of the Catholic faith which is the source of the Pardoner’s physical sustenance—his livelihood—but also at this juncture the cause of his spiritual desolation. Arguably if the Pardoner had never become disillusioned with the Church and abandoned hope of ever achieving the redemption he sells, the Old Man as the “Pardoner’s inner self” (Richardson 332) would not exist.
Likewise if Frankenstein had stayed within the fold of his family, friends, and teachers, and not distanced himself from them to work alone and out of contact with reason and reality, his Monster might not have come into being. For just as the Pardoner rejects the faith which facilitates his way of life, so Frankenstein secludes himself increasingly from the family who raised and taught him, and the friends who would advise and care for him. This is evident in the fact that once Frankenstein discovers renewed passion for chemistry at Ingolstadt, he sequesters himself in his laboratory away from the society of others. Three years pass in this manner, during which Frankenstein never once returns to Geneva to visit his family and hardly writes to them. His work on the Monster so consumes him that it
“caused me…to forget those friends who were so many miles absent, and whom I had not seen for so long a time. I knew my silence disquieted them…but I could not tear my thoughts from my employment…I wished, as it were, to procrastinate all that related to my feelings of affection until the great object, which swallowed up every habit of my nature, should be completed.” (Shelley)
In distancing himself thus from kith and kin, Frankenstein also distances himself from the tempering perspective they might offer concerning his grotesque project. He suffers the consequences when he finds himself ill prepared for the responsibilities of fatherhood which he has recklessly brought down about his shoulders. The ultimate consequences he suffers, though, arrive with the Monster’s bitterly vindictive campaign against Frankenstein: in retribution for Frankenstein’s refusal to provide him with kin of his own, the Monster deprives the scientist of one family member after another, plunging Victor into a “despondency and solitude” (Shelley) to rival the Creature’s own. Such a reprisal forces Frankenstein to pit his desire to protect his loved ones by humoring his Creation (and giving the Monster a loved one of his own) against his desire for damage control, or to protect “the species of man” from the potential “daemon” race which might issue from a Monster coupling (Shelley). Essentially, this dilemma penetrates the pith of Victor’s renunciation of family, for in choosing not to create a companion for his creature so as not to risk becoming what he imagines such a concession might make him—a “pest…whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the…whole human race” (Shelley),—Frankenstein renounces his family in the most permanent way he can, condemning them to perish at his Creature’s desperate hands. Thus the darkly ironic effect of Frankenstein’s exclusion of his family from his life is their irreversible removal from his life, presumably to that state Augustine describes as “after” death.
Thus we can see that the characters of both Chaucer’s and Shelly’s Creators, in abandoning the good and nourishing elements in their lives, stray into godless and friendless despair. The curious byproducts of these degenerations are Creatures who, embodying their Creators’ errors, also represent their Creators’ futures. Richardson notes that the Old Man in his search for godless annihilation “anticipates the Pardoner’s fate if he were to die in his current state of mind” (332). For the Old Man’s search for death feels markedly un-Christian: he explains to the rioters that
“on the ground which is my modre’s gate / I knokke with my staf bothe erly and late, / and saye, ‘Leve moder, leet me in…Moder, with you wolde I chaunge my cheste / That in my chambre longe time hath be, / Ye, for an haire-clour to wrappe me.” (PT 441-48)
The Old Man’s characterization of his deathly desire is thus bound up in pagan and macabre symbolism derived from his appeal to Mother Earth, rather than the Virgin Mary, and his longing for a winding sheet (“haire-clour”) that recalls ancient funerary rights (Richardson 326). Just such an un-Christian death must indeed await the Pardoner if he persists in his moral dereliction. On the other hand, Frankenstein’s Monster in his desolate friendlessness anticipates the bereft state in which Victor will find himself towards the end of the novel. Once the Monster has murdered Frankenstein’s brother, bride, and best friend, Clerval, and indirectly caused the deaths of Justine and Frankenstein’s father, Victor is as utterly alone in the world as his Creature has been all along.
Neither Frankenstein nor Pardoner, however, take steps to reclaim, or be reconciled with their initial sources of empowerment, as the Pardoner shows no interest in mending his ways, but on the contrary launches immediately back into his wiles upon concluding his tale. Not skipping a beat, he appeals to his fellow pilgrims: “But sires, oo word forgat I in my tale: / I have relikes and pardon in my male…If any of you wol of devocioun / Offren and han myn absolucioun, / Cometh forth anoon” (PT 631-37). We here see the Pardoner persisting in his avarice, even in the face of an audience to whom he has just revealed his guile and deceit. For his part, Frankenstein, once he has heard the wish of his Creature but before he has fatefully denied it, withdraws further from his family. We see the scientist take himself repeatedly into the wilderness of the Swiss Alps, and take himself abroad to Scotland, in an attempt to “exempt my family from the danger of [the Creature’s] machinations” (Shelley). Frankenstein’s ultimate act of isolation, of course, occurs when he sets out alone to pursue his Creature in “a destructive and almost endless journey across the mountainous ices of the ocean” (Shelley), deserting civilization altogether, for the last time.
In this persistence in denying themselves and their Creatures the assets that enable, or once enabled them to flourish, the Pardoner and Frankenstein commit themselves to lives of perpetual agitation and dejection, and confine their Creations to insatiable searches, the one for death and the other for affection. In the very wretchedness of their existence both pairings of characters again articulate an Augustinian theory concerning the soul’s “death in life.” Richardson links the Pardoner and the Old Man with a state Augustine describes in his City of God: “we ought not to say that a body is alive if the soul resides in it, not in order to make it live, but to make it hurt” (Augustine qtd. in Richardson 331). For indeed the Pardoner seems to exist not for the sake of any personal evolution “but for coveitise. / Of this matere it oughte ynough suffise” (PT 144-45); the Old Man purely because he cannot die; Frankenstein because he is animated by “nothing but the eternal sentiment of a just retribution burning within [his] heart”; and the Monster similarly to “satisfy [his] everlasting hatred” (Shelley). All four of these anguished characters are thus united in their soulless, or death-like, existences: whether wandering the English countryside perpetuating a cycle of sin and self-loathing, wandering through “Flandres” seeking “Deeth”, or wandering the ice floats of the Arctic in pursuit of retribution, all wallow in, and are ultimately defined by, their anguish.
Such a grim outcome suggests a didactic function to these two vastly distinct texts. Chaucer, writing in the fourteenth century, cautions against greed and corruption, and Shelley, writing in the nineteenth century, against pride and recklessness. Both, however, make an essential point about the danger of short-sighted and self-serving behavior, and it is the unique dynamic which can only be fostered between a Creator and his Creation which brings the point forcibly home. For this relationship evokes the primal resonance of parenthood, of the generation and conduction of existence itself, and as such inevitably implicates all living things. By packaging their cautionary messages within an archetype of such primordial power, Chaucer and Shelley alike endow these messages with a weight that amplifies their impact and effect. Likewise, in analyzing the Old Man through the medium of this archetype, we amplify our potential impressions of him. For, contrary to an interpretation accessed by way of the allegorical and religious figures to whom the Old Man is usually, and most logically, linked, an analysis of this character within a progenitorial framework is not limited to a specific era and culture. Rather, the dynamics of a Creator/Creation relationship apply to all eras with equal intimacy, and admit “an analysis of the true scope of this complex figure,” which Richardson objects the more traditional comparisons do not. Thus while this relationship assists Chaucer and Shelley in making their instructive points about human nature, it also assists modern readers, who have the benefit of access to both these texts, in understanding the true identity and purpose of the Pardoner’s Old Man figure—that the Old Man, whatever allegories he represents or references, exists first and foremost as the conscience and the crime, the soul and the soullessness of the unsatisfied character who imagined him.
So it is that the Old Man’s similitude with Frankenstein’s miserable Monster is as productive as it is penetrating. The Old Man is liberated from this likeness, however, in one important aspect. While the Monster kills in an attempt to extort Frankenstein to give him companionship, the Old Man kills in a fulfillment of the revelers’ request of him. Pleading for a partner, the Creature cautions Frankenstein: “do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends” (Shelley). This threat demonstrates the coercive nature of the Creature’s murderous spree; it is evident that in killing the Frankenstein clan he hopes to compel his Creator to grant his wish. The Old Man, however, sends the rioters to their demise by simply and truthfully supplying them the information they ask of him: “Thou speke right now of thilke traitour Deeth,” they remark. “Tel wher he is, or thou shalt it abye” (465-68). The rioters, indeed, proceed to find death at the place the Old Man directs them to; all three of them breathe their last under the “ook” (477) before nightfall. Hence one Creation murders innocent life in an attempt to get what he wants; the other is forced to kill in order to give others what they want. The Old Man does what neither Frankenstein nor the Pardoner do for their own Creations and grants the request of another pleading being. This twisted and ironic empathy on the part of the Pardoner’s Old Man indicates that perhaps the Pardoner is not so irredeemable after all, that perhaps, if he avoids making any irreversible decisions such as Frankenstein makes concerning his Creature’s bride and his sacrifice of his own family, perhaps he might yet rescue himself from perdition, rescue his Creation from the second death, furnish them both with the resolution and clarity that pervades the Pardoner’s every day but eludes him so absolutely. Perhaps in this he might allow the Old Man to finally find death. Perhaps in this he might allow himself, ultimately, to find life.