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5 Cantankerous Old Men in Fiction

Posted 21st Jul 2017

The cantankerous old man is a popular character in literature; often seen as repugnant and crumbling, a figure of the past with fanatical tendencies, serving only as a weight on the world around him. Sometimes a capacity for love is revealed, making him a symbol of retribution, and other times he is overtaken by his stubbornness. Just published, Get Well Soon by Marie-Sabine Roger provides a rare introspection of such a character, giving us a hilarious and heart-warming insight into the psyche of the cantankerous old man. As a way of paying homage, read on for some of our favourite cantankerous old men in fiction.

Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carrol.

The original mean old miser in fiction, described as such by Dickens: “The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice, bah humbug.” It would certainly take more than a lump of coal in the stocking to show this curmudgeon the error of his ways, so Scrooge’s path to redemption takes the form of a three-part nightmare orchestrated by the spirits of Christmas past, present and yet to come. Following his, Scrooge awakens in a cold sweat to find that it is Christmas morning, promptly going about town completely transformed, attending Christmas parties, donating money and buying turkeys left, right and centre.

Grampa Joad from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

As the founder of the Joad farm and not so dignified head of the Joad family, Grampa Joad spends most of his time hobbling about with his trousers undone while blaspheming indiscriminately, much to the horror of the ultra-religious Grandma Joad. His rambunctious attitude is initially given to the family migration to California. He fantasises childishly about the sensation of thrusting his face into baskets of bursting oranges, but when the time to leave comes, his stoic devotion to the land is revealed: “You go right on along. Me – I’m stayin’… This here’s my country. I b’long here. An I don’t give a goddamn if they’s oranges an grapes crowdin’ a man out of bed.”

Alexi’s Grandfather from Maxim Gorky’s My Childhood.

In the first part of his harrowing and darkly humorous three-part autobiography, Gorky introduces to us arguably the most brutal old man so far, his grandfather. Although My Childhood is non-fiction, the depiction of our young narrator Alexi’s daemonic grandfather thrashing amongst his wily offspring is a scene quite separate from reality. Described as ‘a polecat-faced tyrant’ Gorky’s grandfather spends much of his time lamenting his lost wealth. Resentful of Alexi’s presence in the house he proclaims that “You aren’t a medal, but you are always around my neck!”

Santiago from Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

Santiago the old and experienced fisherman finds himself in a spate of bad luck. He has gone for 84 days without a successful catch and has been branded as “salao”, the worst form of unluckiness, by the local townsfolk. To make matters worse the struggling Santiago’s apprentice, Manolin, has been banned from fishing with him by his superstitious mother. But our hero’s bad luck is only matched by his stubbornness. He takes his skiff further than most fishermen would dare, deep into the Gulf, and soon hooks a huge marlin. He enters into a four-day struggle with the great fish and hauls it ashore only to find that it has been devoured by sharks. Nevertheless, the 18ft skeleton remains proof of his exploits and he is reunited with his apprentice.

Ahab from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Another old man who had an even worse time at sea is Ahab, the fanatical captain of the whaling ship Pequod. On a fateful voyage Ahab’s ship runs into the monstrous White Wale, Moby-Dick, who bites off the captain’s leg. The constant pain experienced in his stump drives the man to distraction over the years and at the age of 58 he sets off on a monomaniacal expedition to exact his revenge on “that accursed white whale!”

The protagonist of Get Well Soon, Jean-Pierre is the ultimate cranky misanthrope. Saved from drowning in Paris’s River Seine, he looks back on his life, the good and the bad, he makes some unexpected new acquaintances, and just when he thought life had no more surprises in store for him, he finds out he was wrong.

It’s the perfect summer read. Get your copy now >