Thursday, March 15, 2007

Beckett's Waiting for Godot

Greater Expectations:

Beckett’s Waiting for Godot

To wait is an inherent part of the human existence. For this reason, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is written for us all and for all time. The play’s appeal has not waned over time: its universal theme is as relevant today as it was in France in the early fifties when it was first performed. Hugh Kenner notes “that [the play] resembles France occupied by the Germans, in which the author spent the war years. How much waiting must have gone on in that bleak world” (30). This interpretation certainly fits soundly into the play, but there seems to be much more than a simple metaphor for Beckett’s war experience happening, as Kenner himself would agree. The play is loaded with religious and metaphysical allusions and references. I see Beckett portraying a world of vast absence of meaning, a world of nothingness that he believed to be the spiritual misunderstanding of Christian society, waiting on a transcendent god. In Waiting for Godot, the characters squander their lives by relying and waiting on a force outside of themselves for their salvation. This force, literally Godot, never arrives, and the characters struggle in a world “dominated by absence” (Yuan 4).

Beckett, by presenting the absence of things, demonstrates their importance. Also, he emphasizes the importance of that which causes the absence in the beginning. Waiting is the theme that is clearly at the center of the plot of the play. The conviction of Estragon and Vladimir to spend seemingly their whole lives in expectation of some external gratification is parodied, suggesting the deeper implications of the play. They are placing meaning in something outside of themselves and outside of their control. A simple understanding of existentialism would hold that meaning must come from inside and that its value “is greater because it cannot be taken away by external forces” (“Summery of . . . ). Godot, or the concept of Godot, is this sort of external force; he robs them of potential to understand their world.

The play is imbued with a substantial number of allusions to Christianity. When Pozzo asks Estragon for his name, Estragon responds, “Adam” (25). The analogy here would be that Adam was thrown out of Eden into the wild, to make a life without the beneficence of the lord. Like Estragon, Adam was forced to live in a world without meaning and in a state of “dreadful privation” (8). In Act II, Estragon tries to guess the names of Pozzo and Lucky. He guesses “Cain and “Abel” (53). At another point, Estragon says, “all my life I’ve compared myself to [Christ]” (34). Vladinir contemplates repenting and discusses the Gospels (8, 9). Estragon says, “I’m going [to hell]” and compares their request to Godot as “a sort of prayer” (13). These allusions to Christianity serve to align Estragon and Vladimir with the Christian tradition. The temporal and spatial absences suggest that the play could take place wherever and whenever, but it could also be always and everywhere. This broad frame is necessary to represent Christian culture as a whole over time.

The Christian God is a transcendent god who gives his rewards in an afterlife. In essence, Christians must “wait” for heaven in the same way Estragon and Vladimir are “waiting for Godot” (7). If God is dead, as Nietzsche teaches, then there would be no external meaning, no meaning outside of the self. Dostoyevsky says, “If God didn’t exist, anything would be possible”(-----). Nothing, however, is possible for Estragon and Vladimir: they are tied, “tied to Godot! What an idea! No question of it. (Pause.) For the moment” (14). Of course, there is no such thing as a “moment” in this play.

What Vladimir and Estragon want “is the impression that [they] exist” (44). Whether that is understood as having meaning in their lives or being happy, it is very much the same thing. If Godot was to come, he could offer Estragon and Vladimir work and security. Work would give them that rock, that center of purpose, pride, meaning, and happiness. They wait because “It’s safer,” not because it is the only way (12). They choose to gamble on Godot instead of actively pursuing their own opportunities. Opportunities are made proactively; meanwhile, they sit bored with their lives out of their hands.

What is the absence that Beckett uses to create, what has been called a “negative fable” (___)? Beckett’s main characters, Estragon and Vladimir, are waiting for a man named Godot, who either doesn’t come or doesn’t exist. This is the primary absence of the play. Yuan says that Godot “becomes both transcendent and enigmatic” (5). He is the hope of Estragon and Vladimir for a better life than the wretched life they both now lead. Their existence is deplorable. Nothing appears real or believable: “Indeed Beckett’s play is dominated by a prevalent sense of emptiness” (Yuan 4). All things are lacking – except void.

The reader first gets the sense that there is an absence of time. “Time has stopped” (Beckett 24). Estragon and Vladimir argue,

Estragon: We came here yesterday.

Vladimir: Ah no, there you’re mistaken.

Estragon: What did we do yesterday?

Vladimir: What did we do yesterday?

Estragon: Yes.

Vladimir: Why . . . (Angrily.) Nothing is certain when

you’re about. (10)

In Act II, which is supposedly the next day, this scene is nearly repeated; Estragon asks, “And all this was yesterday, you say?” (39). It is as if there is no past at all; each days resembles the last and the next. The desired future, the arrival of Godot, never occurs. There is no sense of time anywhere in the play. Another character, Pozzo, has a watch but loses it (30). This is very representative of time’s absence in the play. The time that does exist, being one day turning into next, is incongruous or even absurd. The text claims that it is the following day, but Vladimir’s recollection alone would lead the reader to believe this to be true. Pozzo and Lucky, who come the previous day, come again down the road and stop to pass the time with Estragon and Vladimir. The absurdity is that Pozzo is blind the second day and was not the first. He claims that he has been blind for some time (24). Lucky, who went into a mental tirade on the first day, is now dumb (24). How can this be? It is possible that a great deal of time has passed – more than just a day. This all is quite strange and struck Vladimir that way as well. Estragon, who has been called “the embodiment of estranged agony,” is aware that he has no memory and is not surprised at all by these irregularities (Yuan 5). The reader feels that it could be any day. The timelessness so permeates the play that the reader feels this has and will go on forever.

As Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot, there is “nothing to be done” (7). This is the first spoken line of the play. This is a play about nothingness, and specifically, the only action is the act of waiting, a non-action. Beckett demonstrates the doing of nothing by presenting things that either go undone or are done with great delay. Vladimir says, “I’m going” four times and never does so (19-21). At the end of Act I, Pozzo tries to leave but delays:

Pozzo: I don’t seem able . . . (long hesitation)

. . . to depart.

Estragon: Such is life. (31)

On the second day, Pozzo falls down and needs help. Vladimir says, “lets do something, while we have the chance,” and then gives a long speech on the subject instead of helping Pozzo off the ground (51). It is very comic, but at the same time, it shows Vladimir and Estragon’s inability to act. As Estragon enters the stage in the beginning of Act II, he says that he has been beaten up by a bunch of men. When asked by Vladimir what he had done to deserve the beating, Estragon says, “I wasn’t doing anything” (38). This serves as an outstanding analogy for the play as a whole. Vladimir and Estragon suffer for not “doing anything” (38).

The location of the play is also important to note. The entire play takes place in one spot: “A country road, A tree. Evening” (6). The play gets no more specific, except we discover that there is also a mound (7). The generic nature of the location makes it possible that this could take place feasibly anywhere in the world (outside of the desert, arctic, ect.). The scene could also take place at any time throughout history. Understanding that the play is not grounded temporally or spatially opens the possibilities broader critique of Christian society.

With the absence of temporal and spatial connectedness, there is also a complete breakdown of communication. The “void” that each character experiences is clearly individual. Estragon doesn’t recognize anything in the second act from the first (40). Vladimir believes he knows, but is swayed: “nothing is certain when you’re about” (10). When in conversation, they are never able to communicate. In a sense, they are simply talking to themselves (21). Vladimir pleads, “Come on, Gogo, return the ball, can’t you, once in a way?,” trying to get Estragon (Gogo) to follow and respond to his train of thought (9). Vladimir is not much more capable than Estragon. He once restates the same line, “You want to get rid of him?” six times until he gives up recieving an answer from Pozzo (21). On a rare occasion, they do get on the same train of thought and create a witty dialogue (13), but often their talks end with the loss of Estragon’s memory (generally, it is absent, not lost, as you cannot lose something that you do not have to begin with). He begins repetitively stating the same lines.

Estragon: Our movements.

Vladimir: Our elevations.

Estragon: Our relaxations.

Vladimir: Our elongations.

Estragon: Our relaxations. (49)

This inability to communicate causes a desire for separation (40). They never do separate, as they never do anything that might be in their best interest, such as leave the tree in pursuit of other opportunities. It is comic chaos, the center of which, Godot, is absent.

Over all, the reality of the play is absurd. Not only is there no sense of time or place, but the people and things are all mistaken. When Pozzo enters in both acts, he is mistaken for Mr. Godot. Beckett makes a witty allusion, here, to the broader meaning of the play when Pozzo remarks that he is “Made in God’s image!” (15). No wonder Estragon mistook him for Godot. Godot sends a boy as a messenger at the end of each act. Vladimir believes that it is the same boy, but the boy doesn’t recognize him (33). Everything gets lost in the play as well: Pozzo’s pipe, watch, vaporizer, and most of all, his train of thought (23, 25, 30). Estragon says, “There is no lack of void” and everything seems to fall into it (42). Nothing could be said more truly about this play. Their reality is represented by what is inside Vladimir’s hat and Estragon’s boot as they gaze inside them – nothingness (8). This nothingness manifests itself a misery. Estragon claims spending his whole “lousy life crawling about in the mud!” (39). “Everything oozes” and “that’s how it is on this bitch of an earth” (39). This reality is so absurd that they would prefer Lucky’s existence to their own. In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche claims that “man would sooner have the void for his purpose than be void of purpose” (299). Lucky, as low as he is, has a purpose: he is forced to act. This is preferable to Estragon and Vladimir, who have only the void and boredom. They have no purpose at all. This wretched state sparks Estragon’s thought, “We are all born mad, some remain so,” He implies that he is one of those whom remain crazy because none of the world around him makes any sense to him (51).

Beckett, by emphasizing what is absent and its gross effects, creates an analogy for our culture. This play should not be misunderstood as an analysis of the human condition however. We, as a culture, are not imprisoned in the “void” as Vladimir and Estragon are not forced to wait. Waiting is their choice; believing in Godot is their choice. If they were to walk away, it is anyone’s guess as to what they might encounter (since they don’t exist outside of the play, a good guess is nothing). Regardless, they are certainly not confined to the “void.” Beckett is presenting an option: the passive or the active. “If God didn’t exist, then anything would be possible”: this is an active participation in life. Since there is no time in the play, Beckett also suggests that there is only the present moment. Waiting is then akin to death or sleep; it is a non-living; it is the passive choice. This is the heart of Beckett’s critique. It is senseless to wait for something that may never come and waste what we do have. The beauty of opportunity is only shown as not being like the reality of the play. It seems the only rational choice for Vladimir and Estragon is to quit waiting. The irony that maybe one day Godot does come is impossible; the absence of time is the absence of the future. With the stagnation of time, the present moment is perpetuated. Beckett emphasizes the importance of making the most of this instant, and finding an experience of being alive, here and now. This experience is what Estragon and Vladimir claimed to be seeking, an “impression that [they] exist” (44).

Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. New York: Grove Inc.,


Kenner, Hugh. “A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett” Syracuse:

Syracuse Press, 1996 [1973].

Yuan, Yuan. “Representation and Absense: Paradoxical Structure

in Postmodern Texts.” Heldref Publications. 1997.

“Summary of Some Main Points From Sarte’s Existentialism and

Human Emotion.

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