Who is the old man in the Pardoner's Tale?  Is he death itself?  Give examples from the story.

Asked on by kgallichio

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rmhope's profile pic

rmhope | College Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

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The symbolic meaning of the Old Man in "The Pardoner's Tale" is not clarified within the story or in The Canterbury Tales themselves. Some have asserted that the Old Man is Death personified; indeed, one of the rioters accuses him of being Death's spy. This is perhaps one of the best arguments against the Old Man being Death. The rioters are drunk and foolish; they have notably poor judgment. That they accuse the Old Man of being in league with Death makes us think that he probably is not.

If he is not Death, then what does he represent? We can see clearly that he speaks and behaves in a completely upright manner. He is courteous to the rioters, even though they insult him profusely. When he greets them, he calls them "lordes," or gentlemen, and he calls down God's protection on them. When they impudently inquire why he is so old, he states that no young person wants to exchange youth for his age, so he will keep his age for as long as God wills. Although he is fully ready to die, death has not yet claimed him, so he is pale and wrinkled. 

He answers their question courteously, but he also takes the time to instruct them, quoting scripture to them about respecting the elderly and about treating others as they would want to be treated. He then blesses them in God's name and seeks to take his leave. However, the young men take no heed to his rebuke. Continuing to upbraid him, they demand him to tell them where they can find Death. At that point, he points them to the "crooked way" and tells them they will find Death under a tree. He then imparts a benediction, praying for their salvation and improvement.

Nothing about the Old Man appears nefarious, except that he is dressed in a cloak that covers all but his face and he is skinny and wrinkled with age. The young men are turned off by his old looks and don't listen to his words. 

From all this, it seems more likely that, rather than Death, the Old Man is meant to represent the Anti-Pardoner. He is a preacher who actually cares for the people he shares God's word with; he has no selfish motives in what he tells them but truly desires the salvation of their souls. He states that he left "him," that is, Death, under the oak. If the Old Man knows the gold florins are there, he was pure of heart enough to leave them, something the Pardoner, of course, could never have done. Having tried to share God's wisdom with them, he doesn't force them to comply, but sets them free to pursue their own path. Again, that is unlike the Pardoner, who tries to manipulate his listeners with guilt and fear. 

Although some have interpreted the Old Man to be Death, he can easily be seen to represent a principled preacher who stands in stark contrast with the Pardoner. 

pirateteacher's profile pic

pirateteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

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In "The Pardoner's Tale" the Old Man represents death.  In the story three friends are drinking in a bar (at 9:30 in the morning!) upset that Death has taken yet another of their friends.  Remember that during the time of The Canterbury Tales, the plague was on the minds of his readers, so they would be familiar losing friends suddenly to death.

Throughout the story, the Pardoner personifies Death to represent Death as a person who is killing their friends.  Upset, the friends decide to fo find Death and kill him. When they leave, they find an old man who points them to a tree under which they'll find Death.  Instead, the three men find treasure under the tree and forget about finding Death.  Instead the plot how to get the treasure without anyone seeing them.

They send one of the men to get food, while the two others guard the treasure. The two plan to attack and kill their third friend- who while he's gone to get wine poisons the wine in order to kill them.  When the third man returns, his friends kill him and drink his wine in celebration inadvertently killing themselves.

All three men die, so in essence "Death" claims them.  The three men find the treasure, and their death, because the old man sends them there.  Therefore, the old, clever, man is death.


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