Samuel Beckett and Waiting for Godot

“Nothing is certain when you are about”

– Vladimir to Estragon (Beckett, 11)

 Waiting for Godot is an irrational play that is at times random, inexplicable, absurd and it can be difficult to assign meanings to a play that seems that it does not want to be figured out, and purposefully avoids clear meaning. Most people see the play Waiting for Godot as confusing because it is a very different play, and not something which is easily recognizable to audiences. It is a play where nothing is certain, and a play that seems to enjoy confusing its audience, made up of a lot of waiting, talking, not much action or plot. A critic for the New York Times said about the play: “Waiting for Godot is all feeling. Perhaps that is why it is so puzzling and convincing at the same time”. Another critic, Vivien Mercier, said the Waiting for Godot is a play where “Nothing happens. Twice” (Baetz).

Speaking generally, in a Beckett play there is a retreat from the physical world to a more inner world of the mind. Beckett’s characters are burdened by their own consciousness, and feel weighed down by responsibilities that they impose and want to escape from but can’t. They are usually on a quest for anonymity and the loss of their consciousness, and struggle with the desire to escape through committing suicide which they can’t do because of their fear of dying. Life is viewed as being meaningless and full of nothing, so the question is constantly being asked: Why go on living? But it is never answered (Cornwell, 41).

In Waiting for Godot, this is all the case. The physical world is desolate and mostly empty, the characters impose the responsibility of waiting for Godot on themselves but have trouble remembering why and at different points want to leave but cannot. The characters have trouble remembering and understanding what has happened, they doubt their own existence, where they are, why they are there, and they contemplate suicide but never go through with it. They try to distract themselves from the nothingness and talk over one another, play verbal games, and seem to have problems understanding one another. The audience knows little about the characters’ motivations, personalities, or their differences. There is an inability to know anything for sure and both the characters and the audience are confronted by questions that cannot be answered and both are confused. Here is a short list of some of the things that Vladimir, Estragon and the audience don’t know:

  • Why can’t they leave?
  • Why they are waiting for Godot?
  • Who is Godot?
  • How long have they been waiting?
  • What did they do yesterday?
  • What day is it?
  • What season is it?
  • What time is it?
  • Is this the day that they are supposed to wait?
  • What if Godot doesn’t come?

Though the play may seem to ask more questions than it ever answers and be without meaning, there are two possible readings: one which is historical and one which is ideological. To begin with the historical, Waiting for Godot was written in 1947-48 following the Second World War. Even though Beckett never explicitly wrote about the war, there were many allusions made to it in his work (Perloff, 77).  In “Waiting for Godot” there is a ravaged, desolate landscape, a strange environment that is new to the characters, a world that is now pointless but which used to have meaning, mysterious beatings, anxiety over being seen by others, anxiety over waiting, and displaced individuals. All of which resembles what Beckett and others would have experienced during the war (Perloff, 84).

Despite this, critics in France were unwilling to acknowledge this when they wrote about his work, because the war had been painful but also embarrassing for France because of the Vichy government’s collaboration. Critics preferred to focus on Beckett’s work in term of its more universal themes and focused on his portrayal of alienation of man, the absurdity, the incomprehensible, and meaninglessness of the world and the human condition (Perloff, 77) and only one critic mentioned that it was possible that the “waiting” in the play was meant to represent the waiting of prisoners in concentration camps (Perloff, 77). There are a lot of things in Beckett’s work which do not go with the majority of critic interpretations however, for instance his focus on the body and its functions. In his works characters smell, they have no teeth, they are aging, they have swollen feet, lice, they are homeless and without friends or love, they eat only to survive and not for any kind of pleasure, and going to the washroom is difficult. However despite all this, it is made clear that they have memories of better times which contrast with their current situation and that they are intelligent and can quote poetry, the Bible and Shakespeare (Perloff, 79). The critic Hugh Kenner wrote in the Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett: “It is curious how reader and audiences do not think to observe the most obvious thing about the world of the play, that it resembles France occupied by Germans, in which its author spent the war years” (Perloff, 84).

Beckett had spent the war years in France. He joined the resistance in France in 1941 where he was part of a group that translated documents about Axis troop movements, until that group was revealed by a double agent (Perloff, 80). Beckett had to escape Paris in secret for the unoccupied south of France in a dangerous 700 km journey, hiding in barns, ditches, haystacks, sheds on his way.  It took him 6 weeks to reach Roussilon, a village 40 m from Avignon, where he lived for 3 years in boredom in the long periods of waiting when there was nothing to do and danger when a Nazi patrol came through the village and he had to hide in the fields or woods, sometimes for days, because his Irish accent would have given him away (Perloff, 81). First he lived in a hotel with bed bugs and mice, then in a house which was cold and gloomy, and he worked for a farmer named Aude and picked grapes for a farmer named Bonnelly who is mentioned by name in the French version of Waiting for Godot (Perloff, 82). After the war, he volunteered with the Irish Red Cross building a hospital in Normandy in Saint-Lo which he described as being all rubble and mud, and full of people who were desperate for food and clothes and clinging to life (Perloff, 82). Following these experiences, Beckett returned to Paris in January 1946 and began to write his most famous works (Perloff, 83).

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.

Silence.

VLADIMIR: They all speak at once.

ESTRAGON: Each one to itself.

Silence.

VLADIMIR: Rather they whisper.

ESTRAGON: They rustle.

VLADIMIR: They murmur.

ESTRAGON: They rustle.

Silence.

VLADIMIR: What do they say?

ESTRAGON: They talk about their lives.

VLADIMIR: To have lived is not enough for them.

ESTRAGON: They have to talk about it.

VLADIMIR: To be dead is not enough for them.

ESTRAGON: It is not sufficient.

Silence.

VLADIMIR: They make a noise like feathers.

ESTRAGON: Like leaves.

VLADIMIR: Like ashes.

ESTRAGON: Like leaves.

Long silence.

VLADIMIR: Say something!

ESTRAGON: I’m trying.

Long silence.

VLADIMIR: (in anguish). Say anything at all!

ESTRAGON: What do we do now?

VLADIMIR: Wait for Godot.

(Beckett, 57-8)

VLADIMIR: Where are all these corpses from?

ESTRAGON: These skeletons.

VLADIMIR: Tell me that.

ESTRAGON: True.

VLADIMIR: We must have thought a little.

ESTRAGON: At the very beginning.

VLADIMIR: A charnel-house! A charnel-house!

ESTRAGON: You don’t have to look.

VLADIMIR: You can’t help looking.

ESTRAGON: True.

VLADIMIR: Try as one may.

(Beckett, 59-60)

In moments like this in the play, it is clear that this play is a post-World War II play. Estragon and Vladimir here talk about how they are trying to distract themselves from hearing the “dead voices” and talk about “skeletons” and “charnel houses” that they can’t ignore, this represents the effect the overwhelming amount of people who died in the war had on society. Estragon and Vladimir are left in a kind of paralysis, waiting and unable to leave, with the characters saying multiple times “Let’s go” to which the response is always “We can’t”. The play seems to be dealing with the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust and questioning how the world can ever move on after such trauma. In discussing the play Kenner said: “There existed throughout a whole country for five years , a literal situation that corresponded point for point  with the situation in the play, and so far from special that millions of lives were saturated in its deepest reagents, and no spectator ever thinks of it. Instead the play is attributed to one man’s gloomy view of life, which is like crediting him with having invented a good deal of modern history” (Perloff, 84-85).

The play can also be thought about in terms of existentialism, which roughly can be defined as a philosophical movement in the 20th century that emphasized the freedom of the individual to create their own values and meanings because the world itself is meaningless. Existentialism says there is no God or system which can explain our significance or the universe.  We simply exist and it is our job to define who we are and chose our own path. In this play, it is proposed that the universe is meaningless and the characters long for a system to explain the world and provide them with answers which never happens (Baetz). For instance they talk about turning towards nature:

ESTRAGON: We should turn resolutely towards Nature.

VLADIMIR: We’ve tried that.

ESTRAGON: True.

(pg 60)

So they wait for Godot to arrive (who may represent God) who never comes to save them. They long for explanations and meanings and they are instead constantly forced to face the inexplicable, and this demonstrates that existentialism is not a freeing concept, but something which leaves the character being more bound (Baetz).

Works Cited

  • Baetz, Joel. “ Week 6 – Beckett, Waiting for Godot” Trent Oshawa, Oshawa. 16 Oct. 2012. Lecture.
  • Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. London: Faber and Faber, 2010. Print.
  • Cornwell, Ethel F. “Samuel Beckett: The Flight from Self.” Modern Language Association 88.1 (Jan. 1973): 41-51. JSTOR. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.
  • Perloff, Marjorie. “”In Love with Hiding”: Samuel Beckett’s War.” The Iowa Review 35.1 (Spring 2005): 76-103. JSTOR. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.
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One thought on “Samuel Beckett and Waiting for Godot

  1. Very interesting article, thanks! I seem to have read quite a few histories about poets & authors who had near misses during the World Wars. It’s not just them who should be thankful they survived, but then I can’t help but wonder: who did we lose during those wars, and what other great literature might there have been otherwise? At the same time, if the war interpretation of Waiting for Godot is correct, then without the War, the play might not have been written as it is, or even written at all.

    On a slightly happier note, I wrote a haiku a few weeks ago, which made a darkly humorous suggestion as to why Vladimir and Estragon are still waiting for Godot at the end of the play. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it:

    http://thoughtsatintervals.com/2013/03/28/waiting-3/

    Best wishes,
    Andrew

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