Waiting for Godot
Beckett’s Novel Achievement: Absurdist Comedy in Waiting for Godot
In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the playwright bestows upon his work the veneer of comedy, but invests the heart of it with the “absurd”, the tragic. He employs the gags and the routines, the circus comedy and the songs of the “lowbrow” arts, to underline and to sometimes undercut the many themes and ideas which are so apparent throughout. The two mains characters, Vladimir and Estragon, are of course clearly derived from the pairs of cross-talk comedians of music halls, in effect more resembling clowns than tramps. Their dialogue has the peculiarly repetitive quality of the cross-talk comedian’s patter, masking the profound ideas throughout within “idle discourse”. Beckett uses this comedic format in order to better explore the bleak world of Waiting for Godot.
To begin with, the world of Christianity is something that Beckett explores throughout the play. The Christian tradition indeed is one of the tragedies of the characters. Their imaginations and thoughts abound with half remembered images, stories and models of behaviour from the Bible: the Dead Sea, pale blue (“I used to say, that’s where we’ll go for our honeymoon”), the two thieves, John the Baptist, Christ’s precursor (“I’m leaving my boots there. Another will come, just as…as…as me, but with smaller feet, and they’ll make him happy”), Christ himself (“All my life I’ve compared myself to him”). Beckett expounds upon this theme of God and Christianity at the beginning of the first Act. Vladimir offers Estragon the story of the two thieves at Christ’s crucifixion, one supposedly saved and the other damned. This is a “reasonable percentage”, he thinks, and he suggests they divert themselves for a time with repenting. Estragon responds to this suggestion however with pointing out that they have nothing to repent for, other than possible “Our Being born”. Beckett is suggesting here through Estragon that it is living that produces pain and suffering, not sin. This fairly sophisticated, philosophical exchange is ended with a typically crude comedic outburst from Estragon: “People are bloody ignorant apes.” This conversation comes just prior to the first mention of Godot. Beckett is implying at this early stage that there is a connection in Vladimir’s mind between what Christianity offers and what his ‘God-fantasy’ involves, that which he desperately wants from Godot: an authority that will take over his moral responsibilities.
‘Time – a condition of resurrection become an instrument of death’. While this notion was put forward by Beckett in his writings on Proust, the same fundamental idea about time applies to Waiting for Godot. In the absurdist universe of the play, time does not exist: it is only one more human, subjective method of attempting to impose meaning on the meaningless. In the first Act, there occurs a series of grotesque entertainments, “all worse than pantomime”, including amusement for Estragon in watching Pozzo’s panic as he finds his pipe is missing, and the fascination of Estragon and Pozzo at the sight of Vladimir peeing painfully offstage. Each of the characters has his own particular way of relating to time, and intermingled in this “lowbrow” comedy, is Beckett’s exploration of this idea. Pozzo in this scene, the professional man, clings to his watch. If he wants to conduct his business efficiently, he must ‘affirm that he controls and regulates time’ – other people’s, as well as his own. When Vladimir proclaims that “Time has stopped”, Pozzo cuddles his watch to his ear, replying with “Don’t you believe it, sir, don’t you believe it. Whatever you like, but not that.” In the second Act, the great tragedy of Pozzo’s blindness is that it leaves him completely dependant on others for the time of day.
Vladimir’s equivalent of Pozzo’s watch, the instrument which symbolises his relation to time, are his own memories. He tries throughout to convince both himself and Estragon of their veracity. Estragon in both acts must accept Vladimir’s version of ‘yesterday’ for Vladimir to be able to set ‘today’ in his ‘habitual patterns’ . Beckett wrote in his essay on Proust: ‘There is no escape from yesterday because yesterday has deformed us, or been deformed by us…Yesterday is irremediably a part of us.’ Therefore, is Beckett merely saying that the past shapes the future? In Waiting for Godot, Beckett struggles to break free from this notion Vladimir throughout attempts to find purpose and reality in the present through striving to recollect the past. Estragon however has no interest in remembering: “I’m no a historian”2E It is Vladimir who forces Estragon to remember the past Estragon begins his day relatively content. By the time Vladimir has finished ‘spinning his precise recollections’ however, Estragon may protest that he has had enough and wants to leave, but it is too late. The pair are now determined and ruled by a vague recollection of what mattered in the past: “We’re waiting for Godot”.
Beckett’s exploration into the theme of death in Waiting for Godot comes in two main parts, one in each Act. The first is through Lucky’s speech, and connects the theme of death with that of time. Lucky in his tirade evokes the ‘dying and decomposition of matter’ and the inability of the human mind to keep control of it. Places that named by humans, both cities and the country (“Feckham Peckham Fulham Clapham”) give way to undefined plains, mountains, seas and rivers, which in turn break down into the basic elements (water, fire, air, earth). At his conclusion, “stories”, “cold”, “skull”, “grave” death are the ‘obsessive images’. Dying and death, Beckett argues, is a fundamental and unavoidable part of living. Lucky’s speech also explores the death of language and logic. Words and phrases in the speech like “given”, “considering”, “as a result of”, “it is established”, “beyond all doubt” all imply the ability to order and discuss. However, they are shown through the rambling and chaotic nature of the speech to be empty and powerless.
The second key moment in the play in which Beckett explores death is once again masked in a comedic element. At the beginning of Act 2, Vladimir sings a song that could be straight out of a music hall production. Significantly for the play, the pivot of this song is death. It does not however say simply, as Lucky did, that dying is a part of living. Rather, it describes death as something humans are responsible for. In the song, the masters of the world and its resources (the cook), and all their underdogs, “all the dogs” who “came running”, join forces to eliminate anyone who upsets the way things are, however great their need stealing a “crust of bread”. The cook kills the thief and the other dogs ‘bury him deep and use him as a cautionary tale to bind future generations’. What is striking is that Vladimir sings the tale to himself, warning himself against any kind of rebellion. He is ‘closing more tightly the doors of his own prison-house’. Thus far, Vladimir and Estragon have evaded death, the “tomb”, just as in the song. Vladimir comes to the conclusion that keeping to the same routine day in day out is what has saved them from the darkness. Beckett here is expounding upon the folly of this philosophy, that forever succumbing to the trap of habitual routine in order to stave off the inevitable is a cause without hope or point.
The entrance of the boy in the first Act introduces a sequence which re-enacts the relationship between the self and the outside world Beckett’s exploration of selfhood. Beckett illustrates here the notion that all people ever see in the world outside is merely another version of their own perceptions. If the Boy then is the unknown future for which the pair is longing, it is a future constructed in their own image. Vladimir and Estragon question the boy, eliciting information that seems new but is in fact not, being simply a variation on themes the pair have already discussed. The Boy has a brother, not unlike him, and they both work for Godot. One is beaten and the other is not echoing the different overnight fates of Estragon and Vladimir, and also the fate of the two crucified thieves, one saved and one damned.
Throughout the play there is a constant discussion of the nature of humanity all other key themes are connected to it, but in particular Beckett’s discussion on the vanity of human wishes. Humanity is shown through the characters in Waiting for Godot as forever searching for an assurance and comfort that is simply not there. Vladimir strives throughout to give his existence meaning by trying to recollect the past, and in turn by holding onto a vain hope that Godot will come. This is no different from the eagerness of the faithful to believe the one Gospel-writer who says one thief was saved. Both spring from the same basic need to dispel the apparent futility of one’s own existence, to believe in a future that will be better than the present, and to recognise some kind of purpose to life.
Beckett thus does what on the surface seems impossible: expounds upon the bleak philosophy of the theatre of the absurd, while constructing a farcical comedy routine at the same time. His black, obscene, pantomime humour is an attempt to bring detachment to a situation that is irredeemably depressing. An absurd world is a frightening one. It has in itself ‘no norms, no absolutes, no consoling certainties, no direction’. It is indeed Beckett’s novel achievement to succeed in using comedy in order to better describe this world, and to explore the key elements of existence within it: God, time, death, selfhood, and underlying all, human nature.
Birkett, Jennifer. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. London, Macmillan Press, 1987.
Graver, Lawrence. Beckett: Waiting for Godot. Cambridge, University Press, 1989.
Esslin, Martin. ‘The Search for the Self’, in Harold Bloom (ed.), Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. New York, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Iser, Wolfgang. ‘Counter-sensical Comedy and Audience Response in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot’, in Steven Conner (ed.), Waiting for Godot and Endgame. London, Macmillan Press, 1992.
Review of Samuel Beckett’s Play, Waiting for Godot
The Theater of the Absurd
The play, Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, tells the story of two tramps (Estragon and Vladimir) who wait for a mysterious man named Godot. Waiting for Godot is an unconventional story, not only are its event are random and sporadic, but the two acts of the play are also almost completely identical to one another. Beckett’s work portrays the philosophical ideal of absurdism, or the belief that human beings exist in a purposeless universe. It is through the work’s language, ambiguity of time throughout the play, and overall anticlimactic wait for Godot that Beckett introduces the theater of the absurd and the idea that human struggles are futile in the senseless and chaotic world which they live in.
The theater of the absurd is most obviously seen in Beckett’s language, particularly in the work’s dialogue. Language, a way to show communication, is traditionally provokes understanding and comprehension in the audience. In Waiting for Godot, however, language is meant to confuse readers and viewers. This is because absurdists believe that language is a flawed as communication. Beckett uses the cyclical nature of the novel and the character’s conversations to shows this belief. This is exemplified through the two protagonists’ conversations. Often, Vladimir and Estragon will participate in broad, open conversations that have little meaning and to which no conclusion is reached. While they talk for the majority of the work, their conversations are shallow. Though they have the potential to be meaningful, the characters, never reach a level of deep understanding. This is best exemplified in Act One, when Vladimir and Estragon discuss the story of Jesus saving a thief who was crucified next to him. They discuss the absurdity that people believe this version of the story, despite “…all four [disciples] were there. And only one speaks of a thief being saved.” (Act 1, Beckett). They then conclude that “…people are bloody ignorant apes…” (Act, 1 Beckett). Though this is a deep and philosophical thought, Vladimir and Estragon barely scratch the surface of the topic quickly settle on a conclusion that people are ignorant. Their lack of understanding coincides with absurdist beliefs that everything is meaningless. Even though the two discuss the crucifixion and come to a rather wise conclusion, ultimately it does not matter because everything is meaningless, not matter what level of understanding one has of the topic. Beckett also breaks conventional language rules to convey absurdism. In the play, pauses, or the lack thereof, are just as important as the words spoken by characters. Many of the characters ramble without any pauses of punctuation to end sentences. This is most obvious in Lucky’s rant in Act One, when he proclaims, “…it is established beyond all doubt that in view of the labors of Fartov and Belcher left unfinished for reasons unknown of Testew and Cunard left unfinished…” (Act 1, Beckett). This is a stream of consciousness that lasts almost two pages without any form of sentence ending punctuation. Ramblings such as this further the idea in absurdist works that language is not used as a tool to provoke understanding, but rather prohibits comprehension.
The ambiguity of time in Waiting for Godot is a contradiction to traditional theater and represents the meaningless of structure in life. In traditional playwriting, events are shown throughout a definite period of time and the amount of time passed from beginning to end of the play is very clear. This is not the case in Waiting for Godot. In this work, the exact date which the events of the novel take place are never known and the only evidence that time is passing is though the characters’ eccentric, “filler” actions that have little impact on the play’s plot. Time is cyclical; in fact, the two acts are almost identical to each other. This ambiguity induces feelings of monotony and dullness and invokes a feeling of hopelessness. The meaninglessness of time correlates to Beckett’s belief that one’s efforts in life are futile. This is best exemplified in act two when almost every character wakes to find they do not remember any events from the previous act, as Estragon states, “…It’s possible. I didn’t [remember] anything. ..” (Act 2, Beckett). This shows how unimportant time is to the characters in the play. They forget what they do in the past and this recursive nature, emphasized by the duplicity in the two acts, shows how meaningless their efforts and lives are. The lack of remembrance signifies that memory is flawed and that previous actions do not affect the future and are hence, worthless.
The theater of the absurd is best recognized in the anticlimatic events throughout Waiting for Godot. There is no climax and Godot never arrives. Even in terms of movement, Vladimir and Estragon are virtually static and refuse to move from their spot under the tree as they wait for Godot. The characters fill their time with petty, meaningless actions, which are repeated in both acts. However, Beckett gives a little hope to his audience saying that one can change this hopelessness by breaking the cyclical routine of time. Like Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot, humans continuously wait for things that never come (this could be religion or a purpose in life), while living mechanical, dull lives. Vladimir and Estragon often suggest they leave saying, “Well, shall we go?/Yes, let’s go.” (Act 1 and 2, Beckett), but “They do not move.” (Act 1 and 2, Beckett). After suggesting and agreeing to move, none of the characters actually move. This lack of action occurs at the end of both acts, emphasizing its meaning. This is symbolism directed toward the majority of humans. It points out the idiocracy of the majority of people who announce their plans of change, but don’t actually go through with their plans. Beckett is trying to convey that there is no purpose in life if one continues to wait; waiting is what makes life worthless.
In his play, Beckett defies the laws of traditional theater and introduces the theater of the absurd. The theater of the absurd emphasizes the senselessness of the world and the absurdity and meaningless of human existence. In Waiting for Godot, this meaninglessness shown in the play by language, ambiguity of time, and the anticlimactic lack of action.
After the Bomb – a study into the mindset of the Cold War Era
After the chaos of the atomic bomb and the carnage of World War II, precedence was placed on government constructs to supply order to a tense climate, particularly in finding direction in a new ‘East versus West’ conflict. In John Le Carre’s mid-twentieth century novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the propagated glamorisation of the political-spy role acts as a foil to the bureaucratic, utilitarian characterisation of the Circus setting, wherein it’s façade projects an air of legitimacy to an ideologically confused populace. Thus political agency becomes an answer to the era’s stasis, as dialogue illuminates Leamas’ profession as an escape from the ennui and anxiety of a nuke-threatened existence. Similarly in Francis Coppola’s 1970s film Apocalypse Now, paranoia in the threat of Communism and the Bamboo Curtain incites the American soldiers’ sense of duty, as the military construct symbolically relies on violence to create a sense of power and security in an apathetic modern society. Contrastingly, whilst attempts to find purpose meet disillusioned success, the ephemeral questioning of America’s Democracy, particularly in the hypocritical Vietnam crusade, dissuades the legitimacy of the central government’s political direction and responsibility, as symbolised by Willard’s loss of innocence and journey towards immorality. Samuel Becket’s mid-Twentieth Century play Waiting for Godot supports this conception as well, as the titular religious question subverts the presence of salvation, from which the political paradigm loses sway in the face of spiritual and ideological emptiness. Thus, government polity cannot overturn a sense of powerlessness and anxiety in the post-bomb era.
As the nuclear-weapons race places universal desolation within threatening proximity, finding purpose and meaning is found in political agency. In Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, federal propaganda plays into this social vulnerability, wherein the glamorisation of the political-spy role is explored through the archetypically masculine depiction of Leamas as both emotionally and physically resilient, as illustrated in “remorseless” and “hard”. In an anxious climate still reeling from the morally questionable actions of WWII, a return to this traditional, conservative structure allows for the confronting truths of the modern era to be masked by “the same banality”, from which a sense of stability and order returns. Thus, delusion presents itself as a basis for which order can be found. This is expressed through the characterisation of the Circus setting as a foil to the glamorised federal construct, wherein the bureaucratic, utilitarian and often dehumanising nature of the institution, particularly in the portrayal of Leamas as an “ends and means” in the court scene, contrasts to the public’s sense of Western individualism as a moral basis. This represents the sense of loss experienced by the Cold-War populace, for which the repetition of “not knowing” underlines the social paradigms desperate search for legitimacy, order and meaning in an ideologically-confused setting, and its subsequent misplacement in the government polity. This is further expressed through dialogue, wherein Leamas’ profession acts as an escape from the ennui of a nuclear-threatened society as, ironically, the position gives him a sense of purpose and power despite the threat’s continued prevalence. This is illustrated in “…playing cowboys and Indians to brighten [his] rotten little life”.
Paranoia creates the same effect in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, wherein the social paradigm’s search for power in a vulnerable landscape incites America’s political involvement in Vietnam, specifically to curb the Bamboo Curtain and the threat of Communism in Asia. In order to supplant this ideological threat, the central government promotes the effort as an American responsibility; a military “mission”. This is illustrated through the overt enthusiasm of the soldiers, as in the helicopter scene, the link to Norse mythology’s death gods in the score’s title, Ride of the Valkyries, implies their “god-like” responsibility, as in this brutality they assume power and superiority over fear; thus the “love… of napalm” and “victory”, as inaction would mean the “nightmare” of “crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor”. Subsequently, as like in the characterisation of the Circus, dehumanisation in the political “termination” of opposition expresses a level of universal distrust and anxiety, in which paranoia allows for disassociation to thrive. Symbolically, this presents nihilism and apathy as a new vital piece of modern order, as despite the subsequent anti-war protest, it is solder’s like Kurtz who embrace the “horror” as a bi-product of existential crises within modern warfare; brutality is needed to find purpose within vulnerability. This is further embodied by his desolate characterisation, “just wanting to go out like a soldier, standing up”, and “trying” to mean something in a disparate, Post-bomb world; thus promoting political agency as an escape from social anxiety.
Nevertheless, government systems fail in securing a sense of power within futility. Despite a deluded placement of legitimacy within government agency, innate suspicion and distrust breaks the bond between the politic body and the head, particularly as America’s involvement in Vietnam contrasts to its basis in Democracy. In Apocalypse Now, this idea is illuminated by Willard’s metaphoric journey down the river, which parallels Leamas’ road with the children in the car, and Waiting for Godot’s road-side, the mission symbolises life and direction. In particular, it represents the direction of the political agency; a journey into immorality and disassociation. This becomes evident in the merging of Kurtz’ and Willard’s voice in the reading of the letters, as their retreat into the “jungle” becomes a strong motif for their shared sense of innocence lost; their immorality leaves them dehumanised and creatures of political apathy. This is further apparent in the characterisation of the soldiers as wilfully brutal and disassociated from their actions, as they symbolically become an embodiment of the political perspective. This is expressed in “…had a hill bombed, for 12 hours… victory”. Thus a lack of constitute is signified, as the American political body’s ignorance of its own moral basis of freedom of expression, specifically in order to combat its own personal war against Communism, implies hypocrisy. Hence, this illegitimacy incurs the social paradigms protest and disillusionment. This inner conflict inspires futility; so long as collective bodies differ in a lost setting, order and purpose inevitably fail and anxiety persists in confusion.
This theme is further expressed in Becket’s Waiting for Godot, wherein political struggles are illuminated as inconsequential in the face of religious questioning. Its footing in Absurdism implies the era’s lack of meaning, and subsequently its political vendettas as absurd, as in the wake of the atomic bomb and the “hope deferred”, its actions are perceived as a response to the “something sick”; reactionary but lacking in meaning besides fear, likewise to America’s Vietnam efforts. As anxiety breeds its likeness, particularly in the motivations of the government polity, the process becomes a paradox. This is broached via the circular structure of the play, as the closing question, “well, shall we go?”, equates to a lack of social mobility and static, from which ideological questioning cannot salvage them. This is further explored by the characterisation of Pozzo as a side act, as whilst the power relationship between the two parties, in parallel to the ‘East versus West’ ideological struggle, offers a distraction from their desperate “wait”, their shared “loss of rights” implicates universal futility. Thus, anxiety stems from “nothingness” and the need to be the “thief… saved”, particularly as the Cold War populace “compares (themselves to Christ)”; their misdeeds are misinterpreted as sacrifice, for otherwise they would have no purpose in a disparate climate. Hence, to exist in the Post-bomb era is to “waste and pine”, as to accept a spiritual and ideological emptiness within the social consciousness is to fester in meaninglessness and cease to exist. Thus, whilst the government structure both succeeds and fails in feeding a sense of vitality to a vulnerable society through political agency, it is the deep-seated nature of the anxiety within the social consciousness that defeats the attempt.
While faith is often placed in government constructs to attain order and purpose within a lost environment, it is the wide-spread permeation of fear that cheapens the legitimacy of the agency. Whilst it succeeds in attributing purpose, both in the glamorisation of the spy-role in Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and the sense of power inspired by duty in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, it is delusion and social fear that founds it. Leamas symbolically escapes the ennui of vulnerability, as his profession allows a disassociation from ever-present powerlessness. Similarly, it is the military constructs own basis in fear and paranoia that allows for a god-like responsibility. Thus any order or purpose attained in government agency is illegitimate, as the soldiers symbolically embody the brutality of the politics, and in Becket’s Waiting for Godot, the Absurdist nature of the play parallels the absurdist nature of the society, particularly as the religious question erodes any baseless meaning within the political struggle. Thus, it is the root of the social anxiety, the atomic bomb itself, that recreates its own futility in paradox, as the social paradigm continues to search for meaning and direction in a lost, conflicted setting.
Beckett’s Presentation of Memory in Waiting for Godot
Throughout Waiting for Godot, Beckett uses memory as a means to anchor the isolated setting in the context of some kind of surrounding world, frequently undermining this ‘anchor’ by presenting the past, and the protagonists’ recollections of it, as being fragmented and unclear, much like Vladimir and Estragon’s existence in the present. The subversion of such a key element of human existence – memory – questions the significance of actions in a world where seemingly endless cycles of indecision render time itself almost entirely meaningless. This lack of meaning and continuity is reflected in the circularity of the play’s two-act structure, perhaps recalling the repetition of a second world war despite the vast human costs of the first – much like the memories’ of the two main characters, the lessons of the past had seemingly had no influence on the present. The play’s nihilistic setting further increases its relevance to post-war Europe. In this way, Beckett presents memory as being almost entirely irrelevant to the present moment, adding exponentially to his depiction of humanity as being lost in repeating cycles of events beyond their own control.
Furthermore, throughout the play, Beckett links the deterioration of memory to the total deconstruction of the values that underpin traditional society, this time subverting the commonly accepted notion of a linear timeline:
‘ESTRAGON What did we do yesterday?
VLADIMIR What did we do yesterday?
Here, the repetition of the question ‘what did we do yesterday?’ underscores the hopeless position of humanity in the face of a chaotic, incomprehensible universe. This point is laboured further by the incoherent ‘yes’ in response, once more highlighting the lack of intelligible answers to questions posed by our surroundings. Furthermore, the deterioration of the two characters’ memories poses significant existential questions to the audience, challenging notions of time and progress that were so crucial to 20th century understanding of the world – as neither character remembers the events of the previous day, there is no way to confirm that it actually happened, let alone derive something useful from it. The inextricable link between physical deterioration and universal meaninglessness once more lays emphasis on the inherently futile situation of humankind, with the repeated stage direction (‘they do not move’) at the end of each act helping to reinforce this sense of circularity and inevitable repetition and, in doing so, leaving human progress devoid of any real currency or value. These ideas undoubtedly have their roots in the second world war, where, even despite the vast human cost of world war one, the world still descended into conflict. Furthermore, the second world war also witnessed the destruction of staple contemporary values, degrading ideas of integrity and moral virtue in the same way that Beckett deconstructs time and human purpose.
Beckett places his depiction of a malfunctioning human memory in a direct parallel to the protagonists’ physical deterioration, suggesting that the circularity of human existence is as inevitable as the process of aging: ‘Estragon: [giving up again] Nothing to be done.’ Here, Beckett’s use of the word ‘again’, particularly in the first line of the play, immediately begins to suggest a wider context to the events depicted in the play. However, at no point does Beckett specify what this context might be, giving Estragon’s struggle with his boot an almost timeless resonance with humanity as a whole. The finality in the phrase ‘giving up’ seems entirely at odds with ‘again’, introducing the idea of humankind being trapped in a perennial struggle, unable to progress even with the most pointless tasks whilst simultaneously being unable to ‘give up’. This ties in heavily with the overall theme of the limitations of a malfunctioning memory, rendering ‘events’ meaningless as they blend together into a cycle of repetition. Furthermore, the vague, general connotations of ‘Nothing to be done’ could easily be applied to a wider setting, highlighting the suitability of Gogo’s hopeless struggle as a metaphor for his life in general. However, the fact that such an apt symbol of human helplessness comes in the form of Estragon’s absurd, comedic behaviour adds another element to the opening line, deconstructing the popular notion of mankind’s superiority and, in doing so, pointing out the base absurdity that often lies at the heart of human thought. This form of physical comedy can be seen frequently in the work of Laurel and Hardy, popular comedians of Beckett’s era. In referencing seemingly trivial aspects of contemporary popular culture, Beckett again places the absurd on the same plane as wider, more ‘serious’ thematic elements and, by extension, reduces human attempts to understand the universe to mere farce. In this way, even from the very first line, Beckett places futility at the heart of his presentation of humanity. In a play comprised largely of inactivity, Beckett’s decision to place the active verb ‘done’ in the opening line serves to further this effect, creating a strong sense of stagnation and futility that remains strong throughout the duration of the play.
However, towards the beginning of the play, Beckett’s only direct reference to a genuine location demonstrates the extent to which memory, however misled, is integral to the construction of the characters’ identities: ‘Hand in hand from the top of the Eiffel Tower, among the first. We were respectable in those days’. Here, the connotations of nostalgia in the phrase ‘in those days’ gives the strong impression of a positive memory, whilst its lack of specificity suggests once again that time has lost a great deal of its meaning. However, ideas of companionship in ‘hand in hand’ depict Vladimir and Estragon’s relationship as being cemented largely by the past as opposed to the present – it is their memory which ties them together as much as anything. In this way, even the vague semblance of memory is shown as being vital to humanity’s ability to give itself the impression of meaning and purpose, with the connotations of social class in ‘respectable’ suggesting that an identity cemented in the past is the only way in which the characters are able to validate their existence in the present. Therefore, it becomes clear that the fact of memory is more important than its specific elements, in that it provides the only vaguely stable foundation from which humanity is able to interpret the world. That said, however, it is not true at all that Beckett presents memory as a genuinely ‘stable foundation’ – his subversion of this stability is crucial to his depiction of human futility in an incomprehensible universe – rather he attempts to demonstrate the inability of humankind to exist without a basic idea of the past.
It is clear, therefore, that through Beckett’s presentation of memory in waiting for Godot, he depicts the inevitability of recurring actions as old generations, and their memories of the past, give way to new ones. This repetition is reflected in the post-war environment of the time, as well as in the comic futility of Beckett’s own setting within the play, giving his presentation of memory a firm grounding in reality. In this way, he simultaneously laughs at and sympathises with the idea that Vladimir and Estragon’s perpetual struggle to make sense of their situation through memory is, ultimately, as futile and incoherent as memory itself.
Language, Consciousness and Experience in Waiting for Godot and Ulysses
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot and James Joyce’s Ulysses are strikingly similar in style, content, and most significantly a philosophy of life. The idea of language as doubly futile and liberating is central to both works. It is found in the playfulness of language in Beckett’s dialogue and Joyce’s description. Every aspect of each form is carefully utilized in communicating this point. Language is only one institution among many that control and confine the individual. But its many flaws and contributions to our lives can represent a larger realm of meaning. Both works strive consistently to define, however subtly or indirectly, the meaning of life and the self. Like language, consciousness and experience are factors in the frustrations of existence, and therefore central to both works.
In both works, experience is reduced to its simplest meaning, its briefest form. This can be seen in the setting and dialogue in Beckett’s play and Joyce’s attention to extreme detail in each moment of one day. Beckett reduces the setting of his play to simply “A country road. A tree. Evening.” (Beckett, 1) And Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness style of writing inside of Leopold Bloom’s head piles detail upon detail. These are the units of experience that are then stretched out again to expand time and examine its passing. In the human consciousness, these units are experiences. In the English language, the building blocks are the words themselves, even down to the different letters that make them up. (Philip Fisher, in lecture, 10/25/99)
Words trigger recognition in the mind of the reader or human being, in the same way experience serves the consciousness. And letters, until combined in a certain way, are absurd symbols without meaning. Like human life, the use of letters and words to create meaningful language is a process in question by both of these authors. In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom explains the meaning of the word “metempsychosis” to his wife Molly when she points it out in a book. (Joyce, 52) Much later in Bloom’s day, he identifies the word as “met him pike hoses” because that is what “she called it till [he] told her…” (Joyce, 126) Here, the word becomes four words and although it means the same to Bloom, it has been dissected and expanded for the reader. Molly’s naïve blundering in pronouncing a large word makes a commentary on both the excesses and capacity for growth of the English language. And Bloom further conveys this subtle message with “She’s right after all. Only big words for ordinary things on account of the sound.” (Joyce, 126) This is dually a unit of experience and of language that is being explored. Joyce illuminates one word to propose ideas about language, and reveals one moment in Bloom’s consciousness to show an aspect of his relationship with his wife.
The examination of language is different in Waiting for Godot because it must occur in dialogue, or an audience cannot see it. Beckett clearly doesn’t have Joyce’s freedom in printing words on a page for readers to examine, letter by letter. Instead, he must achieve the same effect in the spoken form. Language survives a kind of transformation when it is actually spoken. The effect of speaking is noted when Vladimir shortens the question “You want to get rid of him?” to one word, “You waagerrim?” (Beckett, 31) In the same way metempsychosis became four words, Vladimir can make one word out of many. But language also transforms in different ways. To communicate this, Beckett makes use of repetition in dialogue. Characters say the same thing in different ways, and the audience is reminded of the capacity of language. When Vladimir asks the Boy “Does he give you enough to eat?” and “The Boy hesitates,” the question is simply rephrased as “Does he feed you well?” (Beckett, 56) Although these two sentences could seem to be the same question, they are not asking the same thing. This is illustrated by the fact that the boy responds to the second one, though he had hesitated to the first. There are many moments of renaming in this manner.
The back-and-forth banter of Vladimir and Estragon creates the perfect form for reducing to smaller units and then repeating. The brief, nearly incomplete sentences of the two men mean something when they are said together, each component equally completing the expression. The simple observation of a tree brings about such a moment:
ESTRAGON: What is it?
VLADIMIR: I don’t know. A willow.
ESTRAGON: Where are the leaves?
VLADIMIR: It must be dead.
ESTRAGON: No more weeping.
VLADIMIR: Or perhaps its not the season.
ESTRAGON: Looks more like a bush.
VLADIMIR: A shrub.
ESTRAGON: A bush.
Here, one idea is fragmented into smaller pieces, but still communicated. Beckett zooms consistently into the language until arriving finally at two simple words. And the argument over “shrub” and “bush” when they are actually talking about a tree notes the frustration with language’s limitations. Repetition illustrates this idea as much as showing the freedom of language. A spectator realizes the futility and frustration of language by hearing the same phrases repeated again and again and again throughout the play.
Both authors take standard phrases and turns of speech, especially those considered polite or required in communication, and present them for their audience to be reconsidered. In Beckett, this critique is found in a moment of saying goodbye. In being polite, one must say goodbye, and enter in a standard accepted course of interaction before leaving. This interaction’s silly repetition is illustrated when Pozzo wants to leave Estragon and Vladimir, in Act I:
ESTRAGON: Then Adieu
Silence. No one moves.
POZZO: And thank you.
VLADIMIR: Thank you.
POZZO. Not at all.
ESTRAGON: Yes yes.
POZZO: No no.
VLADIMIR: Yes yes.
ESTRAGON: No no.
It is unclear who is saying goodbye or who should be thanked. But the exchange is strikingly familiar. And the fact that no one moves points to the ability to separate words from their standard purpose. Goodbye is connected to the act of leaving because we agree to use it in this way. But it can be as meaningless at it is common and useful.
This sort of comedy is not simply funny. It illustrates the absurd in real life by highlighting the silliness in things we do every day. It also communicates the stasis of life and language, ending finally in the double “yes” and “no” sequence, once again whittling the interaction down to its simplest words and meaning. The word “yes” is at the heart of Ulysses’ final chapter. It begins this chapter and even ends the novel. (Joyce, 644) It becomes a motif in this final chapter inside of Molly Bloom’s consciousness. Here, one word is used to explain a character, a relationship, and even the nature of gender roles. By repeating it throughout the only female-perspective narrative in the entire story Joyce is suggesting that “yes,” a one-syllable common word, is at the core of the female character. And the repetition itself contributes to her character by making “yes” into a large-scale kind of acquiescence, and acceptance, even an invitation. This is an incredible expansion of one small word, taken so for granted. Once again, language expresses so much and too little.
Language is not simply examined through small units and repetition, or social critique. Both Beckett and Joyce choose to play with language and words in a variety of ways. This often involves demonstrating the absurdity and flexibility of language as it is used every day. This is often comical, in both texts, as these are rituals an audience can surely recognize and relate to. Joyce includes this playfulness in his use of nonsense. Throughout Ulysses, he inserts words and sounds made up of recognizable letters in no recognizable order. For example, as Bloom sits in a carriage, the narration is taken to a situation outside by bracketing a sentence with: “Oot: a dullgarbed old man from the curbstone tendered his wares, his mouth opening: oot.” (Joyce, 77) This is one of countless moments involving nonsense words such as “oot.” What Joyce achieves with comical stream-of-consciousness, Beckett relates with vaudeville-inspired action on stage. An argument ensues between Vladimir and Estragon for no apparent reason, and becomes a funny play with words. After being called a moron, Estragon retaliates with “That’s the idea, let’s abuse each other,” and the following purposeless argument occurs:
ESTRAGON: (with finality) Crritic!
Within moments they’ve embraced and made up, and repeated words are used again. In a similar back-and-forth manner, the phrase “our exercises” is repeated as “our movements,” “our elevations,” and “our relaxations,” (Beckett, 86) While an audience is laughing, they are also witnessing the wide range of the English language.
These meditations on language are not only funny. They also serve to illuminate aspects of human life through words. Joyce is concerned with the larger picture of everyday interaction and language. The phrases and rituals of daily life are interspersed throughout Ulysses, as they are in Waiting for Godot. In a chapter where food is the central theme, Joyce relates countless common phrases to food or the process of eating. In Bloom’s stream-of-consciousness, terms like “Eat you out of house and home,” (Joyce, 124) “Have a finger in the pie,” (Joyce, 127) “I was souped,” (Joyce, 133) or “Bitten off more than he can chew,”(Joyce, 139) are thrown together in an outpouring of food-related thoughts. They serve to highlight food in our lives, as something important enough to invade even our language. Here, Joyce is making significance out of the seemingly insignificant in life. Like the intersection of memory and experience to create consciousness, language and human needs cross to create everyday communication, an interaction we take for granted. Our shared understanding of hunger allows us to create a language that so generously refers to food in a metaphorical sense. Once again, the smaller units of life have been separated and re-unified through language.
This method of creating significant commentary out of seemingly insignificant events is extremely important in examining the details of life. Both authors are able to address the larger picture through its tiniest components. Whether it be food or insulting language, or simply the word ?yes,’ both texts refer back to the endless cycles of life. Most importantly, they illustrate the giant web in which each individual is operating, highlighting the relative insignificance of one being in the universe. Joyce speculates closely on the cyclical nature of the universe in Chapter IV when Bloom buys, cooks, eats, and expels a kidney. During the course of this chapter, endless references are made to the inevitable death in life and the making of life out of death. When Bloom is buying the kidney, he imagines the actual slaughtering of animals with “those mornings in the cattlemarket, the beasts lowing in their pens, branded sheep, flop and fall of dung, the breeders hobnailed boots trudging through the litter, slapping a palm on a ripemeated hindquarter….” (Joyce, 48) After he cooks his kidney, and eats it, he naturally “[feels] heavy, full: then a gentle loosening of his bowels,” (Joyce, 55) in the natural human cycle of digestion. As he goes to the bathroom, he walks through his garden, his train of thought alluding to excrement and its purpose: “Make a summerhouse here…Want to manure the whole place over, scabby soil…All soil like that without dung. Household slops. Loam, what is this that is? The hens in the next garden: their droppings are very good top dressing. Best of all though are the cattle, especially when they are fed on those oilcakes.” (Joyce, 55) Here, within an everyday human process, Joyce uses imagery of fertilization with excrement to illustrate constantly the bigger picture, the larger cycle happening all the time. The last word of this chapter is “Dignam,” (Joyce, 57) the name of a friend who has just died, in one final reminder of human mortality.
Beckett illustrates his vision of a cyclical universe in many aspects of his play. The redundancy of Vladimir and Estragon’s wait, in the same unidentifiable place, every day is one large symbol of this idea. But within dialogue and action, Beckett refers to the cycles so apparent in Joyce’s worldview. Pozzo explodes with “One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you?…They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” (Beckett, 103) Beyond the idea of brief human life so clear in this chilling vision, is the unit of “one day” as a significant event. Like the words that make up language, the days that make up a human life are worth examining. This inspires the entire structure of Ulysses in following one day, the same as any other but important in its details.
Waiting for Godot goes beyond any particular single day to claim that every day is the same, unrecognizable from the one before. Like language, the labeling of days is another man-made institution that requires conformity. When Vladimir and Estragon realize that Godot asked for them on a Saturday, Estragon wonders “But what Saturday? And is it Saturday? Is it rather Sunday? (Pause). Or Monday? (Pause). Or Friday?” (Beckett, 10) Like people’s names, the names of days actually mean nothing beyond time cycling forward. Beckett’s characters experience moments of clarity where they can vocally consider this expanse of existence. Like Pozzo’s outburst, Vladimir later strengthens the same ideas with a dismal vision of the world: “Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries.” (Beckett, 104) Both works consider the role of the individual in their brief, and relatively insignificant time on earth.
The unimportance of single human beings is an idea alluded to in the use of names. There is the notion that names are simply labels, like so many public rituals and formalities. In Waiting for Godot, there are many nicknames and even incorrect names used to refer to the characters. Vladimir and Estragon often become “Didi” and “Gogo.” Both of these versions play with meaning and language. There is a hint of action with “go” and stasis with “did.” Moreover, the only thing separating one man from the next is his name. Characters do not recognize each other without names. And even once the names are known, they are more insignificant language. This is emphasized when Pozzo introduces himself to Vladimir and Estragon:
POZZO: I present myself: Pozzo.
VLADIMIR: (to Estragon). Not at all!
ESTRAGON: He said Godot.
VLADIMIR: Not at all!
ESTRAGON: (timidly, to Pozzo). You’re not Mr. Godot, Sir?
POZZO: (terrifying voice). I am Pozzo! (silence) Pozzo! (Silence.) Does that name mean nothing to you? (silence) I say does that name mean nothing to you?
Vladimir and Estragon look at each other questioningly
ESTRAGON: (pretending to search). Bozzo…Bozzo…
VLADIMIR: (ditto) Pozzo…Pozzo…
ESTRAGON: Ah! Pozzo…let me see…Pozzo…
VLADIMIR: Is it Pozzo or Bozzo?
ESTRAGON: Pozzo…no…I’m afraid I…no…I don’t seem to…
Pozzo advances threateningly
VLADIMIR: (conciliating). I once knew a family called Gozzo. The mother had the clap.
What seems another comic episode is once again a commentary on the stupidity of relying on names to identify people. Names can symbolize words and language, and thus the futility of language is alluded to again. Most of all, considering a name important relies on considering an individual important, an idea contradicted often in both works.
In examining the place of the individual, both authors create characters and relationships to state their ideas. There are several themes that are considered in both texts through characterization. One of the most apparent is the slave/master relationship. Lucky and Pozzo serve as a vehicle to consider this manifestation in human relations. Bloom is essentially slave to Molly, as is revealed in the course of his thoughts during a normal day. Neither of these “slave” characters fits a traditional interpretation of slavery as a purely negative or imposed state. Pozzo explains Lucky’s position as a slave-by-choice: “Ah! Why couldn’t you say so before? Why he doesn’t make himself comfortable? Let’s try and get this clear. Has he not the right to? Certainly he has. It follows that he doesn’t want to. There’s reasoning for you. And why doesn’t he want to? (Pause) Gentlemen, the reason is this…He wants to impress me.” (Beckett, 30) It appears that slavery is as plausible a choice as freedom, in this life where one is slave to so many institutions regardless of their position.
Bloom’s enslavement to Molly is less directly addressed, but certainly central to the novel. In Chapter fifteen, there is a strange sequence written in the form of a play. In this strange conglomeration of characters, Bloom confronts his mother and father, a bar of soap, many street characters, and even Stephen Dedalus. When Molly appears, having only heard a voice, his first words to her are “At your service,” (Joyce, 359) a clue to how he subconsciously views his relationship with her. References to Molly fill his day, invading his consciousness in a true mastery over his mind. His attempt at an affair with another woman does not go beyond an exchange of letters, under an assumed name. (Joyce, 63) He buys her a scented bar of soap (Joyce, 69) that he touches nervously when someone asks of her. This object operates like Lucky’s rope, a chosen tether to his master. What ties him most to Lucky is his choice in the matter. He remains married to her, and serves her, despite her infidelities. It seems to be for Lucky’s reasons as well. He cannot lose her, and so makes her master. Perhaps the most striking indication of the true power Molly holds over Bloom is his sense of his own body, an image devoid of strength or agency: “He foresaw his pale body reclined in [a bath] at full, naked, in a womb of warmth, oiled by scented melting soap…and saw the dark tangled curls of his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower.” (Joyce, 71) Bloom is Molly’s servant to a point of physical decay. This weak vision of his masculinity is a part of his preoccupation with her, a woman who is clearly confident in her sexuality, and her power over her husband.
The striking similarity between Joyce and Beckett is not simply coincidence, but the sign of a deep friendship and understanding between these men. Surely their obsession with the futility of the English language was involved with their shared status as expatriates. Both Irishmen exiled themselves to write in countries other than their own. They spent time together in Paris, and Beckett even wrote in French. At the end of Ulysses, Joyce notes “Trieste-Zurich-Paris,” (Joyce, 645) careful to identify his separation from Ireland. The lack of location or nationality in Waiting for Godot creates an isolation and desolation that must stem from his self-imposed exile. Their similar frustration can be found in the use of silences or pauses in both texts. Though Joyce fills these spaces with the constant flow of Bloom’s consciousness, Beckett emphasizes many words by placing a pause after them. The directions “pause,” or simply “silence,” appear on nearly every page of Waiting for Godot, and create meaning as well as comic rhythm. In his famous Joyce biography, Richard Ellman explains this tendency with the friendship of the two men: “Beckett was addicted to silences, and so was Joyce; they engaged in conversation which consisted often of silences directed towards each other, both suffused with sadness, Beckett mostly for the world, Joyce mostly for himself.” (Ellman, 661) It is clear that these artists learned from each other, and suffused their work with events and conditions of their actual lives.
As disappointed in the English language as these two men may have been, they certainly succeed in manipulating it to share their ideas. Perhaps their distance from their native tongue allowed an objective reconsideration of its strengths and flaws. Whatever the reason, they shared a vision of the world, and an ability to communicate it with language. It is strange that two of the most famous and central literary works attack the very form they have taken. Beckett and Joyce use the English language to analyze itself. Their detachment from Ireland perhaps allowed them the distance necessary for this sort of view. Although they present dismal visions of the typical human life, they also create intricate relationships that justify life in some sense. The slave, in all his misery, has at least found purpose. Just as the husband, though defeated and weak in the face of a woman’s lust, can discover warmth and comfort in their own dependency. Most of all, one becomes adequately convinced of life’s inevitable paradoxes, and entranced by an institution so confusing as language itself.
This One is Enough for You: Vladimir and Estragon as Figures of the Despair of Philosophical Suicide and Denial of an Absurd Existence
“We can always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?” Samuel Beckett’s character Estragon asks his friend Vladimir in Beckett’s tragicomedy, Waiting for Godot. This postmodernist play has provoked an enormous amount of analysis, commentary, and criticism since its first performance in 1953. Intellectuals have not ceased trying to interpret Beckett’s intentions in creating such an obscure and disconcerting “story” if one could even go so far as to call it that. The confrontations regarding the entities of self and existence that arise from such a work elicits a demand for further understanding that stems from each individual’s quest for truth. However Beckett has been notoriously silent to all inquiries on the subject matter behind his work. He has said, “My work is a matter of fundamental sounds made as fully as possible, and I accept responsibility for nothing else. If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them. And provide their own aspirin.”
Martin Esslin delves into Beckett and his concept of art and this very rejection of applying specific meaning to his work. He says, “[Beckett’s literary creations]– through their very uncompromising concentration on existential experience, also claim attention as human documents of great importance; for they constitute an exploration, on a hitherto almost unprecedented scale, of the nature of one human being’s mode of existing, and thereby into the nature of human existence itself.”  Esslin argues that because Beckett denies the observer a pre-existing set of concepts or ideas to his works, that they “constitute the culmination of existential thought itself.” Thus countless works today can be found associating Beckett with the existentialist philosophers like Jean Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, and many more. However, this essay focuses in on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and the ways it parallels Albert Camus’ specific philosophy of absurdism as described in his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus” and argues that Beckett’s depiction of existence illustrates the consequences of failing to reach fulfillment through acceptance and revolt in such an existence as Camus describes.
To best illustrate the parallels between these texts, we must begin with a discussion of Waiting for Godot’s immediate association with the absurd. The play and Samuel Beckett himself both come to the forefront of most discussions involving what is today known as the “Theatre of the Absurd.” The term came into use as a result of Martin Esslin’s 1962 book by the same title, in which Esslin defines its purpose: “Theatre of the Absurd strives to express its sense of senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach by the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought.” The term is used less to describe a movement or a genre than a collective of post- World War II writers creating extremely unconventional drama to depict the existential dilemmas of the time, specifically the absurdist view of existence proposed by Albert Camus. In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus picks up where existential philosophy leaves off. In his acknowledgement of a godless universe, the reality that existence precedes essence, and that life has no objective meaning, he claims that existence is inherently absurd, and that this is the only reconcilable truth that man can cling to. The absurdity, he deduces, stems from “the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.” This longing for clarity, understanding, and unity is one that Camus claims is inherent to human existence, and he refers to it as “nostalgia.” The truth that man must exist in a world without reason, without understanding, and without hope is truly absurd.
Beckett’s depiction of the world itself through the voices and actions of the characters Estragon and Vladimir is indicative of the world’s irrationality and failure to satisfy man’s desires and needs. Camus says, “The mind’s deepest desire, even in its most elaborate operations, parallels man’s unconscious feeling in the face of his universe: it is an insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity.” The absurd reality is that the world cannot be this for us. The world is inherently disassociated from man, inhuman, and will forever be beyond the scope of man’s understanding or comprehension. As previously mentioned, it is the confluence of this unintelligibility and man’s desire for understanding of it that is the very essence of absurdity. Beckett’s created universe of purposeless acts, repetitive dialogue that consistently negates itself, disjointed time, and short memories lacks all elements of comprehensible reality. There is a lack of any objective conclusion or truth to much of anything, contributing to the sense of anxiety and dissonance that results from the play’s overarching theme of eternal waiting and suspension.
The tension and dissatisfaction of the characters existing in this environment is apparent. After Estragon has “despairingly” awoken from his dreaming, Vladimir protests loudly for him not to share what he dreamt. Estragon, “gesturing to the universe” as Beckett includes in the stage directions, replies: “This one is enough for you?” Throughout the play Estragon and Vladimir both make outbursts such as, “I can’t go on like this!” and “This is awful!” in response to their conditions. The world they exist in is utterly irrational and utterly unbearable. In addition to an irrational universe, absurdity springs from mankind’s desire to grasp it. According to Camus, this desire can never be fulfilled. Absurdist, alongside existentialist view commits itself to the absolute truth that there is no tomorrow and there is certainly no eternal—there is only the present moment in which one can exist, making life utterly meaningless. However, the history of man is one that constantly creates and puts faith in the fact that life has meaning and purpose. This is evident in religions in particular, and in every commitment to the eternal.
However it is also apparent in the average man who spends his daily life working towards the future, towards tomorrow. The need for man to ascribe purpose and order to his life is a basic one, and also, from an absurdist view, an impossible one. It is a falsity to live for anything, to aspire towards anything. The entire culmination of purpose for the days of Vladimir and Estragon is waiting for Godot. It is for this that they find themselves in an unfamiliar, empty place where “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes.” Waiting for Godot gives Vladimir and Estragon a purpose in life, though a dreadfully boring and monotonous one. What is most devastating is that Godot never comes, which can and has been interpreted as an indication of the futility of existence, and the tragedy of devoting your life to higher orders than the present moment. “Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit.”
Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus had similar conceptions of habit’s place in the modern life. Camus explains that the absurdity of a life committed uselessly to the future is cultivated largely out of habit. But it is out of this monotony, this habit, which often emerges what he calls, “moments of lucidity”—moments that absurdity is realized. One of the ways that the absurd world is born into consciousness is the rising of the “why” out of the daily repetition and rhythm. Camus declares that following this awakening to the absurdity of life is either a gradual return to the old rhythms or a “definitive awakening” in which results either ultimate despair and suicide or recovery. This moment can be detected in Waiting for Godot after Pozzo’s exit in Vladimir’s monologue in which he reflects on his confusion with reality, his inability to make sense of what is happening around him. “Was I sleeping while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will be there?” We must ask then, where does this moment of realization and clarity of his condition leave Vladimir? Does he return to his monotonous life? Does he accept this reality? And if so is he to embrace it or to despair? Camus begins his argument for absurd philosophy with the question of the “one truly serious philosophical problem… suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living.” Camus’ initial question regards whether this absurd life devoid of purpose, directed towards nothing, and with no prospective except to embrace the hopelessness that all of this entails—is this life worth living? Vladimir and Estragon mention committing suicide repeatedly during the play.
In the first act it is depicted as means of entertainment, and Beckett even adds a touch of humor: Vladimir: What do we do now? Estragon: Wait. Vladimir: Yes, but while waiting. Estragon: What about hanging ourselves? Vladimir: Hmmm. It’d give us an erection. Estragon: [highly excited] An erection! Vladimir: With all that follows. Where it falls mandrakes grow. That’s why they shriek when you pull them up. Did you not know that? Estragon: Let’s hang ourselves immediately! The two decide against the idea. They decide to wait and to hear what Godot has to say before they decide, clinging to their hope once more. Suicide is brought up again at the end of the first act and again in the second act in a more melancholy fashion, however because the characters lack rope, they cannot go through with it.
At the end of the second act, following Vladimir’s “moment of lucidity” and the announcement that Godot is yet again not coming, he says, “We’ll hang ourselves tomorrow,” but then he follows it with, “unless Godot comes.” Camus concludes that an absurd life is one that must indeed be lived. He even says, “It [life] will be lived all the better if it has no meaning,” referring to the vast amount of freedom that comes from living for nothing but the present moment, with no obligation or motivation except to live it. He concludes that to escape the absurd life through suicide is in fact to annul its very absurdity. Absurdity only exists within the combination of man, in all his desires for order, and the world in all its irrationality. To be rid of the rational man is to be rid of the absurd. No, the answer to the question of existence in absurdity cannot be suicide. Camus deduces that the way to live this life is to live it in revolt—revolt of despair and suffering. It is to live knowing fully the state of one’s existence and to live momentously anyway, with no pursuit except that of the present moment, and he says that joy can be found there. Vladimir’s moment of lucidity brings him to a choice. He must accept this absurd reality that he has come to realize or he must deny it.
Vladimir’s decision not to kill himself, however, does not indicate that he has accepted the knowledge he attains. Richard Duran argues that the existence chosen by the characters in Waiting for Godot, even if they do not kill themselves, is still a form of suicide Camus refers to as “philosophical suicide”. Camus uses the examples of existentialist philosophers Kierkegaard and Chestov to demonstrate the way in which those who find themselves aware of the absurd, discovered in that moment of lucidity, in an effort to “leap” from the struggle that implies: “total absence of hope, a continual rejection, and a conscious dissatisfaction,” deny the absurd by attributing rationality to the world, despite evidence to the contrary. Camus defines philosophical suicide as, “the movement by which a thought negates itself and tends to transcend itself in its very negation,” and adds, “For the existentials negation is their God. To be precise, that god is maintained only through the negation of human reason.” Kierkegaard, Chestov, and other philosophers and thinkers who have experienced this moment of lucidity, and then denied it by promising some form of transcendence yet, have sacrificed knowledge in the pursuit of hope. Vladimir’s promise to return to wait for Godot at the end of the play, even after he has come face to face with the absurdity of it all, is an example of this murdering of knowledge and reason in exchange for some meaning in life.
It is interesting that, even though this moment of clarity for Vladimir occurs at the end of the play, an awareness of the absurdity of their existence suggests itself in the language of the two characters from the beginning. The very first lines of the play suggests the idea of surrender: Estragon: Nothing to be done. Vladimir: I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying, Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t tried everything. And I resumed the struggle. Here we not only see an acknowledgement of life’s futility from both characters, but we also see the first instance of Vladimir’s relentless hope. Here it is important that we note the different ways that the two main characters approach the absurd and hope. Vladimir, though he seems to possess a sense of the absurdity of his life even before his moment of lucidity, holds on to the hope of meeting Godot more persistently than Estragon does. In the first few pages of the play, Vladimir makes disjointed commentary referring to the notion of suicide, “It’s too much for one man. On the other hand what’s the good of losing heart now, that’s what I say. We should have thought of it a million years ago, in the nineties.” It seems as though, as the overwhelming vanity of life begins to enter into his mind, he seeks escape in killing himself. However, he does not have the courage, and thus continues to commit to hope, even though he is beginning to become aware of the uselessness. His clinging to a rational world is apparent in his acknowledgement of a system of morality. He reacts to Pozzo’s abuse of Lucky: Vladimir: [exploding] It’s a scandal! Pozzo: Are you alluding to anything in particular? Vladimir: [stutteringly resolute] To treat a man…[gesture towards Lucky]…like that…I think that…no…a human being…no….it’s a scandal! Vladimir is largely ignored by both Estragon and Pozzo. Estragon yells out: “A disgrace!” in support of Vladimir before he goes back to gnawing on bones, and Estragon is more concerned with Vladimir’s age than the accusation set against him. In an irrational world, one without a God, one without a purpose— then morality itself is obsolete. The value of a human being could also be argued to be obsolete. Vladimir struggles with this throughout the play as he continues to attribute meaning and purpose to his meaningless and purposeless life.
Estragon, on the other hand, seems less aware of the general happenings that occur in the play. His memory is notoriously short, and Vladimir must constantly inform him of what is happening. The following exchange occurs repeatedly throughout the play: Estragon: Let’s go. Vladimir: We can’t. Estragon: Why not? Vladimir: We’re waiting for Godot. Estragon: [despairingly] Ah! Estragon is only minutely aware of the entire purpose of his and Vladimir’s life and must constantly be reminded what it is they are devoting themselves too. He is thus less committed than Vladimir, and seems to largely be engaged in this waiting simply because Vladimir is. While Vladimir reflectively ponders suicide, it is Estragon who repeatedly suggests it. It could be argued that Estragon has already become overwhelmingly aware of life’s absurdity and has already given up hope in a rational existence. His inability to remember what they are waiting for or what happened the day before or sometimes only minutes before, suggests that he exists only in his present moment, an absurd existence devoid of hope.
However, he is also unable to embrace this existence and enter into Camus’ rebellion because of his tie to Vladimir and Vladimir’s hope. Estragon often suggests that the two part ways. Estragon: I sometimes wonder if we wouldn’t have been better off alone, each one for himself. We weren’t made for the same road. Vladimir: It’s not certain. Estragon: No, nothing is certain. Vladimir: We can still part, if you think it would be better. Estragon: It’s not worth while now.  Estragon, though he has given up hope that Godot will ever come, is still bound to waiting for him and unable to accept his fate because of his bind to Vladimir, committing him to a tragic existence condemned to monotony that one is unable to even overcome. “I can’t go on like this,” he tells Vladimir at the end of the second act. The two, in each their inability to truly embrace the absurdity of their lives, can only strive to distract themselves and avoid confronting it. They desperately try to remain occupied and to avoid silence—Vladimir especially. Estragon: In the meantime let us try and converse calmly, since we are incapable of keeping silent. Vladimir: You’re right, we’re inexhaustible. Estragon: It’s so we won’t think. Vladimir: We have that excuse. Estragon: It’s so we won’t hear. Vladimir: We have our reasons. Estragon: All the dead voices. Vladimir: they make a noise like wings. Estragon: Like leaves. Vladimir: Like sand. Estragon: Like leaves. … [long silence] Vladimir: Say something! Estragon: I’m trying. [long silence] Vladimir: [in anguish] Say anything at all! Vladimir is aware of the knowledge creeping up on him, the unbearable reality of life’s absurdity, and because he does not want to face it, it is essential that he not allow himself time to think, time to be conscious, to be lucid. Esslin proposes this as not only an avoidance of life, but an avoidance of one’s very self, “The hope of salvation may be merely an evasion of the suffering and anguish that springs from facing the reality of the human condition.” If we propose that Estragon has already acknowledged life’s futility, then he fears silence for a different reason. He is simply and devastatingly bored of this life that he knows is meaningless, and is unable to act against.
Perhaps the greatest devastation of Vladimir and Estragon’s position is the fact that as Camus says, “Once man has admitted his truths, he cannot free himself from them. A man conscious of the absurd is forever bound to it.” They no longer possess the joys of ignorance and naivety towards absurdity and even in their efforts to escape their reality by fruitless hope or by distraction, the knowledge will never leave them. However, theirs’ is also still a more tragic fate than that of the absurd man who, accepting absurdity, “lives out his adventure within the span of his lifetime, aware of his limited freedom, his revolt devoid of future, and his mortal consciousness.” No, the fate of those who possess the truth but refuse to live it, is condemned to not only a meaningless existence, but a tormented one—forever stubbornly reaching for something denying one’s own knowledge that it cannot be attained.
Camus says that the only true tragedy of “The Myth of Sisyphus”, a tale of Camus’ absurd hero, is that he is conscious. Thus Waiting for Godot can be argued to be an example of the misery of life lived in refusal of Camus’ revolt, the revolt that turns Sisyphus’ fate from tragic to victorious, and even, as Camus says, happy. “The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” Camus argues that this scorn to one’s fate, this facing the devastation of a fruitless fate and conquering it is the only path to happiness in an absurd world. By this ‘yes’ to one’s “inevitable and despicable” destiny, man becomes in control of his existence on earth, and this struggle towards mastery of that existence, as Camus says, “is enough to fill a man’s heart.” This is the only viable path to happiness. And this is what Vladimir and Estragon deny themselves in clinging to their routine, clinging to that last shred of hope, refusing to accept the truth that they will never be able to deny. They will return each day underneath the willow tree, and they will talk ceaselessly to avoid confronting the silence that brings with it the whisperings of truth. They will wait for Godot, even though they both know that he will never come. Estragon will try to dream, to escape briefly to some other universe, and Vladimir will wake him in fear of that other universe. And Estragon will ask again, “This one is enough for you?” And there will be no answer, only distraction, only waiting, until two fruitless and unhappy lives reach their meaningless and absurd end.
Beckett, Samuel. Proust. London: Chatto & Windus, 1931 (Dolphin series); reprinted New York: Grove Press, n.d. ——- Waiting for Godot. New York: Grove Press, 1954.
Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus.” The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1955.
Durán, Richard. “‘En Attendant Godot’ or ‘Le Suicide Philosophique’: Beckett’s Play from the Perspective of Camus’s ‘Le Mythe De Sisyphe.’” The French Review 82, no. 5, (2009). 982–993. Web. Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.
Esslin, Martin. “Introduction.” In Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays. 1-16. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1965. —– The Theatre of the Absurd. Third ed. England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1980.
Mount, Nick. “’Waiting for Godot’ without Existentialism.” Raritan 28, no. 2(2008). 24-34. Accessed Nov.15, 2016.
Rentz, Paul August. “Waiting For Godot Expresses The Existential Theme Of Absurdity.” Salem Press Encyclopedia (2015): Research Starters. Web. Accessed 14 Nov. 2016.
Sharma, Anurag. “”Waiting for Godot:” A Beckettian Counterfoil to Kierkegaardian Existentialism.” Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd’hui 2 (1993): 275-80. Web. Accessed 16 Nov. 2016.
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot(New York: Grove Press, 1954), 59.
 Samuel Beckett in a letter to Alan Schneider, printed in the Village Voice in March 1958.
Martin Esslin, “Introduction,” in Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays(New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1965), 4.
 Ibid. 5.
 Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, Third ed. (England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1980), 24.
 Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1955), 21.
 Ibid., 17.
 Beckett, Waiting for Godot, 8.
 Ibid. 58, 53.
 Ibid., 32.
 Samuel Beckett, Proust, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1931),8.
 Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, 14-15.
 Ibid., 13.
 Beckett, Waiting for Godot, 81.
 Camus, “The Myth”, 3.
 Beckett, Waiting for Godot, 9.
 Ibid., 84.
 Camus, “The Myth”, 53.
 Ibid., 28.
 Ibid., 31.
 Ibid., 41.
 Beckett, Waiting for Godot, 1.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 19.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 44.
 Ibid., 84.
 Ibid., 52-53
 Esslin, Theatre of the Absurd, 61.
 Camus, “The Myth,” 31.
 Ibid., 66.
 Ibid., 121.
 Ibid., 123.
Imagery in Waiting for Godot and Mother Courage and Her Children
Although Waiting for Godot and Mother Courage and Her Children are quite different in terms of plot structure and setting, there are similarities present in the use of bleak imagery as symbols of religious, social, and political criticism. The symbolism extends beyond the imagery and encompasses the characters themselves. The props, especially in Godot, have an abstract significance more easily apparent in the ways in which they are utilized than their inherent characteristics.
Boots play a symbolic role in both of these plays, although serving different purposes. In Godot, the constant struggle of removing and replacing the boots, as well as the incessant question of which boot belongs to which character, is representative of a deeper fundamental identity crisis channeled toward external signifiers of identity. Mother Courage offers the red high-heeled boots to Kattrin to comfort her after she receives her facial scar. Kattrin refuses to accept them- they symbolize, to her, the abuse that she has suffered at the hands of men. Male attention has stolen her voice and her facial beauty, and the boots represent the incongruity of love and war.
When the drum rolls signify that Swiss Cheese is set to be executed, the stage briefly becomes dark. This is a symbol of death much akin to darkness that occurred before the crucifixion of Christ. Indeed, Mother Courage denies knowledge of Swiss Cheese’s identity, reminiscent of Peter’s denial of knowing Jesus. Interestingly, the chaplain’s song after Swiss Cheese’s arrest tells of the moments leading up to the crucifixion. Waiting for Godot utilizes darkness as a similar allegory of death, as night falls and the men are reprieved of their “duty”, no longer bound to wait for Godot.
One striking moment in Waiting for Godot occurs when Pozzo instructs Vladimir to place the bowler on Lucky’s head so he can think. This inanimate object, by virtue of the status it affords, allows Lucky to think for himself and he begins to soliloquize. When the hat is knocked off, his monologue abruptly ends. We get the sense that it is not Lucky who is doing the thinking, rather it is the hat and the identity that it embodies. The symbolism of the hats is not restricted to Lucky, and Vladimir and Estragon exchange hats with each other multiple times, highlighting the fluidity and flux of their identities. The rope around Lucky’s neck symbolizes the power dynamic between him and Pozzo, and the abuse makes it clear that Lucky is his subordinate. Yet in the second act, the rope is much shorter, and it is Lucky who directs the now-blind Pozzo, blurring the lines between servant and master.
Kattrin, like Lucky, lacks a voice, although hers has been stolen from her through rape rather than slavery. Her drum, another inanimate object, can be said to give her the voice she lacks. It is interested to note that the drum is among the things that Kattrin brings back after she is attacked while purchasing things for her mother. We see that the drum, to Kattrin, symbolizes defiance against oppression. These inanimate objects, although not infused with any special powers, empower the characters to accomplish what they cannot. Both Kattrin and Lucky surprise us with their significance by the end of the plays. It becomes apparent that Lucky’s name, although seemingly ironic, actually suits his position relative to the other characters. Lucky possesses two luxuries that the others lack: certitude and awareness. Lucky does not struggle with the “agony of choice” as Vladimir and Estragon both do; Pozzo gives him the certainty and authority that Godot will never provide for them. Lucky is also fully conscious of his status as a slave, whereas the other characters maintain an illusion of false freedom. There is an interesting duality here, of the seemingly least fortunate character possessing a fortune of consciousness, that is mirrored by Kattrin’s character. She too, is mistreated and seems to lose more in the war than any other character: she loses her voice, her beauty, her dreams, and ultimately her life.
Yet Kattrin displays immense courage, awareness, and self sacrifice- more so than any other character. Mother Courage seemingly touches upon this when she attempts to comfort Kattrin, saying she is “lucky” that she is no longer pretty, and that this would save her. These two characters at first seem inconsequential, but eventually come to symbolize the tremendous potential and fortune of the seemingly unfortunate. Both of these plays are ultimately attempting to portray the devastation and destruction of identity and self that occur through religious, social and political processes.
Bleakness and Language in Waiting for Godot
When the Paris curtain opened in 1953 the audience was faced with a minimalist set with a tree and nothing else. The first sight of ‘En Attendant Godot’ suggests its bleakest tones are presented by Beckett through visual sadness and the overall metaphysical state characters are placed in. Already parallels can be drawn between this setting and the inescapably similar picture from T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’: “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, and the dead tree gives no shelter”
The only resemblance to the audience’s world is the tree and the road the characters stand on. This setting creates brooding despair; roads represents journeys and an option to travel away, or towards something and yet characters don’t move, in fact asserting “We Can’t (leave)”(i). The tree, another prop with apparently monumental importance compared to the rest of the wasteland stage, represents hope and life despite there being no hope and life ebbing away. Beckett demands for the tree to have leaves during Act 2, which symbolises spring to audiences while Vladimir and Estragon realise there’s no hope at all. It isn’t a stretch to claim Beckett had a taste for deeply depressing irony and he plays with elements of comedy and tragedy most aptly through dramatic staging. However, it’s my opinion that Beckett does create some of the most comic, and bleakest, parts of the performance through his unerring ability to manipulate language.
In Act One the words “Nothing to be done”(ii) are spoken by both Estragon and Vladimir and the statement goes on to be a crucial philosophy throughout the play of the same importance as “We’re waiting for Godot”(iii). Audiences initially find the phrase laugh-out-loud funny because it’s paired with the physical sequence of Estragon, who is ‘trying to take off his boot’(iv) whom after an exhausting battle concedes and explains to the audience there’s ‘nothing to be done’. The subtle brilliance of this line is in its most colloquial-sounding ring, which appeals to all audiences as they can relate to finding that a menial task has become so extraordinarily difficult they see no way of solving it. It is laughable that a complex human being cannot actually take off a boot, that in some way the boot has beaten the human and now he’s defeated…by a boot. This struggle is universal and appeals to audiences making the underlying question of: Why does Estragon presume that the boot is wrong? Beckett thus highlights humanity’s arrogance and pompousness. Vladimir is the messenger for this question when he tells Estragon, ‘There’s man all over blaming on his boots the fault of his feet’(v). This sentence holds many debating topics because the bootmaker made the boot perfect, as in the bootmaker thought it had no faults or he wouldn’t have sold it, similarly if we’re all in God’s image surely Estragon can have no faults either so who is wrong…God or man?
After the comic moment Vladimir ushers in undertones of suffering when he explains he too is ‘coming round to that opinion’. Although the line sounds harmless enough, Vladimir performs it away from Estragon as he looks out into space which has the implicit meaning that he’s unaware of Estragon’s physical struggle and that his response is actually more metaphysical. This exchange allows Beckett to introduce the brutal truth of the character’s situation: there’s literally nothing to be done. This corresponds to Esslin’s theory that ‘Waiting for Godot’ contains “a sense of metaphysical anguish at the absurdity of the human condition”(vi). The characters are trapped in this barren featureless setting, waiting for someone they cannot define as they ‘wouldn’t know him if I saw him’(vii), unable to have any influence on proceedings which govern their lives.
Through his exploitation of language Beckett also challenges the way humanity operates in the world, and ultimately how the disjointed confusing plot of the play parallels our place in the universe. In ‘Waiting for Godot’ one conversation that exploits the way humanity operates is:
“Estragon: We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist.
Vladimir: Yes, yes, we’re magicians.” (viii)
Audiences find this hilarious due to Estragon’s optimism in their plight and the sudden shift in mood that can be seen onstage is also humorous because it’s so abstract and unjustified. The added element of Vladimir’s dismissal of Estragon’s comment and the dismissal of optimism is a beautiful contrast which gains audience laughter, but also supports the hypothesis they’re a double act and completely reliant on each other. Another nice example of this double act is:
“Vladimir: What do they say?
Estragon: They talk about their lives.
Vladimir: To live is not enough for them.
Estragon: They have to talk about it.” (ix)
The double act is vital as a device to exploit language and the claim of “The two most important sets of characters in the play occur in pairs”(x). A 1953 audience would have recognised Laurel and Hardy’s silhouettes in Estragon and Vladimir, making their world closer to the audience’s, but still miles away. In this passage Beckett’s technique of the double act is actualised to make a point about the existentialist nature of humanity and our need to rationalise individual experience by explaining it to others. The characters complete each other’s sentences which gives the impression of pondering so the audience understands Beckett wants them to think about the short conversation. The word ‘magician’ carries the bleakest undertones because it carries ideas of illusion and trickery, therefore Beckett wants to portray to audiences that our attempts to maintain the logic that we exist is actually a form of trickery; a skill which we’ve acquired over the years but is untrue.
This eloquent point has history in the movement after World War Two (which Beckett experienced) in which society believed it was decaying. The comforts that help them move through their lives, such as order, could no longer be depended on. Comedy still remains in the dark outlook on society because characters are living in a world they pretend to understand, but actually don’t. There’s a style of dramatic irony at work as the audience looks into the realm of Estragon, Lucky, Pozzo and Vladimir with arrogance as they understand things characters don’t, such as the fact Godot won’t arrive. Interestingly, the world created by the theatrical stage would look into the audience’s world with similar arrogance as they know things the audience doesn’t, this is what Beckett’s trying to explain to us; the audience doesn’t understand their world’s nature as well as they think. However, it could be argued only the bleak undertones come from the manipulation of language and the comedy comes from the character’s visual display to audiences. One critic argues,
“The stage directions of the play constitute nearly half of the text, suggesting that the actions, expressions, and emotions of the actors are as important as the dialogue”(xi)
This is a strong argument because the audience responds mainly to the presentation of the lines, which could be considered the performance rather than the actual language.
Beckett once said, “If by Godot I had meant God I would have said God, and not Godot” (xii) but I don’t believe this is the end of the ‘God is Godot’ debate and I also believe this is one of Beckett’s greatest manipulations of language. The play begins with Estragon explaining he spent the night ‘in a ditch’ (xiii) and a group of people ‘beat’ him. These events are very close to ‘The Good Samaritan’ biblical parable except this time there’s no Samaritan. This carries the explicit meaning that Estragon is without God, he receives no help from outside sources and no redemption. Compare this with Vladimir who takes the ‘Book of Job’ approach and claims Estragon must have done something wrong to get beaten. Estragon goes onto challenge Godot’s, or God’s, power when he tells Vladimir they are ‘not tied?’ (xiv). However, he says it ‘feebly’ and then they both get scared that Godot’s coming, the implication being he will punish them for losing their obedience. Beckett plays with audience ideas on Godot’s nature when the boy describes him as having a ‘white beard’ which is drawing links between Godot and God which is laid out so obviously compared to the rest of the play that audiences are surprised, then they laugh. Beckett continues to make us think about God’s nature using Lucky’s speech. It begins with an almost academic presentation on religion but then descends into rambling nonsensical rubbish which ends ‘in spite of the tennis’. I interpreted this as meaning ‘for reasons unknown’ which is a beautiful way to describe God’s relationship with man as humanity can never draw any definite conclusions about him.
In conclusion, Beckett creates the bleakest moments using his manipulation of language because it’s the words that resonate and make us think about the Beckett’s themes. The comedy isn’t brought out by exploitation of language as much as the stage directions and the physical oddities, which are of a more visual element.
i) Pg. 6, Vladimir
ii) Pg.1, Estragon
iii) Pg. 6, Vladimir
iv) Pg. 1 Stage Direction
v) Pg. 3 Vladimir
vi) Esslin, Theatre of the Absurd
vii) Pg. 16, Estragon
viii) Pg. 61
ix) Pg. 54
xii) Samuel Beckett , Wikipedia ‘Waiting for Godot’
xiii) Pg. 1
xiv) Pg. 12
Samuel Beckett and the Folly of Language
Following the near apocalyptic end of the Second World War, an overwhelming state of fear and confusion would go on to cause a major shift in the artistic expression of the day. Nothing remained sacred as doubt replaced any virtue of knowledge, hope, or stability. Artistic conventions were also replaced in favor of the new, radical unorthodoxy and basic realities of human thought were either questioned or abandoned completely. In particular, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot illuminates the “tragicomic” folly of language and communication on the center stage with profound implications against the need to communicate in the first place. Shameless yet dignified, Beckett mocks the inefficacy of language and human communication.
Primarily, Beckett’s dialogue bathes in repetition and irrationality, acting as a vehicle for both comedy and critique. Waiting for Godot is characterized by verbal exchanges that achieve very little in terms of traditional development and leave behind more confusion than there was before anyone had decided to bother opening their mouth. The most compelling example of this is Estragon’s fascination with Lucky’s bags throughout Act I.
Estragon: Why doesn’t he put down his bags?
Pozzo: But that would surprise me.
Vladimir: You’re being asked a question.
Pozzo: (delighted) A question! Who? What! (28)
Here, Beckett presents the primary distraction of Act I, Estragon and Vladimir’s inquisitive interest in Pozzo and Lucky. However, a seemingly fundamental question regarding the servant’s cargo takes ages to get across to Pozzo amid endless chatter of nonsense and confusion. Ironically enough, Pozzo immediately goes on to predict that “no good will come” from ominous activities such as asking questions. In a sense, Pozzo is correct. The question is repeated several times, tempers flare slightly, and a significant amount of time is wasted with no answer or explanation to show for it. The cause of this string of mishaps is unexpected– Estragon’s mere proposition of a simple question is the impetus for this miniature disaster.
This grand failure of communication is just one example of Beckett’s keen deconstruction of language. In fact, Pozzo & Lucky eventually leave with Estragon and Vladimir not an ounce wiser than they were before. They know less now than they did when the first act began. Finally, to compound this frustration, the major source of any resemblance to “driving action” or “narrative” has exited the stage, as well as Estragon and Vladimir’s lives. The language which one would assume to be the source of any fundamental drama is actually nothing more than a catalyst of the absurd. Language is the biggest barrier between absurdity and reality. Indeed, Beckett’s perception of language asserts that language works to reinforce this barrier rather than find ways around it. This is evident as Gogo & Didi continue to parrot each other and draw circles in their speech, reflecting the delicate cycle of their apparently pointless lives.
Furthermore, Beckett’s most blatant critique of language can be seen during the play’s most nonsensical and verbose point: Lucky’s speech. Previously regarded by cast and audience to be nothing beyond a mute slave, Lucky is received like an oracle or prophet. He begins, “Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly…” (45).
Here, Lucky’s regurgitations are met with fixed attention. However, this enthrallment soon decays to derision and finally to frenzied terror and a frantic tackle to end it all. This all occurs as the result of one seemingly harmless command: “Think!” Interestingly enough, despite “saying” so much, Lucky actually conveyed very little tangible information throughout his prolonged session of thought. Even worse, this information is nearly indiscernible, lost upon verbal manifestations of Lucky’s passion and confusion. Certainly, a topic of “divine” profoundness is at hand with a white-bearded “God” receiving several mentions. This topic is also tethered to Earthly affairs as well. Lucky goes on to mention various schools of thought, a handful of philosophers, and even tennis and other Earthly ventures. However, despite all this content which would give Lucky’s speech the appearance of intellect and profundity, the slave spends all his time thinking aloud about nothing at all. Although interrupted, Lucky even inadvertently punctuates his speech with the word “unfinished.” Ultimately, nothing was said. Language, once again, fails to serve its sole purpose. In fact, language is even seen here to be a threat to stability and well-being – Beckett displays language’s ability to stir fear and even aggression in others. Lucky’s speech had such a negative impact on the three men listening that they appeared to go mad. This is especially frightening due to the fact that all they were hearing was essentially the articulation of “nothing.” Lucky’s ramblings on “quaquaquaqua” could be easily replaced with a high frequency dog whistle and cause the same effect. Lucky’s speech is merely a showcase of language’s flaws and inefficacy. The words amount to nothing more than noise and hot air.
Finally, when compared to other works which recognize similar faults in communication, Beckett’s reflections on language are far more monumental in their futility and absurdity. William Falkner’s As I Lay Dying, for example, dictates that human communication is impaired because perceptions of truth vary from person to person, and that language is incapable of portraying any universal truth. Waiting for Godot, on the other hand, dictates that there is no universal truth to convey, and that any attempts to communicate absurdity will only result in frustration, confusion, and more absurdness. In fact, the action of communication through spoken or written language is absurd within itself. This point in particular is the reason behind Waiting for Godot’s quirky, nonsensical attitude. This void is exemplified by the play’s ending.
Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?
Estragon: Yes, let’s go.
They do not move, (109).
The communication of nonsense elicits only nonsense in return. Here, Gogo and Didi once again surrender to this dogma of absurdity. They say they will go and fail to move. At this point, it’s as if Beckett’s characters completely fail to recognize the intention behind the words they speak. Attempts of verbal communication through language fall flat, almost signifying an abandonment of language altogether. Now, they accept absurdity, a world absent of communication that’s meaningful or worthwhile.
Ultimately, Beckett’s critique, fully veiled in irrationality, does well to illuminate the absurdity of language and communication. In this light, the artistic medium which once depended on language abandons it outright, and the conventions of drama are twisted and distorted. This upheaval is an understandable outcome; Waiting for Godot is an expression of the confusion of the post-World War II world. Certainly, Beckett acknowledges that this new world is one devoid of language, where communication is just as absurd as the situations which beget its necessity.
The Use of Absurdity in Waiting for Godot
“…man cannot endure for long the absence of meaning. And meaning, in it most basic sense, is pattern. If man cannot find pattern in his world, he will try by any means at his disposal to create it, or at least imagine it” (Webb 55). Aristotle originally expressed this idea, which manifests throughout all of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, as the protagonists, Vladimir and Estragon, impose on themselves a fruitless and piteous pattern: waiting for Godot. Though Godot is a vague figure and would never live up to the protagonists’ expectations if he made an appearance, he offers Vladimir and Estragon the illusion of meaning within their lives. Vladimir and Estragon (or Didi and Gogo, respectively) exhaust every extent possible to maintain this pattern of waiting, which, as Aristotle stated, gives them the impression that their lives do not have an “absence of meaning”—that despite being poor and homeless (deplorable traits in society) they are existential successes (Webb 55). All Didi and Gogo have is waiting; they essentially lost everything else, or never had any of it to begin with, such as money, prestige, memory, protection, happiness, etc. Through this pattern of absurdity and futility the two satirize the universal person’s yearning for meaning within his/her life and furthermore reveal the illusory patterns that seem to indicate meaning. The play’s inception resonates the bleakness and futility of Godot. The stage contains only a tree and two men, while the first words spoken express the futility of action: Estragon states, after failing to put his boot on, “Nothing to be done” (Beckett, Waiting for Godot 1.1.7). This concise statement summates the entire play; it expresses their actions, their thoughts, and essentially, their lives by beginning the play with sentiments of futility—a feeling that never dwindles but rather reoccurs intermittently throughout the work. Shortly following Estragon’s futility of thought is his futility of action: he states in indignation, “I’m going. (He does not move)” (Beckett, Waiting for Godot 1.1.9). This threat, however, is not plausible; Estragon and Vladimir live in a very fragile world, carefully crafted to create the illusion that they, two slovenly bums, have meaningful lives and that they do not exist merely to exist. They base this illusion is around waiting for Godot—not leaving their bleak surroundings under any circumstances, which is why their multitudes of threats of leaving are not credible. Shortly after, Vladimir explains their purpose of waiting to Estragon, who seems to suffer from amnesia—the first representation of fleeting abilities in the play. In an often repeated dialogue to the forgetful Estragon, Vladimir explains, “We’re waiting for Godot” (Beckett, Waiting for Godot 1.1.10). He continues, stating:Vladimir: He didn’t say for sure he’d come.Estragon: And if he doesn’t come?Vladimir: We’ll come back to-morrow.Estragon: And then the day after to-morrow.Vladimir: Possibly.Estragon: And so on. (Beckett, Waiting for Godot 1.1.10)Godot, however, shows no signs of appearing; it is doubtful as to whether or not Godot even exists, which, ironically is the meaning of the entire play: defining one’s existence by someone who might not exist. Even Vladimir himself shows uncertainty about both Godot’s existence and his importance, or relevance, to himself and Estragon. The two discuss: Estragon: What exactly did we ask him for? Vladimir: Were you not there? Estragon: I can’t have been listening. Vladimir: Oh. . . Nothing very definite. (Beckett, Waiting for Godot 1.1.13)To Vladimir, though, Godot’s purpose is of little importance; Godot, even if a figment of his imagination, offers Estragon and him a reason to awake in the morning—a pattern. Literary critic June Schlueter notes that “…waiting has been their entire existence, and they cannot acknowledge that it is worthless” (Schlueter 51). Therefore, Vladimir is cognizant to the futility of his waiting, but, as aforementioned, he neglects the veracity of Godot’s existence to engender an illusion of meaning for him and Estragon. In Waiting for Godot the entire play consists of Didi and Gogo waiting, but a good majority of their waiting includes simple minded games the protagonists play to make each day pass more quickly. Literary critic Schlueter explains that “each of their games, however, is short lived: there are a few lines of dialogue, the game is complete, and then there is silence” (Schlueter 49-50). They tell stories, reminisce, curse at each other, and discuss suicide— practically anything to, as Vladimir states, “pass the time” (Beckett, Waiting for Godot 1.1.31). Though literary critic Andrew Kennedy states that “the expectations of Estragon and Vladimir seem to be both limitless and irrational; and the various climaxes and pseudo-climaxes, or non-arrivals, do not change their condition…,” it is actually the stagnancy of the play—the lack of a climax or common plot progression—that resonates Beckett’s message on passive waiting and satirizes the universal man. And these ploys work in a play that Schlueter describes as lacking “plot progression… [having] no casual relationship between events, no linear sequence” (Schlueter 50). Furthermore, Vladimir understands his disposition; he does not have “limitless and irrational” expectations—he simply convinces himself that Godot is real and that his arrival is imminent in order to establish an illusion of meaning within his life. Moreover, Vladimir is by no means a foolish character; he understands the power he bestowed upon Gidit, and knows that he is, in fact, waiting in vain—though spending time with Estragon and convincing him that they are waiting for Godot helps alleviate the futility and gives him the feeling of importance. Despite literary critic Kennedy’s statement that, “the risk of waiting in vain is emphasized early in the play,” it is evident that Vladimir understands his circumstances. He corroborates this claim in his epiphany of sort, where, upon asking numerous questions to a servant boy that delivers a message to Godot, he realizes the power of Godot:Vladimir: (softly). Has he a beard, Mr. Godot?Boy: Yes sir.Vladimir: Fair or. . . (he hesitates) . . . or black?Boy: I think it’s white, Sir.Silence.Vladimir: Christ have mercy on us! (Beckett, Waiting for Godot 2.1.13)Critic Eugene Webb notes that Vladimir’s passionate exclamation concluding their dialogue is explained by, “…[Vladimir realizing] the painful truth that the Godot he has made with his imagination into a kind of God, into a figure, that is, representing absolute power and ultimate meaning, is as empty a God as the traditional one ‘with a white beard…’” (Webb 64). However, though Vladimir somewhat fears the power Godot exudes, he does not allow himself to fully see the truth that Godot, like a God with a “white beard,” may not be real—for the illusion is far too important to his life to be shattered by reality. Though the comparison between Estragon and Vladimir to the common, or universal, person may seem absurd because of the ridiculous settings and characters in Godot, the characters do successfully embody a human being’s obsession with finding meaning in his/her life. In Act Two, Vladimir and Estragon encounter a servant and his master, Lucky and Pozzo, who provide insight into the destructiveness and dwindling of the master and servant relationship. Lucky, the ironically named servant, is at first conceived to be a babbling, incoherent fool, described by Pozzo as a man that “used to think very prettily once” but provides insight to the games humans play that are absurd and meaningless as the perpetual waiting of the protagonists (Beckett, Waiting for Godot 1.1.26). He recites: “…man…wastes and pines…in spite of the strides of physical culture the practice of sports such as tennis football running cycling swimming flying floating riding gliding combating camogie skating tennis of all kinds dying flying sports…of all kinds” (Beckett, Waiting for Godot 1.1.28-29). While the enumeration of activities is inconsequential, the meaning behind his words is imperative to the satire of the play. Critic Webb writes:…what is important is the recognition that man spends his life playing games, games of all kinds, not merely of organized sport, but of life: games of language and activity, the same kinds of games Didi and Gogo play… Games can pass the time, they can constitute existence, but they can give life only the illusion of meaning, for, like Beckett’s play, they don not constitute (an) action. (Webb 52)This comparison, ingeniously told by a piteous servant, reverberates the bitter satire present in the play—creating the questioning of what is trivial and what is significant in one’s life. The previous comparison best summates the message behind, and the satire within Beckett’s play, as it illuminates the absurdity of the things viewed important or meaningful within society. Society places importance (and therefore meaning) behind things such as “games of language and activity,” which are as piteous, futile, and meaningless as Vladimir and Estragon’s waiting for Godot (Webb 52). Therefore, Vladimir and Estragon embody the universal person’s mindset—they create an illusion of meaning and withhold it adamantly. They are not role models; the two characters are deplorable in every standard met by society and should be the impetus to the changed mindset of the reader: from Godot, the reader should realize what is truly important in his/her life and understand what constitutes actual meaning in the world. Works CitedBeckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. New York, NY: Grove Press, 1954.Kennedy, Andrew. Samuel Beckett. Cambridge University Press, 1998. Rpt. in “Active Waiting.” Readings on Waiting for Godot. Ed. Laura Marvel. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2001. 96-107.Schlueter, June. Metafictional Characters in Modern Drama. Columbia University Press, 1979. Rpt. in “The Dual Roles of Didi and Gogo.” Readings on Waiting for Godot. Ed. Laura Marvel. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2001. 44- 53.Webb, Eugene. The Plays of Samuel Beckett. University of Washington Press, 1972. Rpt. in “The Plot Reveals the Illusory Nature of Man’s Attempts to Create Meaning.” Readings on Waiting for Godot. Ed. Laura Marvel. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2001. 54-64.