Student Question

What is the characterization and role of the old man in "Dusk"?

Expert Answers

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The elderly gentleman is described from Gortsby's point of view:

On the bench by his side sat an elderly gentleman with a drooping air of defiance that was probably the remaining vestige of self-respect in an individual who had ceased to defy successfully anybody or anything. His clothes could scarcely be called shabby, at least they passed muster in the half-light. . . . He belonged unmistakably to that forlorn orchestra to whose piping no one dances; he was one of the world's lamenters who induce no responsive weeping.

He is trying to maintain a respectable appearance, but he is obviously living on a limited income, like so many people in London.  A single person could survive on as little as twenty or thirty pounds a year. The best descriptions of living conditions for poor but "respectable" people are to be found in the novels of George Gissing (1857-1903), especially in his New Grub Street and The Odd Women.

Norman Gortsby enjoys watching people and considers himself a connoissuer of hard-luck stories. Naturally he must have been appproached many times, since he is in the habit of lounging on park benches and looks reasonably prosperous. But he could be mistaken about the elderly gentleman. It seems possible that this individual could be a con artist too, and that he could have been preparing to tell Gortsby approximately the same story as Gortsby subsequently heard from the young man. The fact that two men might be working the same "short con" with the same story would not be unusual. We hear the same hard-luck stories today, e.g., "I ran out of gas and just need enough to buy one gallon." On the other hand, the young man to whom Gortsby gave the sovereign and the soap may have been telling the plain truth.

Saki's story leaves the reader feeling puzzled. The elderly gentleman may have deliberately dropped his cake of soap near the park bench and then left with the intention of coming back to look for it and using this as an excuse to start a conversation with Gortsby. In the meantime Gortsby happened to find the soap and went running after the young man and finds him a considerable distance away. Gortsby does not return to the park bench, but he

retraced his steps past the seat where the little drama had taken place . . . and saw an elderly gentleman poking and peering beneath it and on all sides of it, and recognized his earlier fellow occupant.

If the elderly gentleman was a con artist, he would have been disappointed to find that Gortsby was gone. Gortsby probably would have still been sitting there if he hadn't found the cake of soap and gone racing after the young man. But the elderly gentleman had to retrieve his cake of soap, and there was always the possibility, if he was a con artist, that some other likely mark would sit there. He could resume his seat on the bench and wait patiently for someone else to come along and sit down.

Assuming, if only hypothetically, that the elderly gentleman was a con artist--regardless of whether or not the young man was or was not another one--he might be more experienced in telling the tale of the lost hotel and might have actually procured a cake of soap to substantiate his story if asked to do so.

Gortsby reflects about the young man:

"If he had had the brilliant foresight to provide himself with the cake of soap . . . he would have been a genius in his particular line."

The elderly gentleman may have been just such a genius, while the young man might have been a mere novice.

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