‘‘Dante and the Lobster,’’ published by London’s Chatto and Windus in the 1934 collection More Pricks than Kicks, is in many ways the first important work of Samuel Beckett’s illustrious, and ultimately Nobel prize-winning, career. An early version of the story was published in 1932, but in its final form ‘‘Dante and the Lobster’’ provides a fitting and enlightening introduction to Beckett’s body of work. Most of his important themes are here: aimlessness, the desire not to act but rather to wait, and the ultimate meaninglessness and futility of existence.
These themes are in their infancy in this story, though, and the story is deeply indebted to Beckett’s then-mentor, the Irish writer James Joyce. Where Beckett’s later work is constricted and ruthlessly stripped-down, ‘‘Dante and the Lobster’’ takes place in a recognizable place (Dublin) and boasts a protagonist who has yet to descend to the levels of the tramps and decrepit chatterers of Beckett’s postwar plays and prose works. Belacqua Shuah is a young man, like Beckett a student at Dublin’s Trinity College. The work also depends heavily on allusion, both to literature and to religious (specifically Catholic) tradition. Belacqua’s name, for instance, is taken from Dante and from the Bible. In his later works, Beckett drastically reduced the number of allusions and buried them inside the consciousnesses of his narrators rather than placing them on display as he does here. The story is a fascinating look at a young writer just beginning to find his voice and to emerge from under the immensely powerful influence of the greatest writer of the age.