The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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What does the old man figure represent in "The Pardoner's Tale"?

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Literary critics cannot agree on the identity of the old man, but there are several possibilities of who this mysterious character may be. First, it's possible that he is Death itself. When the old man creates the comparison of Death as a mother, it suggests that death should not be viewed as a frightening thought - instead, death provides comfort and respite from suffering.  He also seems to know more than he should: he says to the men, "When you are old -- if you should live til then." He foreshadows the upcoming deaths of the young men. 

Another possibility is that the man is an angel of death, a sort of precursor to an upcoming demise. This would also explain the comforting view of death and how the character seems to know future events. 

A final, more literal possibility is that the man simple is just an old man who is wise and sees the men for what they are -- selfish. The identity really isn't important: what matters is that this man is the catalyst for the men finding the gold...

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