The Chairs

by: Eugène Ionesco

Old Woman

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.