Study Guide

The Chairs Quotes

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd

    Old Man: "Ah! This house, this island, I can't get used to it. Water all around us...water under the windows, stretching as far as the horizon." (10)

    As we point out in our section on "Isolation," the old couple is completely cut off. This kind of isolation is a common theme in the Theater of the Absurd. Many of the playwrights who wrote in this genre were interested in the idea that we're all totally alone, that all that we ultimately have is ourselves. The old couple's isolation could be symbolic of the isolation of all human beings.

    Old Woman: "Come on now, imitate the month of February." . . .
    Old Man: "All right, here's the month of February."
    Stage Directions: "He scratches his head like Stan Laurel." (28-31)

    The fact that the Old Man does a Stan Laurel impression here is pretty typical of the Theater of the Absurd. Stan Laurel was part of the comedy duo of Laurel and Hardy, who came from the same school of physical comedy as the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and the Three Stooges. Absurdist playwrights often used this kind of clowning to highlight the ultimate absurdity of all of humanity's endeavors. Check out Shmoop's guide to Beckett's Waiting for Godot for another famous example of this.

    Old Woman: "It's as if suddenly I'd forgotten's as though my mind were a clean slate every evening." (38)

    Characters in Absurdist plays often have trouble with memory; it's pretty typical for an Absurdist character to have no idea what happened the day before. They're all a bit like goldfish constantly surprised every time they see the little bubbly castle. Vladimir and Estragon of Beckett's Waiting for Godot are afflicted with this same sort of chronic amnesia. Perhaps, this is all meant to call our whole perception of time and reality into question. Do we really know if anything in the past was real? Memory is a pretty unreliable thing. Maybe, all we really have is the now.

    Old Man: "A general factotum has a poor life!" (254)

    The Old Man has never committed himself to a profession. As the play constantly reminds us, he's a "general factotum," a person who does a little bit of everything. (254) Perhaps his fear of dedicating himself to any one thing is the reason his life now seems so meaningless to him. Absurdist plays often suggest that many of us do the same thing – just kind of going through life doing whatever. And then we die.

    Old Man: "The Colonel...the Lady...Mrs. Belle...the Photo-engraver...These are the newspaper men, they have come to hear the Orator too." (299)

    Have you noticed how hardly any of the characters have an actual name in this play? The closest thing to a name in the list above is Mrs. Belle, but belle simply means beautiful in French. Like the Colonel and the Photo-engraver, her name is generic. These kinds of big, iconic characters are typical of the Theater of the Absurd. Absurdists often created characters that were more symbolic than realistic. Mrs. Belle represents all faded beauties, the Colonel all colonels, and the Old Man every old man everywhere.

    Old Woman: "Get your programs...who wants a program? Eskimo pies, caramels...fruit drops..." (338)

    The Old Woman sells programs and concessions, mimicking the experience that the audience watching the play has undoubtedly just gone through. In this moment, it becomes pretty obvious that The Chairs is a kind play within a play. (Have you ever gone to someone's house and the host tried to sell you something?)

    As we discuss in our section, "Art and Culture," the play can be interpreted as a comment on theater itself. This kind of self-referential or meta-theater is typical of the Theater of Absurd. Very often in Absurdist plays the characters reference the fact that they are in a play. Another good example of a play that does this is Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author.

    Old Man: "Suffered much, learned much." (381)

    This quote brings to mind one of the big questions that philosophies and religions have tried to tackle for centuries: why must humans suffer? Many religions justify human suffering with the idea that God has an ultimate plan, that all our suffering has a purpose, which will one day be revealed to us. Some say we bring our suffering on ourselves, and if we would only follow certain rules of behavior it wouldn't happen. The Theater of the Absurd is often thought to have been influenced heavily by the philosophy of Existentialism, which is based in part on the idea that our suffering has no purpose at all. People feel pain – that's just how it is, and we'd all better just learn to deal with it.

    Old Man: "I've invited order to explain to you...that the individual and the person are one and the same." (387)

    This is one of the few places in the play where we get a hint at what the Old Man's message might actually be. Though Ionesco didn't like to be called an Existentialist, this statement definitely seems to get at the fundamental idea behind the philosophy. Existentialists believed that each person is an individual, and that reality is completely subjective. Basically, what you decide is real is real, what you think is important is important. Existentialists believed that the universe was ultimately meaningless, and that it was each person's individual responsibility to create meaning for him or herself.

    Old Man: "One truth for all!" (389)

    The idea that there's any one thing that is true for everybody goes against the fundamental beliefs of Existentialism. As we discussed earlier in this section, Existentialism is based on the idea that truth is inherently subjective, meaning that we all must decide what's true for ourselves. Many Existentialists thought the idea of one single truth to be total crap. Perhaps this is why the Orator is unable to articulate the Old Man's great truth at the end of the play: in the play's view, no such thing exists. Though you can't necessarily say that all Absurdist plays are Existentialist, almost all of them seem to share this fundamental belief.

    Old Man: "Your Majesty!... Oh! what a sublime's all a marvelous dream." (401)

    This moment when the invisible Emperor makes his entrance reminds us a lot of another of Ionesco's plays, The Leader. In that play, characters go on and on about how great an unseen leader is. When the Leader finally appears, he has no head and seems completely useless. This theme of incompetent rulers could very well have been inspired by the devastation of World War II. Many felt that the leaders of the world had dragged their people into horrible, massive violence for no good reason. The Theater of the Absurd took shape in the wake of the war and is often interpreted as expressing frustration with the apparent meaninglessness of it all.

  • Versions of Reality

    Old Man: "I want to see – the boats on the water making blots in the sunlight."
    Old Woman: "You can't see them, there's no sunlight, it's nighttime, my darling." (5-6)

    Already in the first few lines, the play is messing with our heads. The Old Man says it's one time of day and his wife says it's another. There's really no telling what is true and what is not. Reality is constantly shifting in this strange, distorted world. All this makes us wonder if anything around us is actually real. Is it all just a dream?

    Old Woman: "Let's amuse ourselves by making believe, the way you did the other evening." (20)

    The Old Man and his wife spend every evening playing pretend to relieve their boredom. This throws the reality of the whole play into question: when the invisible guests start to arrive later on, we wonder whether they are real or just part of the game.

    Stage Directions: The Old Man and Old Woman re-enter together, leaving space between them for their guest. She is invisible. (159)

    This is where questions of what's real and what isn't really get started in the play. Before the elderly couple re-enters the stage accompanied by the invisible Lady, we hear them greeting her offstage. We assume she'll be played by a real actor, just like the Old Man and Old Woman. When they come on speaking to an empty space, we immediately begin to wonder if these people are crazy, or if they can see something we can't.

    Old Man: "He's brought you a present."
    The Old Woman takes the present.
    Old Woman: "Is it a flower, sir? or a candle? a pear tree? or a crow?"
    Old Man: "No, no, can't you see that it's a painting?" (232-234)

    Throughout the play, the Old Man has to define for his wife exactly what invisible things she is seeing. In the example above, she's totally unclear about what the present is. She makes all kinds of wild guesses. This seems to support the idea that this whole thing is just in the couple's heads. You could interpret the entire play as a fantasy of the Old Man's which his less imaginative wife is helping bring to life. (Side note: we'd never invite anybody to a party who gave crows as presents.)

    Old Woman: "We had one son...of course, he's still alive ..."
    Old Man: "Alas,, we've never had a child...I'd hoped for a son..." (262-263)

    Here the Old Man and Woman completely disagree on a pretty fundamental fact – not one that would likely slip your mind. It's impossible to know which one is telling the truth, or if either even remembers the truth anymore. This is just another example of how the play warps reality.

    Old Woman: "It's the song of the birds!...'No, it's their death rattle. The sky is red with blood.'...No, my child, it's blue." (264)

    Here the Old Woman recounts an argument she had with her son, a disagreement over reality. He thought the sky was red and the streets were full of dead birds, whereas she thought the sky was a cheerful blue and that all the happy little birds were singing in the trees. Perhaps this disagreement over the reality of the situation is an example of a mother trying to shield her son from the harsh realities of death. Then again, maybe her kid was just really morbid. There's no way to know what really happened, or (again) whether the elderly couple even ever had a son.

    Stage Direction: "We hear waves, boats, the continuous ringing of the doorbell.... The doors are no opening and shutting all together ceaselessly." (328)

    So here's a question: if the invisible people are just products of the old couple's imagination, then why do we hear all these sounds? We hear the guest's boats arriving and them ringing the doorbell. The doors even open and close as they enter. Ionesco has filled the play with suggestions that the invisible people aren't real, but then he goes and does stuff like this. What gives, Eugene? It could be that there really are invisible people. Or it could be that we, the audience, are being drawn into the old couple's hallucination. We have a feeling that Ionesco has us right where he wants us: constantly questioning what is real.

    Old Woman: "Ghosts, you know, phantoms, mere nothings..." (372)

    This quote brings up an interesting possibility: what if the invisible people are actually ghosts? Some scholars have suggested that the play takes place at the end of the world and the Old Man and Woman are the last people on earth. You could choose to see the invisible guests as the ghosts of everyone who was annihilated in whatever disaster destroyed humanity. This, of course, makes the Old Man's quest to bring meaning to everyone's life even more absurd.

    Old Man: "He [the Orator] exists. It's really he. This is not a dream!" (491)

    The Old Man seems totally surprised when the Orator walks in. This seems to support the theory that the couple was playing make-believe the whole time. What do you think it means that the Orator is played by a real person? Does it mean he's actually real? Or have we as the audience been totally sucked into the old couple's dream world?

    Stage Direction: "We hear for the first time the human noises of the invisible crowd" (542)

    Ionesco ends the play by throwing one more question about reality at his audience. What does it mean that only now we hear the invisible crowd? Were they there the whole time? Why can we hear them only now that all of the "real" people have left the stage?

  • Language and Communication

    Old Man: "Then at last we arrived, we laughed till we cried, the story was so idiotic...the idiot arrived full speed, bare-bellied, the idiot was pot-bellied...he arrived with a trunk chock full of rice; the rice spilled out on the ground [...] the idiotic belly, bare with rice on the ground, the trunk, the story of sick from rice belly to ground, bare-bellied, all with rice, at last we laughed, the idiot at last arrived all bare, we laughed..." (59)

    Umm, so where exactly is this little story going? It's almost impossible to understand what the heck the Old Man is talking about. Is he the idiot with rice on his belly? Did he and his wife just see some guy wallowing on the ground with rice? Don't worry, we have no idea either. If you look closely at the story, though, you'll notice how the same words loop and repeat, until they steadily become more and more nonsensical. Ionesco uses this method throughout the play, perhaps in an attempt to show the arbitrariness of language. Can words ever really communicate exactly how we feel? Can they ever really bring back the past?

    Old Man: "I have a message, that's God's truth. I struggle, a mission, I have something to say, a message to communicate to humanity, to mankind..." (89)

    Notice that the Old Man hopes to use language to bring meaning to his life and to the lives of the rest of humanity. His great message is supposed to come in the form of words. What do you think this says about the power of words?

    Old Woman: "It's in speaking that our ideas come to us" (122)

    The Old Woman seems to place great value on language. She seems to be saying that words control our very thoughts and ideas. Do you think that's true? Can we think about something that we don't have words for?

    Old Man [to the invisible Lady]: "Yes, you're quite right..."
    Old Woman: "Yes, yes, yes...Oh! surely not."
    Old Man: "Yes, yes, yes. Not at all."
    Old Woman: "Yes?"
    Old Man: "No!?" (169-173)

    The fact that we can't hear what the invisible Lady is saying seems to highlight the meaninglessness of small talk. When you only get one side of the conversation, you realize that it's really nothing but a string of nonsensical and contradictory yeses and nos. The trivial nature of everyday pleasantries was one of Ionesco's pet themes. Check out his play The Bald Soprano, for more exploration of this. When we hear dialogue like this, we're forced to ask ourselves how often conversation is actually meaningful.

    Old Woman: "All in all."
    Old Man: "To ours and to theirs."
    Old Woman: "So that."
    Old Man: "From me to him."
    Old Woman: "Him, or her?"
    . . .
    Old Woman: "Why?"
    Old Man: "Yes."
    Old Woman: "I."
    Old Man: "All in all."
    Old Woman: "All in all." (276-288)

    At this point the conversation with the invisible guests becomes totally nonsensical, making us ask again if anybody is really communicating at all. Don't think, though, that Ionesco was just carelessly throwing words on the page. Look carefully at these sorts of passages as you read the play. Why do you think the Old Man and Woman keep saying "all in all"? What could this be referencing? Life? Death? Everybody? Everything?

    Old Man: "May I introduce you...Allow me to introduce you...permit me to introduce you...Mr., Mrs., Miss...Mr....Mrs....Mrs....Mr." (315)

    Notice how the Old Man introduces the guests without even using any names. This makes us think of almost every party we've ever been to. You know, you get introduced to tons of people but only remember a couple of names. Does anybody ever truly listen to one another?

    Old Man: "Sometimes I awaken in the midst of absolute silence. It's a perfect circle. There's nothing lacking. But one must be careful, all the same. Its shape might disappear. There are holes through which it can escape." (371)

    We wonder what the Old Man means when he speaks of "holes." It seems, in the quote above, that he values the "absolute silence" that he wakes up surrounded by. Could the "holes" possibly occur when he speaks to other people? Could he be saying that communication is in some way a bad thing? Perhaps in dealing with other people we lose some part of ourselves.

    Old Woman: "Do you know, my husband has never been understood. But at last his hour has come." (376)

    The Old Man has gone through his whole life without ever really communicating with anybody. Not even his wife seems to understand what his message really is. The Old Man seems to place great value on communication, even though he's apparently not very good at it. All of his hopes rest on the Orator delivering his great message.

    Orator: "He, mme, mm, mm. Ju, gou, hou, hou. Heu, heu, ju hou, gueue." (541)

    Here is the moment we've been waiting for: the delivery of the message. But wait, the Orator doesn't appear to be saying anything at all. Well, he does say "he," which is followed by what might be an attempt to say "me." It also looks like he might be trying to say "you." What does he, me, or you have to do with anything? We have no idea. Ultimately, the Old Man's message, if there ever was one, fails to be communicated. What do you think this says about the ability of language to communicate at all? Is there any combination of words that can articulate the meaning of life?

    Stage Direction: "he takes a piece of chalk out of his pocket, and writes, in large capitals: ANGELFOOD (541)

    What the heck is "ANGELFOOD" supposed to mean? Are we all food for angels or something? There's really no telling. It seems that in the world of The Chairs, even the written word fails to communicate. The play seems to asking us to think about whether there is any possible way for human beings to truly understand one another. Can we ever know what it's like to be someone else?

  • Art and Culture

    Old Man: "I have a message, that's God's truth. I struggle, a mission, I have something to say, a message to communicate to humanity, to mankind..." (89)

    Some scholars believe the entire play is a comment on the art of the theater. You could see the Old Man as a version of Ionesco himself. Like a playwright, he hopes to use words to communicate meaning to an intended audience.

    Old Man: "It's not I who's going to speak, I've hired a professional orator, he'll speak in my name, you see." (123)

    The fact that the Old Man has hired someone to speak for him makes him even more like a playwright. Instead of standing up and delivering his message himself, he's given the job to someone else. This closely resembles the way playwrights craft plays, to be spoken by actors rather than themselves.

    Stage Direction: "the chairs, turned towards the dais, with their backs to audience, form regular rows, each one longer as in a theater" (318)

    This stage direction seems to be a big hint that the entire play is a comment on the art of the theater. Ionesco says the chairs should be set up "as in a theater" (318). It's like the audience is looking into a mirror of sorts. The audience has come to watch Ionesco's play, while the invisible guests have come to hear the Old Man's infamous message.

    Old Woman: "Get your programs...who wants a program? Eskimo pies, caramels...fruit drops..." (338)

    Here's another big hint that The Chairs is kind of a play within a play. The Old Woman begins selling programs and concessions just like at the theater. The audience watching the play would be sitting there holding programs in their hands and probably picking caramel out of their teeth. This self-referential moment would probably not go unnoticed.

    Old Man: "Thanks to all those who have given me their precious and expert, financial or moral support, thereby contributing to the overwhelming success of this evening's gathering..." (519)

    The Old Man's speech is very much like one that a playwright or director might make before the beginning of a play. When the Old Man speaks this way, standing before the rows of chairs, it makes the audience think again about how in many ways The Chairs is a play within a play.

    Orator: "He, mme, mm, mm. Ju, gou, hou, hou. Heu, heu, ju hou, gueue." (541)

    Some think Ionesco was expressing frustration with actors here. Early on in his career, Ionesco's plays were underappreciated and misunderstood. Perhaps he felt the actors in his plays often misinterpreted their roles. He may have thought they turned his plays into gibberish in the same way the Orator mutilates the Old Man's message. Of course, Ionesco never verified this theory, so that's all it is: a theory.

    Stage Direction: "he takes a piece of chalk out of his pocket, and writes, in large capitals: ANGELFOOD." (541)

    Even the written word fails to communicate anything at the end of the play. What could this be saying about the art of playwriting as a whole? Is it possible for a playwright to truly communicate with his audience?

    Stage Direction: "he wipes out the chalk letters, and replaces them with others, among which we make out, still in large capitals: ΛADIEU ΛADIEU ΛPΛ" (542)

    Here are the last actual words Ionesco leaves us with. Once again, they are pretty much indecipherable. It's even partly in Greek – Λ, or lambda, is the eleventh letter of the Greek alphabet. Whatever the case, it's all Greek to us. Some people think the Orator is trying to write, "Adieu, Adieu, Papa." (542) ("Adieu" means goodbye in French.) Even if this is true, it doesn't exactly tell us the meaning of life.

    Though this ending may be a little confusing, in a way it offers an explanation for the whole play. The entire piece has been a riddle. We're not sure what's real and what's not, and the characters often speak in what appear to be random non-sequiturs. The play could be saying, "Yes, it's all been gibberish, and that's exactly the point." _THOUGHT_END_ _QUOTE_START_ Stage Direction: "We hear for the first time the human noises of the invisible crowd." (542)

    Here's the final hint that the invisible guests are perhaps meant to represent the audience watching the play. The last thing the audience sees is a row of chairs set up very much like their own. The last thing they hear is the sound audience.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Old Woman: "You are very gifted, my darling. You could have been head president, head king or even head doctor, or general, if you had wanted to, if only you'd had a little ambition in life..." (16)

    This quote seems to show that the Old Man's disappointing, meaningless existence results from the fact that he never had any big dreams. He's a nobody because he never really tried to accomplish anything. He never had any real dreams or plans.

    Old Woman: "all is not lost, all is not spoiled, you'll tell them everything, you will explain, you have a must live, you have to struggle for your message..." (88)

    Just before the Old Woman says this to her husband, he's totally freaking out about his meaningless life. When she reminds him of his great message he seems to perk up a bit. It's unclear as to whether he's actually been working on this supposed message or not. The fact that he's been working on a great message hasn't come up before, which makes us wonder if it's true at all. It's quite possible that the old couple just decides to imagine that he's been striving for something his entire life. Perhaps they pretend he's been working on something in an attempt to create meaning where there is none.

    Old Man: "I have a message, that's God's truth. I struggle, a mission, I have something to say, a message to communicate to humanity, to mankind..." (89)

    The idea of having a great message for humanity definitely perks up the weepy Old Man. He now has a mission, a goal for the future, which has given him renewed purpose in life. If he can get his message across to the guests tonight, his life won't have been wasted. Of course, as we mention in the entry above, it's entirely possible that he has no message at all and that his dream of being somebody is really just that: a dream.

    Old Man: "When we were young, the moon was a living star, Ah! yes, yes, if only we had dared, but we were only children." (250)

    In this quote the Old Man is speaking to the invisible Belle, who seems to be a long-lost love. The moon he speaks of could represent a dream of true love that was never fulfilled. It could also represent the plans he never quite accomplished while he was still young enough to make them happen.

    Old Woman: "Saving his [the Old Man's] own soul by saving the world!" (388)

    Here the Old Woman points out that her husband's dream of helping the world will also help him. Does that make his dream inherently selfish? Would he be attempting it if it weren't going to benefit him in some way? We've already had hints earlier in the play that he's a pretty selfish dude. Let's not forget that this is the same guy who claims to have left his mother to die alone in a ditch.

    Old Man: "I wanted to climb stairways, they rotted the steps...I fell down...I wanted to travel, they refused me a passport...I wanted to cross the river, they burnt my bridges..." (447)

    In this passage, the Old Man seems to blame all his failures on others. Could it be, though, that the real reasons his dreams have never come true is because he's never taken responsibility for his own actions?

    Old Man: "Our existence can come to an end in this apotheosis..." (523)

    An apotheosis is a perfect ideal, a model of excellence. The Old Man is supremely confident that his message will save the world. So confident, in fact, that he feels his life is complete and that he die at peace with what he's accomplished.

    Old Man: "...thanks be to heaven who has granted us such long and peaceful years...My life has been filled to overflowing. My mission is accomplished." (523)

    At this point the Old Man thinks all his dreams have come true. It's interesting to hear him talk about how great his life has been when earlier he was saying just the opposite. It seems that when people think their dreams have come true, they forget all the bad stuff.

    Stage Directions: "The Old Woman and Old Man at the same moment throw themselves out the windows, shouting 'Long Live the Emperor.'" (540)

    The Old Man and Woman throw themselves into the waters below, thinking that the Orator has got the whole message thing under control. As we find out in just a moment, this trust was totally misplaced. Here's a question: why on earth would you kill yourself without making sure the thing you've worked for your entire life actually happened?

    Orator: "He, mme, mm, mm. Ju, gou, hou, hou. Heu, heu, ju hou, gueue." (541)

    Here it is: the moment when all the Old Man's dreams come to nothing. It turns out the Orator is really bad at his job. The Old Man supposedly worked his entire life to accomplish the goal of saving humanity, but now his message will never be heard. What do you think this says about personal goals? Does it mean that all of our dreams are futile and absurd? Or could the play simply be skewering the Old Man's specific dream?

  • Isolation

    Old Man: "Ah! This house, this island, I can't get used to it. Water all around us...water under the windows, stretching as far as the horizon." (10)

    The old couple is completely isolated. As the Old Man says, their house is totally surrounded by water, leaving them pretty much alone with each other. Some critics suggest that the play is set in a post-apocalyptic world. It could be that the Old Man and Woman are the only two people left on earth, and that's about as isolated as it gets.

    Old Man: "I'm an orphan, on earth, you're not my mamma..." (87)

    The Old Man suddenly feels incredibly isolated as he remembers that his mother is dead. His wife tries to take the place of his mother, but he rejects her. Nothing can replace his mother, so now he'll forever be "an orphan." Of course, you could interpret the whole orphan thing as a metaphor for all of humanity. If human beings are alone in the universe, as the play seems to suggest, then we are all very much like poor little orphans cut off from the support and comfort that our metaphorical "parents" might give us.

    The Old Woman: "in our own words, we find perhaps everything ... and then we are orphans no longer." (122)

    The Old Woman seems to be saying that language is the key to escaping isolation. It kind of makes sense, right? We use words to articulate our thoughts and emotions. Without them, we would be unable to communicate most of what we think and feel.

    Old Woman: "My husband's not really misanthropic, he just loves solitude." (186)

    This statement is a bit contradictory. A misanthrope is a person who doesn't like people, who prefers solitude. Of course, we suppose it's possible for someone to not necessarily be totally disgusted with other people and still just want to be left alone. You definitely couldn't call the Old Man a total misanthrope because his goal is to help the rest of humanity. And, if he is to be believed, he's been working in solitude his whole life to craft a message that will bring meaning to humanity. What do you think? Would a person with a true love of other people purposely cut himself off from the world?

    Old Man: "I left my mother to die all alone in a ditch." (265)

    Well, that's not very nice. However, an Existentialist might reply that it wouldn't have mattered if the Old Man had stayed or not. We all die alone anyway, so what's the difference?

    Old Man: "I am not myself. I am another. I am the one in the other." (369)

    What might this mean? Does the Old Man feel uncomfortable in his own skin? Is he unsure of his own identity? Is there even a such thing as a personal identity? You could interpret this statement as meaning that the Old Man feels isolated even from himself – and that's about as lonely as it gets.

    Old Woman: "My darling...I can't see you, anymore...where are you? Who are they?" (350)

    Here the Old Man and Woman have been pushed apart by the growing crowd of invisible people. This is pretty ironic if you go with the interpretation that the invisible people are just in the old couple's heads. They've imagined all these people into existence to help alleviate their loneliness, only to be isolated from each other by them.

    Old Man: "Sometimes I awaken in the midst of absolute silence. It's a perfect circle. There's nothing lacking. But one must be careful, all the same. Its shape might disappear. There are holes through which it can escape." (371)

    The image of someone waking up "in the midst of absolute silence" seems to scream isolation. But the Old Man almost seems to treasure this feeling. He warns us to "be careful" or it "might disappear."

    Old Man: "...Our corpses will fall far from each other, and we will rot in an aquatic solitude..." (529)

    The Old Man and Woman lament the fact that their bodies will drift far apart when they throw themselves into the water. They'd hoped they could be buried together. Of course, in the Existential view, we all die alone anyway, so it really doesn't matter where their bodies end up. In this light, the concern is absurd.

    Old Man: "Let us be united in time and in eternity, even if we are not together in space, as we were in adversity: let us die at the same moment..." (535)

    The Old Man hopes they will overcome the isolation of death in the afterlife. As we discuss elsewhere, most Existentialists didn't believe in an afterlife. This makes the old couple's dream of conquering the loneliness of death absurd – at least in the play's view.

  • Time

    Old Woman: "Come my darling, close the window. There's a bad smell from that stagnant water, and besides the mosquitoes are coming in." (2)

    How significant is it that the water surrounding the house is stagnant? There are several places in the play where water is used as a metaphor for time. Could it be that the stagnant water suggests that time is frozen for the Old Man and his wife?

    Old Woman: "Come, come my darling, come sit down. You shouldn't lean out, you might fall into the water." (4)

    You could interpret this warning from the Old Woman as a comment on the cyclical nature of time. It seems significant that the Old Woman warns her husband about falling out the window. At the end of the play, both of them end up purposely throwing themselves into the water below. Might this happen every night and they simply forget about it? They might not necessarily die from the fall, and they do have terrible memories. Perhaps the Old Woman's warning comes from a dim recollection of the day before and shows that the elderly couple is trapped in a cyclical loop. Maybe they're stuck in an alternate reality in which they're doomed to repeat the same actions over and over.

    Old Woman: "You know what happened to Francois I. You might be careful."
    Old Man: Still more examples from history! Sweetheart, I'm tired of French history." (4-5)

    The Old Woman follows up her warning about falling out of the window with a reference to French history. When the Old Man tells her he doesn't want to hear about history anymore, it makes us wonder if he's speaking about more than just the history of France. Could it be that he's referencing his and his wife's history as well? You could choose to interpret this line as an indication that some part of the Old Man is aware of the fact that he's stuck in a time loop. He could be somehow aware that he's been repeating the same actions over and over again and desperately wants to escape.

    Old Man: "It's six o'clock in the is dark already. It wasn't like this before. Surely you remember, there was still daylight at nine o'clock in the evening, at ten o'clock, at midnight." (11)

    The Old Man laments the fact that the days have gotten shorter. Is the earth rotating faster and faster? Is time speeding up? Or is the sun itself slowly dying? (Or is it just Daylight Saving Time?)

    Old Man: "It's because the earth keeps turning around, around, around, around, around..." (15)

    This image of the earth revolving seems to strengthen the theme of the cyclical nature of time in the play. We're all trapped on this planet that keeps turning around and around. At the end of each twenty-four-hour period we end up in just about the same place we were before.

    Old Woman: "Come on now, imitate the month of February." . . .
    Old Man: "All right, here's the month of February."
    Stage Directions: He scratches his head like Stan Laurel. (28-31)

    This bit may suggest that humanity's idea of time is arbitrary. Somewhere along the line, the western world decided to divide up the year into twelve months. Why twelve? There are other calendars from other cultures that divide the year up into different months with different lengths. The fact that the Old Man's impression of February is an imitation of Stan Laurel, a famous comedian, perhaps shows the ultimate absurdity of our very notion of time.

    Old Woman: "Tell me the story, you know the story: 'Then at last we arrived...'" (35)

    Notice how the Old Woman's favorite story is both a beginning and an end. She wants her husband to recall a time when they first got somewhere (presumably Paris), showing that it was a beginning of sorts. However, the quote indicates that they arrived there at the end of a long journey. Here again we see a cyclical idea of time. The play never lets us forget that beginnings are always ends and ends are always beginnings.

    Old Man: "We were soaked through, frozen to the bone, for hours, for days, for nights, for weeks..."
    Old Woman: "For months..." (43-44)

    The Old Man and Woman seem not to really know how long they were hanging out in the rain. The past seems like one big blur to them.

    Old Woman: "All that's gone down the drain, alas...down the old black drain..." (56)

    The image of dirty water going down a drain could be another hint that time is cyclical in the world of the play. There are several clues in the play that water represents time. Here it seems to represent the span of the Old Man's wasted life. When the water swirls around the drain before it disappears, it reminds us that events often occur in repetitive patterns.

    Old Man: "Time has left his wheel marks on our skin." (250)

    Here the Old Man laments the ravages of time. To him time is as inevitable as a truck hurtling toward him. Even if he had tried to get out of the way, he would have ended up as road kill.

  • Mortality

    Old Man: "Where is she? My mamma."
    Old Woman: "In heavenly paradise...she hears you, she sees you, among the flowers."
    Old Man: "That's not even true-ue...she can't see me..." (85-87)

    Is the Old Man rejecting the idea that his mother is in Heaven, or that she can see him? Many Absurdist plays reject the notion of an afterlife, but this doesn't necessarily seem to be the case here. Perhaps the Old Man thinks that once the dead have passed on, they are no longer aware of the world of the living. Then again, it could be that he thinks there is no afterlife.

    Old Man: "I'll have plenty of time to take it easy in my grave." (190)

    This statement seems to go along with the idea that the work of our lives is what gives us meaning. You could interpret this as a rejection of the idea that there's any sort of reward for us in the afterlife (if there even is an afterlife). It's what we do with our time on earth that matters.

    Old Man: "perhaps the flowers are budding again beneath the snow!" (250)

    Snow is often used as a metaphor for old age and death, whereas flowers represent vitality and life. The Old Man seems to hope here that he can regain a bit of his youthful vigor at the end of his life. This late blooming will presumably come in the form of his message to the world.

    Old Woman: "He showed us his little fists...'you're lying, you've betrayed me! The streets are full of dead birds, of dying baby birds.'" (264)

    Here the Old Woman recounts how her son blamed her for the death of lots of baby birds. The image of the streets filled with "dying baby birds" strikes us as particularly horrifying. If this event really happened, it must have been a terrible way for the child to discover the harsh realities of death. It's interesting that the birds are specifically babies. You could interpret this as suggesting that from the moment we are born we are all destined to die. Perhaps the dying chicks horrified the son so much because, like him, they were still so young.

    Old Man: "... nothing remains for us but to withdraw...immediately, in order to make the supreme sacrifice which no one demands of us but which we will carry out even so..." (523)

    The elderly couple's double suicide sort of comes out of nowhere. They say it's because they've completed their mission in life: now that the Orator has arrived to deliver the message, there's nothing left for them to do. We wonder why they didn't hang out just a little bit longer to make sure he did it right. Of course, in the absurd world of The Chairs, such questions may just be a waste of time.

    Old Woman: "Yes, yes, let's die in full glory...let's die in order to become a legend..." (524)

    You see this kind of attitude toward death a lot in literature: the noble hero dies valiantly and is forever honored for his courageous sacrifice. (Think Braveheart.) It seems to us that the play is satirizing this romantic notion. The old couple dies without their mission being fulfilled. On top of that, there's a good chance that they were the last people on earth anyway. It's quite possible that there's no one left to remember them and that their death was all for nothing.

    Old Man: "Above all I had hoped/ that together we might lie/ with all our bones together/ with the selfsame skin/ within the same sepulchre/ and that the same worms/ might share our old flesh/ that we might rot together..." (525)

    The Old Man launches into a little poem about how he wishes he and his wife could rot together in death. As we discuss in our section on "Isolation," many Existentialists thought we all die alone. The romantic idea of the couples' bodies decaying together seems a bit absurd in this view. Why does it matter if their bodies are together or not? They're dead and won't know the difference anyway.

    Old Man: "We will leave some traces, for we are people and not cities."
    Old Man and Old Woman: "We will have a street named after us." (533-534)

    This line makes us laugh every time we read it. Number one: Why does the old couple seem to think that people leave deeper traces than cities? There are tons of ancient ruins scattered throughout the earth, yet millions upon millions of people have died whom no one remembers at all. Number two: If the memories of specific people did last longer than those of cities, why would you care if they named a street after you? The city would be gone, so there would be no streets. Number three: The whole world appears to be underwater, so there aren't even any streets left. This line seems to be skewering the false comfort many of us take in the thought of being remembered after we die.

    Old Man: "Let us be united in time and in eternity, even if we are not together in space, as we were in adversity: let us die at the same moment..." (535)

    The Old Man seems to be expressing a view that he and his wife will be united in some kind of afterlife. Many Existentialists believed that there was no such thing as an afterlife, or at least thought there was no real way of knowing. In this light, the Old Man's certainty of reuniting with his wife after death seems absurd.

    Stage Directions: The stage remains empty with only the chairs, the dais, the floor covered with streamers and confetti. The main door is wide open onto darkness. We hear for the first time the human noises of the invisible crowd. (542)

    What is the darkness beyond the door? Is it the nothingness of death? The meaninglessness of life? Do the two amount to the same thing? What does it mean when "human noises of the invisible crowd" fill this void, then fade away? Could it be symbolic of the way we come to life in the midst of meaninglessness and die in the same way? Or could you interpret it as meaning that we are the light in the darkness?