WAITING FOR GODOT, WAITING FOR GOD? By Michael Cunningham
Samuel Beckett was born on April 13, 1906 near Dublin Ireland. He was the second son of William and Mary Beckett. The Beckett family lived comfortably in Ireland, and Samuel received a quality education. He eventually graduated from Trinity College of Dublin in 1927. While attending Trinity, Samuel directed his focus toward foreign languages, majoring in French and Italian. During his tenure at Trinity, Beckett made several trips to Paris and immediately became enamored with the city. Upon graduation, Beckett was assigned by his advisor to teach from 1928 to1930 at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. Here Beckett would meet the men to change his life forever (Bair 1-56).
Beckett became involved with literature and writing full time in 1930. All of Beckett's works contain his pessimistic and negative tone combined with his eccentrics. This dubious attitude earned Beckett few friends to study with, which suited Beckett just fine. Of the few friends Beckett had, the biggest influences were his best friends Thomas McGreevy and James Joyce. McGreevy and Joyce shared Beckett's anti-social tendencies and encouraged his eccentrics. Along with these cultural influences, Beckett found literary and prose influences in works such as Inferno and Tempest. Upon completion of internship, Beckett focused on writing, and the bad boy of modern literature made himself known (Bair 62-67).
Beckett began his professional writing in the summer of 1930 with the publication of Whoreoscope, and later that same year Proust (Bloom 263). Beckett's work went unnoticed until 1934 when More Pricks than Kicks was published to favorable review (Bair 179). Shortly thereafter, Beckett split his time between writing and working in the French resistance movement against the Germans. Beckett was forced to flee the Gestapo as he was writing Watt in 1942. Beckett returned to France permanently in 1945 to begin his period of all French writings, most notably En Attendant Godot or Waiting for Godot. Beckett lived out the rest of his days in France, leaving only for deaths or production openings. Samuel Beckett died in 1989 (Bloom 263).
Beckett began writing Waiting for Godot in 1948. He was bored and irritated by rules and guidelines to writing thrust upon by others; this anger is obvious to the reader of Godot. Four producers declined Beckett to put the play on-stage. Finally Waiting for Godot was performed in 1953 at the Theatre de Baylone in Paris (Bair 399-430). Waiting for Godot is a complex tale, built around a simple theme "Nothing to be done" (Beckett 7). The principle characters are two tramps waiting for a man dubbed Godot. Vladimir and Estragon do not know why they wait, they do not even remember their initial encounter with Godot, but they know they must wait, or be punished when Godot does arrive. During the wait, the character traits of the tramps are evident. Vladimir and Estragon, the two main characters of the drama, reveal specific personality traits through their dialogue, actions, and their physical characteristics.
Vladimir has the most socially redeeming qualities of the two tramps. Where Estragon concerns himself with the tangible and physical, Vladimir tends to be concerned with the metaphysical. The first example of this trait is early in Act one. Estragon is struggling to remove his boot, while Vladimir attempts to tell the story of two thieves from the Bible. The focal point of the tale is ". . . one is supposed to be saved and the other . . . damned" (Beckett 9). Vladimir is greatly concerned by only one apostle making account of the thieves salvation (Barnard 92). This entire exchange shows just how different in at least one aspect the two are. Vladimir searches for meaning and purpose in one of the greatest mysteries in history, and all Estragon can add is a statement concerning the ignorance of man.
The example of metaphysical thoughts through action, or rather inaction, occurs in Act two. Pozzo and his slave Lucky are travelers that the reader is introduced to in Act one. In Act two, the duo returns, but they are unexplainably blind. Pozzo falls and cries for someone to help him up. As Pozzo screams and cries, Vladimir begins to examine the situation, and decides ". . . it is not everyday that we are needed. . ." (Beckett 51). This statement only emphasizes the tramps need for Godot, for Godot would tell them to either help Pozzo up or let him lie. Without Godot present however, the philosophies of Vladimir are a hindrance as they allow him to return to his lack of purpose as Pozzo lay crying (Barnard 98).
Vladimir displays his focus on the metaphysical through his physical characteristics during the exchange about hanging themselves. Vladimir is the heavier of the two tramps, but overlooks his weight in the hanging. Estragon's simplicity points out the obvious "Gogo light-bough not break-Gogo dead. Didi heavy-bough break-Didi alone" (Beckett 12). Vladimir concentrates more on the deeper significance of the hanging, that it would "Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ give us an erection" (Beckett 12). The erection is significant in hanging because it would shortly be followed by an ejaculation. Vladimir further expands on this logic by saying, "Where it falls, mandrakes grow. . ." (Beckett 12). Though neither of the tramps acknowledge it, this quote tells the reader that the death of the Vladimir and Estragon can lead to something good, rather than having two hopeless guttersnipes wandering the landscape in search of Godot.
As the two tramps come into contact with other people, Vladimir displays his dominance over the group of himself and Estragon. The most blatant display through dialogue is the interrogation of the boy(s) that serve as messenger for Godot at the end of both acts. The dialogue for the two exchanges is nearly identical. Vladimir is the interrogator, Estragon serves as enforcer. Estragon is enraged by the reluctance of the boy to approach. Estragon acts with rage and force, until cast aside by the sensible voice of Vladimir. "Will you let him alone? What's the matter with you?"(Beckett 32). Upon restraint of Estragon, Vladimir asks the same battery of questions, all focused on Godot and the fact that "He won't come this evening" (Beckett 58). This is especially tragic at the end of the drama, for without the arrival of Godot all the waiting and philosophizing is in vain.
Vladimir shows his dominance over Estragon on multiple occasions. The most obvious of which are the feedings. Vladimir has thrust himself into the position of caretaker. Vladimir shows himself as a nurturer and guardian by rationing the meals for Estragon. Estragon has no relations with the world save Vladimir and would starve without his food and support. Vladimir himself makes this point by saying, "You'd be nothing more than a little heap of bones at the present Ã¢â‚¬Â¦" (Beckett 7). This statement can be mistaken for one of arrogance, but in this case is it a fact. Hugh Kenner summarizes this best by saying "one of them marvelously incompetent, the other an ineffective man of the world devoted to his friends care"(Kenner 24). Estragon does not have the mental capacity to even remember the events of the previous day, let alone a lifetime or job responsibilities.
The final example of Vladimir's dominance with Estragon is that on occasion he acts with blatant arrogance. The best example of arrogance is early in Act two when Vladimir ensures that his presence would prevent Estragon being beaten every night. Vladimir "Ã¢â‚¬Â¦would have stopped you from doing whatever it was you were doing" (Beckett 38). Estragon replies that he has not done anything to deserve a beating. Vladimir replies that "there are things that escape you that don't escape meÃ¢â‚¬Â¦"(Beckett 38). Essentially, Vladimir states that he could have prevented an indeterminate amount of beatings before calling his best friend ignorant.
The common trait of the tramps is their hopelessness and lack of purpose in life. Vladimir first demonstrates this after refusing to laugh after Estragon's amusing joke. "One daren't laugh any more" (Beckett 8). Physically, the reason not to laugh is a pelvic infection that causes horrific pain in any unnecessary movements. The depravation of this basic right is demonstrated when Estragon tells another amusing joke. The only response from Vladimir is "You'd make me laugh if it wasn't prohibited" (Beckett 13). The loss of the right to laugh is only a symbol of the belief that all their human rights have been forsaken.
The hopeless theme is conveyed through both tramps by their waiting continually for Godot. Vladimir waits for Godot to seek the answers to his many questions and serve as a leader (Barnard 90). Several instances demonstrate the need for Vladimir to have a mentor and some basic meaning. Vladimir believes Godot can fill this role and show him the way to respectable society. Vladimir is not certain that there is "nothing to be done" as Estragon, rather he is convincing himself that there is purpose because "Ã¢â‚¬Â¦Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven't tried everythingÃ¢â‚¬Â¦" (Beckett 7). Godot is either a savior for Vladimir, or the final disappointment a poor tramp can sustain.
The physical trait that makes Vladimir hopeless is his pelvic infection. The infection relates to his reluctance to laugh, he feels the pain in every step he takes as it restricts his movements and denies him full control of his faculties. Estragon questions the validity of the pain in order to compare it with the pain from his foot. Vladimir only responds by stating "No one ever suffers but you . .. I'd like to hear what you'd say if you had what I have"(Beckett 7). Estragon, in all simplicity can only add "It hurts?"(Beckett 7). Essentially, the infection has reduced Vladimir to a basic man. He can walk, talk, shake hands, and all other actions a normal man could partake. The infection and his inability to laugh have robbed him of joyful expression.
Estragon, conversely is completely physical in his logic and thinking. This lack of thinking is apparent during the tale of the thieves. Estragon does not know the story and does not care. Estragon does not have the mental capacity to partake in the discussion, further more he lacks interest. During this tale, Vladimir becomes irritated at the inability of Estragon to participate. ". . . come on Gogo, return the ball, can't you. . ." (Beckett 9). Estragon reinforces his simple-mindedness by telling Vladimir that he has "Ã¢â‚¬Â¦looked atÃ¢â‚¬Â¦" the Bible and remembers only "Ã¢â‚¬Â¦the maps of the Holy Land. . ." (Beckett 8). Estragon reveals himself to the reader at this point. His only concern is the current time. He only acknowledges the story because "it'll pass the time" (Beckett 9).
Estragon is showing his focus on the physical in the opening of the play as he struggles with his boot. He does not have any deeper meaning from the struggle of the boot to remain on his foot. His foot hurts, and that is all he cares about. Vladimir, along with the reader, would turn the struggle between man and boot into an epic tale. However, Estragon simply sees a boot that is too small and is hurting him. He continues to attempt the removal until he is finally exhausted and overwhelmed, simply reinforcing "Nothing to be done" (Beckett 7). Physical nature is further demonstrated once the boot has been removed. Estragon diagnoses the boot for his foot hurting. Vladimir quickly adds "there's man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet" (Beckett 8). Vladimir has a simple point; if Estragon has boots that do not fit, he must take action to obtain boots which do fit ensuring pain-free feet. Estragon does not care about whose fault the pain in his foot is. He knows that they hurt and that by removing the boot, the pain stops.
The physical characteristic that shows Estragon's focus on surface value is his outlook of the beatings he receives every night. Vladimir inquires of the beatings daily, to which Vladimir often replies "Beat me? Certainly they beat me" (Beckett 7). Estragon reacts to the daily beatings as a portion of life that cannot be changed but must simply be dealt with. Kenner places the beatings in the proper perspective by saying ". . .their beatings need no explanation; as much as the sunrise, they are part of this world" (Kenner 28). Estragon has receded to a level of despair so low that he is oblivious to random beatings.
Estragon is shameless in his dealings. He shows this through dialogue by inquiring Vladimir about beating Lucky in his sleep. During the conversation in which Vladimir is attempting to decide whether to help the fallen Pozzo and Lucky up, Estragon debates on whether they should beat Lucky as he lies helpless. This desire stems from the kick in the shins Lucky gives Estragon in Act one. Estragon wants to seize this opportunity and asks Vladimir "and suppose we gave him a good beating the two of us" (Beckett 51). Vladimir considers this before realizing that they are finally able to aid someone else. Estragon is unaffected by this realization. Pozzo, in desperation, offers the tramps one hundred francs to help him up. Estragon shamelessly decides "It's not enough" (Beckett 52). A man who wears rags, sleeps in ditches, and wears boots a size too small is in no position to refuse one hundred of any currency!
Estragon displays his shamelessness in action by begging for and devouring the chicken bones Pozzo discards. Estragon is not hesitant to ask, take, and devour discarded chicken bones from a man he has just met and the next day, will not remember. Estragon continues to pursue the chicken bones after being informed by Pozzo that Lucky is often given the bones. "Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ but in theory the bones go to the carrier. . ."(Beckett 18). Estragon proceeds to ask Lucky for the bones. Lucky, possibly in fear of gratuitous punishment, ignores Estragon (Roberts 26). This allows Pozzo to conclude "Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ They're yours. . ."(Beckett 18). Lucky is driven mercilessly and is deprived of what is likely his only meal.
Estragon finally displays his shamelessness when he instinctively is angered when Vladimir gives him a radish for dinner. Estragon prefers carrots to all else, but having eaten the final carrot the night before, Estragon is left only with a radish. The radish is unacceptable, not only because it is a radish but "It's black!" (Beckett 44). Estragon likes only pink radishes. He returns the black radish saying "I'll go and get a carrot"(Beckett 44). Estragon is homeless. He sleeps in ditches and eats only because of charity; yet, he has the audacity to ask for a new meal.
Estragon displays his hopelessness slightly differently than Vladimir. In Act one Estragon falls asleep beneath the tree. While sleeping, he is startled by a dream. The dream serves as a symbol of the fears and apprehensions that Estragon feels (Roberts 22). Vladimir refuses to listen because he feels it best to leave such matters unsaid (Roberts 22). Estragon desires to tell his dream, but Vladimir, his friend and supporter, refuses to hear it. Having been rebuffed by Vladimir, Estragon appeals to the universe "(gestures towards the universe) This one is enough for you" (Beckett 11). With his only friend refusing, Estragon is forced to seek consul in the world and universe that originally forsakes him.
Estragon demonstrates hopelessness in action by waiting eternally for Godot; however, Estragon waits only because Vladimir waits. Estragon asks nothing from Godot, he has never seen Godot and does not know who Godot is. He admits early that they are "tied to Godot" because Vladimir waits for Godot, and Estragon cannot function without Vladimir (Beckett 14). If Godot is the answer to the tramps problems, then what is to become of Vladimir who has made a sizable portion of the relationship into problem solving (Alvarez 79).
Estragon shows his hopelessness by through his dependence and reliance on Vladimir to coddle and support him. These feelings are vocalized early in Act two. Vladimir enters singing and laughing. Estragon is angered because "he thinks I'm gone for ever, and he sings" (Beckett 38). Estragon reveals himself as surprisingly complex in what he wants and needs. Shortly after the exchange between the two friends, Estragon adds "It'd be better if we parted" (Beckett 40). One minute, Estragon is near death due to the loss of Vladimir and the next he is all but telling Vladimir to leave him alone. The truth is; however, that Estragon cannot function without Vladimir; "as single cherries they would rot immediately" (Barnard 91). Godot or no Godot, the two scalawags will be forever bonded.
Vladimir and Estragon demonstrate Beckett's theme of isolation and hopelessness through all of these traits. The two tramps serve as symbols for all humans. Beckett says through this play that the human race is forced to sit in desolate isolation waiting for a God that will never come or "He'd punish us" (Beckett 59). Whether he be called Jehovah, Jesus, Allah, Buddha, family, friends, car, house, or workplace, every person has their own Godot that forces them to wait.
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Bloom, Harold. "Chronology." Modern Critical Views: Samuel Beckett. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1985: 263-264.
Kenner, Hugh. A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973.
Roberts, James. Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Endgame, & Other Plays. Edited by Gary Carey. Lincoln: Cliffs Notes Inc. 1980.