The Old Shoemaker by Voltairine de Cleyre, Story, Analysis, & Themes

"The Old Shoemaker" by Voltairine de Cleyre is a short story about an old shoemaker who lives in a house at the end of an alley with a frightening old woman. Despite his appearance, the shoemaker is a great man who had a spiritual encounter with a "Mighty One" who visited him. The visitor brought him freedom, and the shoemaker passed upward, smiling to the transfiguration, leaving behind the dross of his life. The story emphasizes the idea that a person's true greatness may not be visible to others and that spiritual experiences can transform even the most ordinary lives.

The Old Shoemaker: Story by Voltairine de Cleyre

He had lived a long time there, in the house at the end of the alley, and no one had ever known that he was a great man. He was lean and palsied and had a crooked back; his beard was grey and ragged and his eyebrows came too far forward; there were seams and flaps in the empty, yellow old skin, and he gasped horribly when he breathed, taking hold of the lintel of the door to steady himself when he stepped out on the broken bricks of the alley. He lived with a frightful old woman who scrubbed the floors of the rag-shop, and drank beer, and growled at the children who poked fun at her. He had lived with her eighteen years, she said, stroking the furry little kitten that curled up in her neck as if she had been beautiful.

Eighteen years they had been drinking and quarreling together—and suffering. She had seen the flesh sucking away from the bones, and the skin falling in upon them, and the long, lean fingers growing more lean and trembling, as they crooked round his shoemaking tools.
It was very strange she had not grown thin; the beer had bloated her, and rolls of weak, shaking flesh lapped over the ridges of her uncouth figure. Her pale, lack-lustre blue eyes wandered aimlessly about as she talked: No —he had never told her, not even in their quarrels, not even when they were drunken together, of the great Visitor who had come up the little alley, yesterday, walking so stately over the sun-beaten bricks, taking no note of the others, and coming in at the door without asking. She had not expected such an one; how could she?

But the Old Shoemaker had shown no surprise at the Mighty One. He smiled and set down the teacup he was holding, and entered into communion with the Stranger. He noticed no others, but continued to smile; and the infinite dignity of the Unknown fell upon him, and covered the wasted old limbs and the hard, wizened face, so that all we who entered, bowed, and went out, and did not speak.

But we understood, for the Mighty One gave understanding without words. We had been in the presence of Freedom! We had stood at the foot of Tabor, and seen this worn, old, world-soiled soul lose all its dross and commonplace, and pass upward smiling, to the Transfiguration. In the hands of the Mighty One the crust had crumbled, and dropped away in impalpable powder. Souls should be mixed of it no more. Only that which passed upward, the fine white playing flame, the heart of the long, life-long watches of patience, should rekindle there in the perennial ascension of the great Soul of Man.

Major Themes

The hidden greatness of ordinary people: The story highlights the contrast between the old shoemaker's physical appearance and his spiritual greatness. He may look like an unremarkable old man, but he has the ability to connect with a higher power and experience a transfiguration. This theme suggests that one should not judge others based solely on their external appearance or circumstances.

The transformative power of spiritual experiences: The encounter with the "Mighty One" transforms the old shoemaker and frees him from the "crust" of his ordinary life. This theme implies that spiritual experiences can offer a profound change in perspective, allowing individuals to see beyond their daily struggles and connect with something greater.

The fleeting nature of material possessions: The old shoemaker's humble living conditions and simple lifestyle highlight the impermanence of material wealth and the transience of human life. This theme suggests that possessions and wealth are not as important as spiritual fulfillment and connection.

The importance of patience and perseverance: The story suggests that the old shoemaker's greatness is a result of his long, patient years of shoemaking and spiritual practice. This theme implies that success and fulfillment require persistence and hard work.

The danger of overlooking the hidden wisdom of the elderly: The old shoemaker is an example of an older person who has hidden wisdom that is not immediately apparent to others. This theme suggests that younger generations should take the time to listen to and learn from the wisdom of their elders.

Critical Analysis

"The Old Shoemaker" by Voltairine de Cleyre is a short story that deals with themes of greatness, dignity, and spiritual transformation. It tells the story of an old shoemaker who has lived a long life in the house at the end of an alley, accompanied by his miserable old wife. Despite his unremarkable appearance and impoverished circumstances, the shoemaker has a hidden greatness that is revealed when he encounters a "Mighty One" who visits him in his home.

The story opens with a vivid description of the shoemaker's physical appearance, highlighting his advanced age, physical deformities, and frailty. This description serves to emphasize the contrast between the shoemaker's outward appearance and his inner greatness, which is gradually revealed as the story unfolds.

The shoemaker's wife, in contrast to her husband, is depicted as unattractive, unpleasant, and resentful. She is unable to understand or appreciate her husband's hidden greatness and is consumed by her own petty concerns, such as drinking beer and quarreling with her neighbors. Her character serves to underscore the shoemaker's isolation and to emphasize the difficulty he faces in sharing his spiritual experiences with others.

The central event of the story occurs when the shoemaker encounters the "Mighty One," a figure who is never fully described or explained but who seems to represent a powerful spiritual force. The shoemaker's reaction to this encounter is one of serene acceptance and inner joy, in contrast to the fear and confusion exhibited by the other characters who witness the visitation. The story suggests that the shoemaker's inner greatness, which had remained hidden from the world, has been recognized and validated by this spiritual encounter.

The story's language is richly symbolic, with images of decay, transformation, and transcendence woven throughout. The shoemaker's physical deterioration is contrasted with his spiritual transformation, which is depicted as a process of shedding off the old and revealing the new. The encounter with the "Mighty One" is presented as a moment of spiritual transcendence, a glimpse of a higher reality that is beyond the mundane concerns of everyday life.

Overall, "The Old Shoemaker" is a powerful exploration of the human search for meaning and transcendence in the face of physical and spiritual decay. Through the character of the shoemaker, the story suggests that greatness and dignity are not necessarily linked to outward appearance or material wealth, but rather arise from a deep inner spiritual life that remains hidden from the world. The story's use of vivid imagery, symbolic language, and understated emotion make it a haunting and thought-provoking work that resonates long after the reading has ended.
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