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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Is the Old Man in The Pardoner's Tale a Gothic character?

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The Pardoner’s Tale is an exemplum, a story which tells a well-known lesson; in this case, that lesson is that the love of money is at the root of all evil. Since the Gothic fiction genre began in the latter half of the 18th century and continued into the 19th century and Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in the latter part of the 14th century, I am assuming you’re asking if the Old Man in the tale displays Gothic fiction conventions.

Gothic fiction typically contains a number of stereotypical characters--for example, the hero, the virginal maiden, an older, foolish woman, the villain, bandits or scoundrels, and clergy. The old man in the pardoner’s tale fits none of these mythological stereotypes, though others in the tale do. The three men at the beginning of the tale are drinking and carrying on and the pardoner condemns their actions using scripture. These men would be the ruffians/scoundrels of Gothic fiction. When they discover their friend has been killed by Death, they set out to avenge him.

As the three men set out, “an old and poor man met them, and greeted them meekly, and said, ‘Now, gentle people, God be with you!’”

The old man goes on to lament his age, saying “Alas, death will not take me! […]Alas, when shall my bones be at peace?” However, he also counsels that they “do no harm now to an old man, no more than you would like it to be done to you in your old age, if you remain so long.”

The men accuse him of being a spy for (personified) Death and demand the old man give up his location. The old man says:

If you are so glad to find Death, turn up this crooked path; for by my faith I left him in that grove under a tree, and there he will wait, and for all your boasting will he hide. Do you see that oak? There you shall find him. May God, Who redeemed mankind, save you and amend you!

Theories of who the Old Man represents include Death, Death’s messenger, old age itself, and the Wandering Jew (the mythical Jew who taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and was cursed to walk the Earth until the Second Coming). However, if he were Death or Death’s messenger, he would not be so desperately searching for Death.

As far as Gothic conventions, the old man doesn’t seem to fit any distinctly—he has no elements of fear, psychological disruption, or evil, nor does he fit any of the stereotypical characters. The one convention that might fit is the idea of being trapped, which is common in Gothic fiction—in this case he is trapped in life, advancing in age. He is also a religious old man, and religion does figure into some Gothic fiction.

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