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Essay On ‘Waiting for Godot’
Discuss the proposition that Waiting for Godot is an existentialist play, within the first Act. To what extent does the play offer a bleak assessment of the human condition?
The play, Waiting For Godot, is centred around two men, Estragon and Vladimir, who are waiting for a Mr. Godot, of whom they know little. Estragon admits himself that he may never recognize Mr. Godot, “Personally I wouldn’t know him if I ever saw him.” (p.23). Estragon also remarks, “? we hardly know him.” (p.23), which illustrates to an audience that the identity of Mr. Godot is irrelevant. What is an important element of the play is the act of waiting for someone or something that never arrives. Beckett however suggests that the identity of Godot is in itself a question.
” Estragon: ? Let’s go.
Vladimir: We can’t.
Estragon: Why not?
Vladimir: We’re waiting for Godot.” (p.14).
Estragon and Vladimir have made the choice of waiting, without instruction or guidance, as Vladimir says, “He didn’t say for sure he’d come” (p.14), but decides to “wait till we know exactly how we stand” (p.18).
Waiting in the play induces boredom as a theme. Ironically Beckett attempts to create a similar nuance of boredom within the audience by the mundane repetition of dialogue and actions. Vladimir and Estragon constantly ponder and ask questions, many of which are rhetorical or are left unanswered. During the course of the play, certain unanswered questions arise: who is Godot? Where are Gogo and Didi? Who beats Gogo? All of these unanswered questions represent the rhetorical questions that individuals ask but never get answers for within their lifetime. Vis a vis is there a God? Where do we come from? Who is responsible for our suffering? The German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger expressed clearly that human beings can never hope to understand why they are here. The tramps repetitive inspection of their empty hats perhaps symbolizes mankind’s vain search for answers within the vacuum of a universe.
Jean Paul Sartre, the leading figure of French existentialism declared that human beings require a rational basis for their lives but are unable to achieve one, and thus human life is a futile passion. Estragon and Vladimir attempt to put order into their lives by waiting for a Godot who never arrives. They continually subside into the futility of their situation, reiterating the phrase “Nothing to be done.” Vladimir also resolves with the notion that life is futile, or nothing is to be done at the beginning, replying, “All my life I’ve tried to put it from me? And I resumed the struggle.” (p.9).
“Estragon: (anxious). And we? ? Where do we come in?” (p.19).
Estragon’s question is left unanswered by Vladimir. Note that these questions seem to bring pain or anxiety to Estragon. Beckett conveys a universal message that pondering the impossible questions, that arise from waiting, cause pain, anxiety, inactivity and destroy people from within. Note that both Vladimir and Estragon ponder suicide, by hanging themselves from the tree, but are unable to act through to anxiety, as Estragon states, “Don’t let’s do anything. It’s safer.” (p.18).
Kierkagaard’s philosophical view of ‘Dread’ or ‘Angst’ (German for anxiety) as described by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, is a state in which the individual’s freedom of choice places the individual in a state of anxiety, as the individual is surrounded by almost infinite possibilities. This could explain the inactivity of both Estragon and Vladimir. Both characters are aware of different choices they can make but are hesitant, anxious and generally inactive, as shown at the end of Act one when they decide to leave but are immobile.
” Estragon: Well, shall we go?
Vladimir: Yes, let’s go.
They do not move.” (p.54).
Beckett infers that humans ‘pass time’ by habit or routine to cope with the existentialist dilemma of the dread or anxiety of their existence. Beckett believes that humans basically alleviate the pain of living or existence (which is at the crux of Existential philosophy) by habit. The idea of habit being essential for human existence substantiates Sartre’s view that humans require a rational base for their lives. Beckett feels that habit protects us from whatever can neither be predicted or controlled, as he wrote about the theme of habit in his published essay concerning Proust:
“Habit is a compromise effected between the individual and his environment, or between the individual and his own organic eccentricities, the guarantee of a dull inviolability, the lightening-conductor of his existence. Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit. Breathing is habit. Life is habit.”
Estragon and Vladimir constantly ‘pass the time’ throughout the entire play to escape the pain of waiting and to possibly to stop themselves from thinking or contemplating too deeply. Vladimir expresses this idea at the end of the play, ‘Habit is a great deadener’, suggesting that habit is like an analgesic – numbing the individual. The play is mostly ritual, with Estargon and Vladimir filling the emptiness and silence. “It’ll pass the time,”, (p.12), explains Vladimir, offering to tell the story of the Crucifixion. Passing the time is their mutual obsession, as exhibited after the first departure of Pozzo and Lucky:
” Vladimir: That passed the time.
Estragon: It would have passed in any case.
Vladimir: Yes, but not so rapidly.” (p.48).
Estragon also joins in the game – “That’s the idea, let’s make a little conversation.” (p.48). The rituals by which Estragon and Vladimir combat silence and emptyness are elaborate, original and display Beckett’s skill as a writer. In the play Beckett echoes patterns of question, answer and repetition which is his alternative to all the flaccid chat and triviality of the conventionally ‘well-structured play’. Since his subject is habit and boredom, he has dispensed with plot; since his characters are without much history. Even the scenery is minimal – consisting of a tree and the road. Beckett deliberately employs the repetition of themes, speech and action to highlight the futility and habit of life. Gogo and Didi frequently repeat phrases, such as, “Nothing to be done”. Their actions consist of ritually inspecting their hats. Nothingness is what the two tramps are essentially fighting against and reason why they talk. Beckett suggests that activity and inactivity oppose one another: thought arising from inactivity and activity terminating thought. In the second Act they admit that habit suppresses their thoughts and keeps their minimal sanity:
” Estragon: ? we are incapable of keeping silent.
Vladimir: You’re right we’re inexhaustible.
Estragon: It’s so we won’t think.” (p.62).
Estragon and Vladimir symbolize the human condition as a period of waiting. Most of society spend their lives searching for goals, such as exam or jobs, in the hope of attaining a higher level or advancing. Beckett suggests that no-one advances through the inexorable passage of time. Vladimir states this, “One is what one is. ? The essential doesn’t change.”, (p.21). This may be a mockery of all human endeavour, as it implies that mankind achieves nothing, and is ironically contradictory to Beckett’s own endeavour. The tragicomedy of the play illustrates this, as two men are waiting for a man of whom they no little about. The anti-climaxes within the play represent the disappointment of life’s expectations. For example Pozzo and Lucky’s first arrival is mistaken for the arrival of Godot. These points reinforce Kierkagaard’s theory that all life will finish as it began in nothingness and reduce achievement to nothing.
Beckett expresses in the play that time is an illusion or a ‘cancer’, as he referred to it, that feeds the individual the lie that they progress, while destroying them. Estragon and Vladimir through the play end as they begin, have made no progression: waiting for Godot. The few leaves that have grown on the tree by the second act may symbolize hope but more feasibly represent the illusive passage of time. Beckett wrote in his Proust essay that time is the ‘poisonous’ condition we are born to, constantly changing us without our knowing, finally killing us without our assent. A process of dying seems to take place within all four characters, mentally and physically. Estragon and Vladimir may be pictured as having a great future behind them. Estragon may have been a poet, but he is now content to quote and adapt, saying, “Hope deferred maketh the something sick” (p.10) – the something being the heart from a quote from the Bible. Vladimir may have been a thinker, but finds he is uncertain of his reasoning, as when questioned by Estragon about their whereabouts the day before replies angrily (not rationally), “Nothing is certain when you’re about.” (p.14). Time also erodes Estragon’s memory, as shown here:
” Vladimir: What was it you wanted to know?
Estragon: I’ve forgotten. (Chews.) That’s what annoys me.” (p.20).
Time causes their energies and appetites to ebb. The fantasized prospect of an erection – a by-product of hanging – makes Estragon ‘highly excited’ (p.l7). The dread of nightmares plague Estragon during the day; ailments and fears become more agonizing. It is an example of Beckett using ‘ordinary’ images to depict mankind’s decay. Time destroys Pozzo’s sight and strips the previous master of almost everything. Beckett’s bitterness towards time is illustrated by Pozzo’s bleak speech:
“(suddenly furious). Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! ? one day I went blind ? one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer.) They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” (p.89).
When the structure of action is closing in through the course the play, with the past barely recognizable and the future unknown, the here and now of action, the present acting on stage becomes all-important. Existentialist theories propose that the choices of the present are important and that time causes perceptional confusion. Note how shadowy the past becomes to Estragon, as he asks questions such as, “What did we do yesterday?” (p.14). Moreover, all the characters caught in the deteriorating cycle of events do not aspire to the future.
The play consists of two acts which represent two cycles of time or two mirrors reflecting endlessly. The pattern of time appears to be circular or cyclic, as opposed to linear. Linear time seems to have broken down, as events do not develop with inevitable climaxes historically. The boy returns with the same message, Godot never comes and tomorrow never seems to arrive. Vladimir mentions that “time has stopped” (p.36).
Estragon and Vladimir are moving relentlessly towards a presumably unobtainable event, (the coming of Godot), within their finite existence, with a continually receding end. It could be described to the curve on a graph that mathematicians would call asymptotic: all the time drawing closer to a value, while never reaching it. Estragon portrays the horror of their uneventful repetitive existence:
” Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!” (p.41).
The fact that Estragon and Vladimir never seem to reach an event or end is the reason for them wanting to control the end themselves, as Estragon says, “Like to finish it?” (p.21). The ‘leaf motif’ is an existentialist theory inferring that life repeats itself with a slight change (as in music – where a motif is a repetition of a structure with a minute alteration of rhythm or notes). Estragon highlights the ‘leaf motif’ theory, saying that a similar person with smaller feet will fill his boots: “Another will come, just as ? as ? as me, but with smaller feet” (p.52). The endless eternal return theory is vividly portrayed at the beginning of the second act:
” Then all the dogs came running
And dug the dog a tomb-
He stops, broods, resumes:
Then all the dogs came running
And dug the dog a tomb” (p.58).
The play is deliberately unnatural and abstract because it is intended to have universal meaning. The world of Estragon and Vladimir is fragmented of time and place and is submerged with vague recollections of culture and the past. For example Estragon remembers the Bible with uncertainty:
” I remember the maps with of the Holy Land. Coloured they were.” (p.12).
The lack of knowledge of the tramps’ culture and past symbolize the breakdown of culture and tradition in the twentieth century. After surviving two World Wars, the tradition of the West has been shattered and culture has greatly changed. The Holocaust showed the atrocities of war and destroyed peoples’ beliefs about human nature. The effects of political reforms, such as communism, marxism, and science has obliterated society’s belief in the church. Nietzche declared the “death of God”, as he felt that religion no longer offered a suitable framework for living. Esrtagon and Vladimir’s uncertainty symbolizes the uncertainty of living in the twentieth century and more generally the uncertainty of existence. Estragon is uncertain about their location and timing inquiring, “You’re sure it was here? ? You’re sure it was this evening?” (p.15).
Beckett infers that out of certainty arises certainty. Out of the uncertainty of waiting Vladimir becomes aware with certainty that they are waiting, thinking with clarity, “? what do we do now that we’re happy ? go on waiting ? waiting ? let me think ? it’s coming ? go on waiting” (p.65).
Beckett displays the sheer randomness of life through the events of the play. Life is portrayed as unfair, risky and arbitrary. Estragon shows the chance involved in the health of his lungs stating, “My left lung is very weak! ? But my right lung is as sound as a bell!” Estragon and Vladimir ponder why one out of the three thieves was saved, which displays the luck or misfortune involved in life. The chaos of this world portrays the absurdity of the characters within the play.
Proust believed that an individual wakes a literally new person with their past memories intact to help them govern their actions in the present. Beckett raises questions about the past or memory governing the individual’s identity. The characters identities are uncertain, as the past and their memories are uncertain. Vladimir tries to come to terms with his existence and the human condition: “It’s too much for one man. ? On the other hand what’s the point of losing heart now” (p.10).
Bishop Berkeley proposed the philosophical hypothesis that being perceived was being or existing. Vladimir desperately asks the boy, “You did see us, didn’t you?” (p.52), and Estragon later questions, “Do you think God sees me?” (p.76), because they are uncertain about their own senses, reality and existence. Beckett poses the theory that reality is based on the human perception. Schopenhauer devised the vision, akin to Buddhism, that the desiring self does not exist in any ‘real’ sense, except through the painful consequences of wilful self-assertion.
Estragon asks, “We’ve lost our rights?”, while Vladimir replies, “We got rid of them.” (p.19). Perhaps they are pondering the idea that they have no choice in their future and think their fate is preordained, although this would contradict the existentialist notion of free will. The tramps cannot perceive the future and therefore would be unable to know if their future is preordained. Equally, the tramps could have ‘no rights’ because they are devoted to the task of waiting. Heidegger said that instead of trying to comprehend one’s existence each individual must choose a goal and follow it with passionate conviction.
Kierkagaard ultimately advocated a ‘leap of faith’ into a Christian way of life, which, although incomprehensible, was the only commitment he believed could save the individual from despair. Beckett seems to portray the incomprehensibility and irrationality of faith or hope and perhaps feels advocating ‘a leap of faith’ limits the individual’s choice. Despite Beckett’s denial of Godot’s symbolism to God, Godot does have a strong connection towards a god of some kind. Godot could be a hero, a religious symbol, a role model but most importantly a symbol of hope. Note the more Gogo and Didi converse about this supposed Mr. Godot (who may not exist) the more importance this god-like figure or symbol acquires. Vladimir illustrates the absurdity and the delusive nature of hope, as he has premonitions of Godot’s arrival: “Listen! ? Hssst! (? They listen, huddled together.) I thought it was ? Godot. ? I could have sworn I heard shouts.” (p.19). Gogo replies more realistically, “Pah! The wind in the reeds.” Camus talked of the Absurd in The myth of Sisyphus, meaning a life lived solely for its own sake in a universe that no longer made sense because there was no God to resolve the contradictions. Absurdity in the play is a by-product of their metaphysically absurd condition; it is the best they can hope for, the worst they always expect.
Beckett distrusted language because it falsified he believed, the deepest self. His bleak vision of human ignorance, impotence and loneliness made communication an absurd endeavour. James Joyce strongly influenced Beckett and Joyce wrote Finnigan’s wake, in which he practically composed his own language to add truthful meaning to his expression. Beckett is simultaneously torn between the inability to express and his need to express. Estragon and Vladimir talk to each other and share ideas, but it is clear that both characters are self-absorbed and incapable of truly comprehending each other. Estragon and Vladimir regularly interrupt one another with their own thoughts, showing their individual self-absorption. Estragon admits, “I can’t have been listening.” (p.18), and Vladimir says, “I don’t understand.” (p.17), displaying the failures of language as a means of communication.
Each character inhabits a world that has been shaped by thousands of individual experiences, accumulated through their five senses, arranging elements in their minds differently. Conversation occurs but the arrangement of words, poor starved strings do not bridge the gulf that exists between them. The silences seem to punctuate conversations that represent the void, emptiness and loneliness between people. Lucky’s breakdown of speech and final collapse into silence could portray Beckett’s ultimate response to the chaos, randomness and meaninglessness of the universe: silence.
Beckett portrays the human condition as a period of suffering. Heidegger theorized that humans are ‘thrown into the world’ and that suffering is part of existence. Proust describes this point as the, ’sin of being born’, which Estragon and Vladimir refer to as Vladimir ponders about repenting being born. Estragon’s references to Christ represent his sympathy towards suffering as well as symbolizing human suffering:
” Vladimir: What’s Christ got to do with it? ?
Estragon: All my life I’ve compared myself to him. ? And they crucified quick!” (p.52).
Estragon feels that Christ’s suffering on the crucifix was short while Beckett implies that the suffering of life is long. Estragon’s suffering is shown more directly in the stage directions, when he attacks the messenger boy:
” Estragon releases the Boy, moves away, covering his faces with his hands. ?Estragon drops his hands. His face convulsed.” (p.50).
Beckett perhaps feels that to reduce the individual’s suffering one must detach oneself from one’s emotions. Vladimir wishes himself and Estragon to “try and converse calmly” (p.62) for this reason and it explains Estragon’s apprehension of being embraced and Vladimir’s fear of laughing, “One daren’t even laugh any more” (p.11). They perhaps wants to distance themselves from emotion to numb the pain of living. Early Greek philosophers believed in objectivity – distancing oneself. The Buddhist religion believes in separating oneself from the torrent of human emotions. Beckett makes it sound as though the noblest human condition is to be emotionally robotic – conditioned out of human feeling by boredom.
Beckett infers that life may not offer any alternatives to suffering – namely love or pleasure. The only consolation is that suffering is a precondition of contemplation or creativity; it inspires. For example, out of Estragon’s and Vladimir’s suffering arise very imaginative techniques for passing time.
Beckett uses of bathos, staccato-like speech or actions and vulgarity flavoured with black or tragicomic humour to present a reductive view of human nature. Vladimir’s perpetual need to urinate illustrates one of these vulgarities. Beckett’s pessimism is understandable. He lived through two world wars, fighting the second World War for the French resistance against the Nazis. He would have witnessed the atrocities of human nature, chaos, the pointlessness of violence and the breakdown of communication. He would inevitably spent time during the war helplessly waiting for something to happen.
Estragon injects bathos into the serious debate about the thief who was saved by Christ by declaring with bluntness a reductive statement, “People are bloody ignorant apes.” (p.13). Estragon and Vladimir often behave comically, finding interest in the banal – reducing human experiences to the mundane. The tramps comic, banal behaviour is very similar to the behaviour of another pair of comic characters – Laurel and Hardy:
” Vladimir: Pull on your trousers.
Vladimir: Pull on your trousers.
Estragon: You want me to pull off my trousers?
Vladimir: Pull ON your trousers.
Estragon: ( realizing his trousers are down) True. ( He pulls up his trousers.)”
Laurel and Hardy journeyed and shared a reasonably dependent relationship, tested by bouts of exasperation while seeming to not to age and none the wiser. They coped in perpetual nervous agitation, Laurel the most anxious while Hardy tended to solicit a philosophic calm. Neither characters were especially competent and Laurel was the weaker of the two often being defeated by the most trivial or trifling requirements. For example, in Way Out West (1937) (A readers Guide to Samuel Beckett – Hugh Kenner):
” Hardy: Get on the mule.
Hardy: Get on the mule.”
The Seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal viewed human life in terms of paradoxes: The human self is itself a paradox and contradiction. Estragon and Vladimir are full of contradictions, as their emotions often change erratically from violence to sympathy, from the philosophical to the banal. Pozzo’s cruelty towards Lucky emphasizes the contradictions in human nature. They share a master-slave relationship in which Pozzo can be the worst of all tyrants, shouting authoritarian instructions at Lucky, such as, “Up pig!” (p.23), and yet can be equally filled with self-pity:
” I can’t bear it ? any longer ? the way he goes on ? you’ve no idea ? it’s terrible” (p.34).
Beckett’s devotion to and relationship with Joyce was not quite that of the master’s secretary but Joyce did dictate part of Finnigan’s Wake to the younger Beckett and some said that Beckett was his own model for a Pozzo-Lucky relationship. Beckett himself summed up his own contradictory situation as a writer in a 1949 dialogue with Georges Duthuit:
“The expression that there is nothing to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”
This contradictory statement is very reminiscent of the final lines of the play, which show the contradiction between words and action:
” ‘Well? Shall we go?’ ‘Yes, let’s go.’ They do not move.”
A sense of balance within the universe is illustrated in the play, as the silences counteract the conversation, the actions counteract the inactivity. Balance satisfies the mind which recoils from the random. Estragon represents a man of the body and Vladimir represents a man of the mind. Together they represent the divide of self: the mind and body, in Freudian terms – the id and the ego. Pascal thought it important to recognize that the self consists of the mind and body. Note the physical troubles of Estragon, concerning his boots, and the philosophical problems, such as time and existence, facing Vladimir:
” Vladimir: ( gloomily). It’s too much for one man. ( Pause. Cheerfully.) 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.” (p.10).
Estragon: Ah stop blathering and help me off with this bloody thing.” (p.10).
To summarize Waiting For Godot as a display of Beckett’s bleak view of life would be a simplistic presumption, as Estragon and Vladimir epitomize all of mankind (as Estragon refers to himself as “Adam” ,p.37), showing the full range of human emotions. Estragon and Vladimir do suffer but equally show glimpses of happiness and excitement. They are excited by Pozzo’s arrival and Estragon is “highly excited” about the prospect of an erection. Equally, as acts of random violence and anger are committed signs of affection are displayed between the characters. Gogo and Didi are the affectionate names Estragon and Vladimir call each other. Didi apologizes for his behaviour and displays affection: “Forgive me ? Come, Didi. ? Give me your hand. ? Embrace me!” (p.17). Even brief signs of happiness are portrayed, as Gogo finds Lucky amusing, “He’s a scream. ? ( Laughs noisily.)” (p.35). Although Gogo and Didi fear being ‘tied’ or dependent on each other. This can be seen as either positive or negative. The pessimistic view is that they cannot escape waiting for Godot, from each other or from their situation in general. The optimistic view of the play shows a range of human emotion and the need to share experiences alongside the suffering of finite existence; governed by the past, acting in the present and uncertain of the future.
A Readers Guide to Samuel Beckett – Hugh Kenner
Beckett – A. Alvarez
Waiting For Godot – York Notes
Encyclopaedia Brittanica references
Microsoft @ Encarta 96 Encyclopaedia
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