Analysis of Major Characters
The Old Man believes his life of suffering will translate into a "message" that will save humanity. But his message fails—the deaf and dumb Orator can only mumble the words and spell out nonsensical ones. The failure for this lies less with the Orator, than with the Old Man himself. The existential philosophers argued that man's condition was absurd and meaningless unless he committed himself responsibly to a greater good. The man believes his life will become meaningful with his message, but he has lived an irresponsible life. He relieves himself of the blame for his fights with his brother and friends, and his double suicide with the Old Woman is a retreat from death, not a confrontation with it. He also indulges in the fantastic illusions he and his wife create to escape from reality, and though he claims his life has been well lived, he clearly regrets not having taken up with Belle. Moreover, he has been a neglectful parent and son, abandoning his dying mother and failing his son, who called his parents responsible for his departure. His final touch of irresponsibility is his inability to deliver the message himself as he relies on the Orator.
The Old Man is also bored of his repetitive existence. He has told the same story to his wife every night for their seventy-five married years, and his day is filled with routine. Life is so cyclical for him, in fact, that he seems to be confused about his age. Though he is ninety-five years old, he defers tremendously to his superiors and, moreover, is infantile. He sobs on his wife's lap—whom in fickle fits he calls his "Mamma" and then decides she is not the Mamma. He calls himself an orphan, though he is the one who abandoned his mother. This confusion over beginnings and endings is understandable, since he cannot even recall the details of when he and his wife were cast out of a garden years ago—an allusion to the Garden of Eden, another prominent ending of one godly world and initiation into a human world.
Ultimately, we can view the Old Man as Ionesco's projection of his own literary frustrations. Ionesco has similarly toiled on his message, built from his life and philosophy, and the actors—or the Orator—do not understand his work, rendering it meaningless. On the other hand, the Old Man is an irresponsible coward, afraid and unable to deliver his message himself, and Ionesco may be launching a self-critique.
The Old Woman is a comforting presence to the Old Man. She plays the role of his surrogate parent, rocking him on her knees while he sobs about his orphanhood. She pulls him back from the window when he leans over too far. She praises him for his stories, imitations, and mental faculties. She is his workhorse, getting chairs and selling programs. But underneath this calming exterior is a woman who is deeply unhappy with what her life has become. She asks him to tell stories so she can forget the repetitive nature of their existence. She doses herself with salt each night so she loses the memory of the story, which is more extreme evidence of her need to escape, as is her participation in their fantasy world of imaginary characters. Her loss of memory is much like the characters in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot lose their memory of the previous day. For every time she praises her husband, she reminds him that he could have been more in life had he tried harder. Her sexual frustrations emerge, as well, when she is taken by the Colonel's kissing her hand and, more explicitly, when she flirts with the Photo-engraver and makes obscene gestures. In her conversation with the Photo-engraver, she is really talking to her husband and defending her age and beauty against his flirtations with the invisible Belle.
The Old Woman also harbors much pain over their son's departure. While the story does not make much sense, as the boy accused them of killing birds, his final words—"It's you who are responsible"—summarize the woman's and man's irresponsible life, in which they take little accountability for the past and try to escape the present. While she chastises her husband for not owning up to his fights with family and friends, she is also implicitly guilty, and her suicide with her husband is a retreat from death, from a direct and responsible confrontation with it.
The Orator is a virtual actor. He is dressed the part as an ostentatious artist, he signs autographs, and he skims past the crowd as if only he exists. This is almost true, literally, since everyone else but the Old Man and Old Woman are invisible, but he believes they are all there. The Old Man has put all his hopes into the Orator's delivery of his "message," since the Old Man cannot express himself well. But the Orator turns out to be deaf and dumb, and the message, as both spoken and written words, is unintelligible. The reason for this is because the Old Man has not taken responsibility for his life and for the delivery of the message, and thus the message becomes irrationally absurd, but Ionesco probably intended another meaning. As an emerging playwright, Ionesco was most likely frustrated with actors and productions that failed to understand and convey his work. The Orator, then, is the actor who bumbles the work, mismatching his pleasant face and voice with the difficult words. But Ionesco could also be criticizing himself for allowing the Orator—or actors—to deliver his work in the first place. The Old Man is cowardly and worships the godly Orator, and Ionesco may find himself at fault for allowing incompetents to handle his plays.
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