Study Guide

Waiting for Godot

by Samuel Beckett

Waiting for Godot Summary


Waiting for Godot

Summary of the Play
Waiting for Godot is a play in two acts. Act I begins on a country road by a tree. It is evening. Estragon, an old man, is sitting on a low mound trying to remove his boot. Vladimir, another old man, joins him. They begin to chat.

They have apparently known each other for years. Once perhaps respectable, they are now homeless, debilitated, and often suicidal. They wonder out loud why they did not kill themselves years ago; they consider the possibility of doing it today. They are waiting for someone they call “Godot”. While they wait, they share conversation, food, and memories.

Two other elderly men, Pozzo and Lucky, arrive on the scene. It is clear that Pozzo is the master, and Lucky is the slave. Upon command, the slave dances and thinks out loud for the entertainment of the others, until he is forcibly silenced.

After Lucky and Pozzo depart, a boy arrives. He tells Estragon and Vladimir that Godot will not be there today, but will be there tomorrow. He leaves, and they continue to wait.

The second act is almost the same as the first. The tree has sprouted leaves, Estragon and Vladimir chat while they wait for Godot, and Pozzo and Lucky arrive again. This time, Pozzo is blind and helpless, and Lucky is mute.

After some interaction, Pozzo and Lucky leave, and the boy arrives. He has the same message as before. Godot will be there tomorrow. Estragon and Vladimir are left to wait as before.

The Life and Work of Samuel Beckett
“I have a clear memory of my own fetal existence. It was an existence where no voice, no possible movement could free me from the agony and darkness I was subjected to.” So says Samuel Barclay Beckett who was born on or about Good Friday, April 13, 1906. He was born in Foxrock, a suburb of Dublin, Ireland, in a large house called Cooldrinagh.

Here, in this secluded three story Tudor home, surrounded by acres of gardens, a croquet lawn, stables for his mother’s donkeys and dogs, a hen house, and a tennis court, Beckett and his older brother spent their childhood. High brick walls separated them from the outside world, and ensured them uninterrupted tea parties, piano lessons, and formal dinners.

Their much-loved father took them hiking and swimming. Their mother, against whom Beckett rebelled almost all of his life, took them to church. By the time they were five, the boys were in school. By the time they were 12, they were local tennis champions—aiming all shots at their opponents’ heads.

Before he left for boarding school in 1920, Beckett had already developed into an avid reader. He kept his books on a small shelf above his bed, along with busts of Shakespeare and Dante. At boarding school, he excelled at sports, and received a solid educational foundation. He entered Trinity College (Dublin) in 1923.

There he became an intellectual. He read Descartes, French poetry, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Apollinaire, and discovered the theatre of O’Casey and Pirandello. He was also rebellious and moody. He had a reputation for reckless driving, heavy drinking, and irreverent behavior. In spite of this, he graduated first in his class in 1927 with a major in modern languages.

In preparation for a teaching career at Trinity, Beckett went to France, where he worked with James Joyce, did research on René Descartes, and won a prize for his poem, Whoroscope. He wrote a study on Proust, noting: “We are alone. We cannot know, and we cannot be known;” and “There is no communication because there are no vehicles of communication.”

Living by these words, he resigned from teaching once he received his M.A. degree from Trinity in 1931. He had hated it, and his students characterized him thus: “An exhausted aesthete who all life’s poisonous wines had sipped, and found them rather tedious.”

By the time his father died in 1933, leaving him a small income, Beckett’s character had already been formed. Between bouts with physical and mental illnesses that included flus, colds, aching joints, depression, anxiety, boils, cysts, constipation, insomnia, and glaucoma in both eyes, he would live the rest of his life as a writer.

In the next fifty years he would go on to produce an impressive collection of work in a variety of genres. He created essays, poems, short stories, novels, plays, mime, and film. In 1969, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In December 1989, after too long a stay in “an old crock’s home,” Samuel Beckett died of respiratory failure at the age of 83. Right before he died, he was asked if anything in life was worthwhile. “Precious little,” he replied.

Before attempting to make any sense out of Waiting for Godot, it is necessary to put some things into perspective. When Beckett wrote this play (from October 1948 to January 1949), he was already more than forty years old. Half of his life had passed. He considered himself a novelist who wrote Godot #1 “as a form of relaxation, to get away from the awful prose I was writing at the time.” It was like a game to him, a momentary release from the real work of constructing fiction. It was not the vehicle he would have chosen to make him famous.

However, once it was performed in 1953, it did make him famous. It inspired an abundance of critical comment, explanation and exegesis in a relatively short time. It became a contemporary classic.

Beckett consistently refused to comment on, or explain his work to the public. “My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended) made as fully as possible, and I accept responsibility for nothing else. If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them. And provide their own aspirin.”

Beckett maintained control over his text throughout his life. Originally writing it in French, he translated it for an English-speaking audience, and both translated and directed the German production in 1975. He had it memorized and, when appropriate, changed some of the dialogue and stage direction himself. He wanted to “get it right”, he said. He was not alone in this. Over the years, the material has been scrutinized by experts with their own biases, all trying to get it right.

There is a story in Beckett’s novel, Watt, written in 1942, about a Mr. Ash, who goes to a great deal of trouble to check his watch (one similar to the one that reappears in Pozzo’s pocket) for the exact time. “Seventeen minutes past five exactly, as God is my witness,” he says. However, right at that moment Big Ben, the official clock of Westminster, strikes six. “This in my opinion is the type of all information whatsoever, be it voluntary or solicited,” Beckett’s narrator concludes. If you want a stone, ask a turnover. If you want a turnover, ask plum pudding.”

This story characterizes some of the critics, as well as some of the interpretations of Waiting for Godot. It has been seen as existentialist (depicting man as lost as insecure in a world without God); Marxist (representing man turning away from his capitalist society, and embracing socialism and communism as alternatives to political alienation); Freudian (Vladimir represents the ‘ego’, Estragon represents the ‘id’); and Christian (the play as a parable illustrating man’s need for salvation). Yet, while these theories have some validity, they are all open to debate. They reflect a complex culture but limit understanding of the play. “The great success of Waiting for Godot,” Beckett said, “had arisen from a misunderstanding: critic and public alike were busy interpreting in allegorical or symbolic terms a play which strove at all costs to avoid definition.”

The inspiration for Godot may be found in the work of the late nineteenth-century symbolist playwrights. A description of symbolist drama, written by Remy de Gourmont in 1895, (which was also referred to as “static drama”), seems to have some relevance:

Hidden in mist somewhere there is an island, and on that island there is a castle, and in that castle there is a great room lit by a little lamp. And in that room people are waiting. Waiting for what? They don’t know! They’re waiting for someone to open the door, waiting for their lamp to go out, waiting for Fear and Death. They talk. Yes, they speak words that shatter the silence of the moment. And then they listen again, leaving their sentences unfinished, their gesture uncomplicated. They are listening. They are waiting. Will she come perhaps, or won’t she? Yes, she will come; she always comes. But it is late, and she will not come perhaps until tomorrow. The people collected under that little lamp in that great room have, nevertheless, begun to smile; they still have hope. Then there is a knock - a ‘knock’ and that is all there is: And it is Life Complete, All of Life.

While it may be helpful to examine the roots of Beckett’s work, it is also necessary to mention that a new category was invented by critics of the fifties and sixties to house Waiting for Godot. This category, Theater of the Absurd, was used to describe the new kind of theater that Beckett represented. While Martin Esslin defined it as “striving to express its sense of the senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach by the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought,” other critics had their own interpretations. They characterized it as having absurd dialogue, characters and situations. It included the work of dramatists as diverse as Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee and Eugene Ionesco.

Some critics referred to Eugene Ionesco as the Grand Master of the Theater of the Absurd. His play, The Bald Soprano, produced in Paris three years before Waiting for Godot, ran for twenty years and was the first example of the “anti-theater theater.” Although it seemed to follow the outline for light comedy by using a drawing room setting, it quickly transformed the clichéd dialogue of two model British families into madness and hysteria. This was absurdity in its typical sense, as hilarious farce.

This was not the kind of absurdity represented by Beckett, whose work was characterized by despair and deprivation. His work more closely resembles Camus’ idea of the Absurd in The Myth of Sisyphus. Beckett’s characters live in a world that no longer makes sense, that has no God, and offers no easy answers or solutions. Godot never comes. Kierkegaard (1813-1835), in a more Christian sense, labeled this Despair.

Ionesco once remarked, “I started writing for the theater because I hated it.” Beckett’s thoughts went even deeper. In his novel, Molloy, his character states, “You would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till all is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what it is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery.”

Ionesco made every attempt to explain himself and his work to the public. Beckett did just the opposite. He resisted the impulse to explain or categorize his material. In fact, he abhorred all attempts to do so. He wanted form and content to remain inseparable, and the reading or experience of his work to speak for itself.

Although he attempted to be silent on the subject of his own work, agreeing with the French poet Baudelaire (1821-1867), about “the devastating vanity and uselessness of explaining anything to anyone,” Beckett wrote literary criticism. Initially, he did it for the money, and toyed with the idea of making it a career. His essay on Joyce for Our Exagmination, his book on Proust, and his reviews for the Bookman and the Criterion, were all commissioned.

After 1934, however, Beckett’s criticism became more personal. He wrote in defense of friends and fellow artists who were unjustly attacked or ignored. At one point, railing against the idea that art has a primary duty to be clear and accessible, Beckett wrote: “The time is not perhaps altogether too green for the vile suggestion that art has nothing to do with clarity, does not dabble in the clear and does not make clear.”

In his essay on Joyce, Beckett wrote “no language is so sophisticated as English—it is abstracted to death,” and claimed that the public’s inability to understand information stems from being “too decadent to receive it.” In another instance, he attacked the average reader by writing, “This rapid skimming and absorption of the scant cream of sense is made possible by what I may call a continuous process of copious intellectual salivation.”

The essay on Proust was Beckett’s critical masterpiece. In it he establishes his own basic philosophy about the inability to understand experience because of the dearth of methods for expression. He blames this on Time (“that double-headed monster of damnation and salvation”), Memory (“yesterday has deformed us or been deformed by us”), and Habit (“the ballast that chains a dog to his vomit”).

Throughout his life, Samuel Beckett also wrote poetry. In 1930, he received first prize in a contest conducted by the Hours Press for his 98 line poem Whoroscope. This poem was based on the life of René Descartes (1596-1650), a French philosopher and mathematician. Although it was praised for its swift and witty language, the poem was difficult to interpret. Beckett was asked to provide explanatory footnotes for it, which he did. Clearly, at that point in his life, he was compliant.

He continued to write poetry through the 1930s and 1940s in both English and French. Then, in 1974, after a break of twenty-five years, he began to publish poetry again.

Before, during, and after Waiting for Godot, Beckett wrote novels. His first published novel Murphy (1938), was one of grotesque but comic action, and included characters such as Miss Rosie Dew, Miss Carridge, Augustus Tinklepenny, Bim and Bom, Dr. Killiecrankie, and Murphy, who takes a job at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat. At the end of the novel, Murphy dies accidentally. Although his last request is to be cremated and have his ashes flushed down the toilet of the Abbey Theater, they remain scattered on the floor of a saloon.

From 1942 to 1944, while living in Roussillon, Beckett wrote Watt, which included veiled autobiographical accounts of his life. The main character is a patient in an asylum, who dictates his story to a fellow patient in a confusing language with a distorted chronology. A note in the addendum of Watt gives a sense of Beckett’s paradoxical humour. “The following precious and illuminating material should be carefully studied. Only fatigue and disgust prevented its incorporation.”

Watt was not designed for a postwar public’s reading pleasure. It did not get published until 1953, and it was immediately banned in Ireland. This did not prevent Beckett, the novelist, from continuing on. His next novel was Molloy (1947), the first of a trilogy that was to include Malone meurt and L’Innommable.

Molloy is presented in two phases with two stories—one about Molloy, and the other about Moran. Both characters suffer from paralysis. When Molloy speaks, it is difficult to know whether events are real or imagined. Boundaries between his conscious and unconscious mind are blurred. When Moran speaks, everything he says is immediately cancelled, and nothing that happens is to be believed. This novel was referred to by critics as an “epic of the absurd,” taking place in a “void” and outlining disintegration—of the heroes, of time, and of life.

Malone meurt was the book Beckett was writing in 1948 when he took his break and created Godot. Apparently Beckett’s friends and family were worried that the introductory sentences in this novel, “I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all. Perhaps next month,” applied to Beckett himself. They insisted that he stop writing and rest. Whether or not he was heeding their advice, he did humor himself by writing Godot, “to get away from the awful prose I was writing at the time.”

Critics assumed that the philosophical underpinnings of Malone meurt were from the writings of Descartes (1596-1650), who wrote about the supposed split between the physical/mechanical and the mental/spiritual universes. There was also the influence of Geulinex (1624-1669), who wrote “Where you are worth nothing, there you should want nothing;” and Berkeley (1685-1753), who said there is no reality except in the mind.

Beckett, as usual, responded by claiming, “I don’t know where the writing comes from and I am often quite surprised when I see what I have committed to paper.”

His novels end with failure or death, the concept of “lessness is part of them”. They become more and more difficult to follow as the humor is engulfed by tragedy, and the language is used to imitate what is being narrated. When Malone dies, his pencil finally gives out along with his consciousness:

or with it or with his hammer or with his stick or with his
fist or in thought in dream I mean never he will never
or with his pencil or with his stick or
or light light I mean
never there he will never
never anything
any more

The last book of the trilogy, L’Innommable, completed in 1950, begins with a character who is neither male nor female, has no nose, and cannot move. All it does is sit in a jar with its hands on its knees, narrating a story which ends with the paradox, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

After the success of Waiting for Godot, Beckett wrote more plays. “The best possible play is one in which there are no actors, only the text. I’m trying to think of a way to write one,” he said.

True to his word, he attempted to eliminate his characters. While Waiting for Godot had five actors, Endgame (1958) had only four. One character was dying, and two others were consigned to ashcans. The stage poem, “Play” (1964), was down to three performers, all stashed away in funereal urns. Happy Days (1961) had a woman buried to her waist and then her head in sand. Her husband remained invisible until he crawled out of his hole to say hello.

Krapp’s Last Tape (1960) was a monologue with a single actor. Breath, first performed in 1969, had entirely buried its protagonist in a pile of garbage or expelled him to the wings. Even that was too much for Beckett, who then reverted to body parts. In Not I (1972), there is nothing but a blackened stage and a lit-up pair of lips.

Estimated Reading Time

The play is in two acts, and it is about 100 pages long. The entire play can be read in less than two hours. The material requires more than one reading, and students should be patient with themselves and their ability to absorb its meaning. This is not an easy play; scholars have been dissecting it for years.

It is suggested that the play be read straight through the first time, in order to get a sense of the characters, the dialogue, and the concentric action.

Although it can be read silently, it may be helpful to stop at various points and read sections out loud. This will Breathe life into the characters and center attention on the sound of the language. The monologues lend themselves to this kind of reading, but students should select sections based on their individual preferences, learning styles and background knowledge. If possible, students should work cooperatively with others and participate in a series of oral readings.

Videotapes and audiotapes are available at public libraries for various productions of Waiting for Godot. It is strongly suggested that you make use of these additional resources.

This summary is based on the Third Printing, 1978, by Grove Press, of The Collected Works of Samuel Beckett — Waiting for Godot.

The subdivisions for Act I (A-1 to A-6) and Act II (B-1 to B-5) are based on the Regiebuch, a detailed director’s prompt book, written by Samuel Beckett as Director of the 1975 German production of Warten auf Godot.

In 1975, Samuel Beckett directed the German production, Warten auf Godot, at the Schiller Theater. For this occasion, “To give form to the confusion,” he divided the play into eleven sections. These divisions served as a guide to the play’s structure.

The format of this MAXnotes guide follows Beckett’s outline. His Regiebuch, the guide for the German production, divides the play into the following sections:

A-1: Opening of Act I to “People are bloody ignorant apes.”
A-2: Estragon’s inspection (“Rises painfully…”) to entry of Pozzo and Lucky.
A-3: The entrance of Pozzo and Lucky until Pozzo sits.
A-4: From Pozzo sitting down to Pozzo: “My memory is defective.”
A-5: Estragon: “In the meantime nothing happens.” to the exit of Pozzo and Lucky.
A-6: Exit of Pozzo and Lucky to end of Act I.
B-1: Opening of Act II to Vladimir: “Ah! Que voulez-vous. Exactly.”
B-2: Estragon: “That wasn’t such a bad little canter.” to the entry of Pozzo and Lucky.
B-3: Entry of Pozzo and Lucky to Vladimir: “We are men.”
B-4: Estragon: “Sweet mother earth!” to exit of Pozzo and Lucky.
B-5: Exit of Pozzo and Lucky to end of Act II.

Waiting for Godot Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Estragon tries to take off his boot but fails. Vladimir agrees with him that it sometimes appears that there is nothing one could do. They are glad to be reunited after a night apart. With Vladimir’s help, Estragon succeeds in removing his boot, which was causing him pain. Vladimir, also in pain, cannot laugh in comfort; he tries smiling instead, but it is not satisfactory.

Vladimir muses on the one Gospel account that says Christ saved one of the thieves. Estragon wants to leave, but they cannot leave because they are waiting for Godot. They become confused about the arrangements and wonder if they are waiting at the right time, in the right place, and on the right day. They quarrel briefly but then, as always, they reconcile.

Estragon and Vladimir consider hanging themselves from the nearby tree but decide that it would be safer to do nothing until they hear what Godot says. They do not know what they have asked Godot for. They conclude that they have forgone their rights. Vladimir gives Estragon a carrot, which he eats hungrily. They decide that although they are not bound to Godot, they are in fact unable to act.

Pozzo enters, driving Lucky, who is laden with luggage, by a rope around his neck. Estragon and Vladimir mistake Pozzo for Godot but accept him as Pozzo. Although he attempts to intimidate them, he is glad of their company. After ordering Lucky to bring him his stool and his coat, Pozzo gives Lucky the whip. Lucky obeys automatically. Vladimir and Estragon protest violently against Pozzo’s treatment of Lucky, but Pozzo deflects their outburst and the subject is dropped.

After smoking a pipe, Pozzo rises. He then decides he does not want to leave, but his pride almost prevents him from reseating himself. The tramps want to know why Lucky never puts down the luggage. Pozzo says that Lucky is trying to make Pozzo keep him. When Pozzo adds that he would sell Lucky rather than throw him out, Lucky weeps. Estragon tries to dry the servant’s tears, but Lucky kicks him away; Estragon then weeps. Pozzo philosophizes on this and says that Lucky has taught him all the beautiful things he knows but that the fellow has now become unbearable and is driving him mad. Estragon and Vladimir then abuse Lucky for mistreating his master.

Pozzo breaks into a monologue on the twilight, alternating between the lyrical and the commonplace and ending with the bitter thought that everything happens in the world when one is least prepared. He decides to reward Estragon and Vladimir for praising him by making Lucky entertain them. Lucky executes a feeble dance that Estragon mocks but fails to imitate.

Estragon states that there have been no arrivals, no departures, and no action, and that everything is terrible. Pozzo next decides that Lucky should think for them. For this Vladimir replaces Lucky’s derby hat. Lucky’s thoughts are an incoherent flood of words resembling a dissertation on the possible goodness of God, the tortures of hellfire, the prevalence of sport, and the vacuity of suburbs. The words desperately upset Lucky’s listeners, who attack him and silence him by seizing his hat. Having restored Lucky to his position as carrier, Pozzo and the tramps say many farewells before Pozzo and Lucky finally leave.

The Boy calls to Vladimir and Estragon. He brings a message from Godot, who will come the next evening. The Boy, a goatherd, says that Godot is kind to him, but he beats the Boy’s brother, a shepherd. Vladimir asks the Boy to tell Godot only that he has seen them.

By the time the Boy leaves, night has fallen. Estragon decides to abandon his boots to someone else. Vladimir protests, and Estragon says that Christ went barefoot. Once again they consider and reject the idea of separating. They decide to leave for the night, but they stay where they are.

The following evening, the boots are still there and the tree has grown some leaves. The tramps have spent the night separately. Vladimir returns first. When Estragon comes back, he says that he has been beaten again, and Vladimir feels that he could have prevented such cruelty. Vladimir begins to talk of the previous day, but Estragon can remember nothing about it except for his being kicked. They are then overwhelmed by the thought of the whispering voices of the dead around them. They try to break their silence but succeed only in part. By a great effort, Estragon recalls that he and the others spent the previous day chattering inanities. He reflects that they have spent fifty years doing no more than that.

They discover that the boots left behind by Estragon have been exchanged for another old pair. After finding Lucky’s hat, which assures them that they have returned to the right place, they start a wild exchange of that hat and their two hats, shifting them from hand to hand. Finally Vladimir keeps Lucky’s hat and Estragon keeps his own.

Once more Estragon decides to leave. To distract him, Vladimir suggests that they “play” Pozzo and Lucky. Puzzled, Estragon leaves, but he returns almost immediately because some people are coming. Vladimir is jubilant, convinced that Godot is arriving. They try to hide, but there is nowhere for them to go. Finally Lucky enters with Pozzo, who is now blind. Lucky falls and drags Pozzo down with him. Pozzo cries for help, and Vladimir passionately wishes to act while he has the opportunity to do one good thing as a member of the human race, a species that appalls him. Pozzo is terrified, and Vladimir also falls in his attempts to raise him. Estragon falls too while trying to lift Vladimir. As Estragon and Vladimir fight and argue on the ground, they call Pozzo “Cain” and “Abel.” When he responds to both names they conclude that he is all of humanity. Suddenly they get up without difficulty.

Pozzo prepares to leave, but Vladimir wants Lucky to sing first. Pozzo explains that Lucky is dumb. Estragon and Vladimir want to know when he was afflicted, and Pozzo, angry, says that all their lives are merely momentary and time does not matter. He leaves with Lucky.

While Estragon sleeps, the Boy enters to say that Godot will come, not that night but the next. The message for Godot is that the Boy has seen Vladimir. The Boy leaves, and Estragon awakes. He immediately wants to leave, but Vladimir insists that they cannot go far because they must return the next night in order to wait for Godot, who will punish them if they do not wait.

Estragon and Vladimir remark that only the tree in the landscape is alive, and they consider hanging themselves again. Instead, they decide that if Godot does not come to save them the next night, they will hang themselves. At last the tramps decide to go, but they remain immobile.

Waiting for Godot Summary (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Waiting for Godot is an unremitting picture of despair and futility. It established a new direction for modern theater and made Samuel Beckett one of the foremost dramatists of that new trend in theater. In each act, two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, longtime friends, appear at twilight on a desolate country road in the middle of nowhere to wait for an obscure figure named Godot, whom they have never seen, but whom they believe will rescue them from their otherwise empty and banal lives. The play may be understood as a metaphor for the human condition in the modern world.

Designed to cope with the banality and emptiness of their lives, this behavior is ritualistic. Every day they return to the same place to wait for the mysterious Godot. To pass the time and to fill the emptiness, they engage in comic banter and vaudevillian shtick. In act 1, just as the two tramps discuss whether they are tied to each other, this place, and to Godot, two others, Pozzo and Lucky, arrive, tied together by a long rope. Their arrival provides a grotesquely comic interlude that dramatizes the tramps’ condition. Bound together and inseparable, Pozzo and Lucky share a common fate: Neither can do without the other. Metaphysically, all these “ties” represent the desperation of humans bound to a meaningless existence they cannot abandon. Figuratively speaking, the tramps are at the end of their rope.

Aware that language has failed them, their thinking is disorganized and fragmented, their memories inconsistent and unreliable, and their lives insignificant and absurd, the tramps struggle to find a reason to go on living. Their lives are reduced to the barest essentials: They own nothing, eat only carrots and turnips, sleep in ditches, and wear frayed and worn-out clothing. Although Godot has never come, they continue to wait. The two acts appear to repeat themselves: The tramps arrive and engage in various banters; Pozzo and Lucky appear; and at the end of each act, a boy materializes, a messenger from Godot but never the same boy. As the curtain closes in both acts, the tramps announce their intention to leave but do not move.

Despite the apparent repetition, significant differences define the two acts. In act 1, Vladimir, optimistically, and Estragon, cynically, wait for Godot. When Pozzo and Lucky, tied to each other with a long rope, arrive instead, the tramps, desperate to believe that Godot has arrived, confuse Pozzo with Godot. Amused by their misidentification, Pozzo denies he is Godot. Nonetheless, the tramps see in them an opportunity for diversion and for company. Gregarious, pompous, and somewhat formidable, Pozzo tells them they are trespassing on his land. In direct contrast, Lucky, his degenerate slave, is completely submissive. Devoid of human expression, obsequious, and pitiful, he cannot speak unless prompted by Pozzo. In sympathy, the tramps ask Pozzo to make Lucky speak. At Pozzo’s command, Lucky begins an incomprehensible speech filled with fragmentary and oblique references to academic issues, history, and the Bible. Gradually his speech increases in tempo and finally dissolves into incoherent phrases and words. The others, totally frustrated by what sounds like the ravings of a madman, silence him by knocking him down and physically restraining him. When Pozzo and Lucky depart, the tramps are alone again to face the reality that Godot has not arrived. While they are in the pit of their despair, a boy messenger arrives and announces that Godot will not come today but surely tomorrow. Disillusioned and frustrated by the fact that they have heard all this before, the tramps declare their intention to leave. The curtain comes down, but the tramps do not move.

In act 2, some slight but significant changes occur. The tree has sprouted a few leaves, Pozzo is blind, Lucky is dumb, the boy messenger claims he is not the same boy who appeared yesterday, and Vladimir’s optimism is shattered. As a result, he staggers under the weight of the hopelessness of their situation, whereas Estragon’s cynicism is confirmed.

In structuring the play in two acts, Beckett was influenced by Saint Augustine’s remark: Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned. Fascinated by their symmetry, Beckett borrows the structure for Waiting for Godot. Act 1 builds on a slight, but perceptible, movement toward hope. Act 2, on the other hand, moves from guarded optimism to despair. To Vladimir, the fact that the tree has grown leaves is a sign of hope. However, this hope is destroyed when Pozzo turns up blind and Lucky dumb, and a new messenger arrives denying he appeared previously. Frustrated and exhausted by his struggle to maintain hope and to make sense out of these events, Vladimir reaches a level of despair not seen before. He questions whether life has meaning, and more frantically, whether meaning is possible. Like Estragon, he entertains the thought that he can no longer endure his life. Throughout the two acts, he has attempted to convince Estragon and himself that salvation is possible. By the end of act 2, that hope has faded.

Waiting for Godot Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Arguably, Waiting for Godot provides an optimum point of entry not only into Beckett’s enigmatic body of mature work but also into the antirational theater that emerged on the European continent during the decade following World War II, permanently altering the expectations of spectators (and playwrights) all over the world. In Beckett’s first performed and published play, as in contemporary (but quite different) plays by Eugène Ionesco, Arthur Adamov, Max Frisch, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, plot is all but discarded as a necessary element of drama, the tension residing instead in metaphysical concerns and in interaction (or noninteraction) among the characters.

The play is set on a desolate roadside, requiring little in the way of scenery. Two aging tramps, Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo), reminiscent of the film comics Laurel and Hardy gone to seed, exchange desultory conversation as they wait for the arrival of a man called Godot, who in fact never appears. Vladimir, like Laurel, is spare of build; Estragon, like Oliver Hardy, considerably stouter. “Nothing to be done,” says Estragon in the play’s first line, which in fact summarizes all the ensuing dialogue and action, although Estragon, at that moment, refers only to the act of taking off his shoes. Beckett’s lines, even when translated into English from the original French, tend thus to send ambivalent messages and meanings that continue to reverberate long after the curtain falls. Like most of Beckett’s marginal characters in both plays and fiction, Didi and Gogo, as they address each other with childlike nicknames, have obviously known far better days; both are well educated, as their dialogue soon makes clear, yet education proves to be of little help in their current predicament.

Shot through with philosophical speculations and learned references to Holy Scripture, the prolonged interchanges between the two tramps have prompted many commentators to find in the play religious overtones that may or may not have been intended; more to the point, it seems, is the simple act of waiting, and the basically human instinct to talk (or keep busy or both) in order to stave off boredom.

Divided into two approximately equal acts, the action of Waiting for Godot twice relieves Vladimir and Estragon of boredom through encounters with two additional characters, the arrogant, autocratic Pozzo and his mute (or at least tongue-tied) manservant Lucky, attached to Pozzo’s body with a rope. Pozzo, like Estragon, is portly of build; Lucky, like Vladimir, is almost painfully thin. All four of the main characters are well past middle age, with ailments and impediments to suit. Pozzo, a caricature of the self-important rich man, will have lost his sight between his first and second encounters with the tramps; Lucky, although mute, will suddenly deliver himself, toward the end of act 1, of a learned but incomprehensible monologue that, for later generations of spectators, would recall the printouts of an ill-programmed computer gone berserk.

Apparently unexpected and quite unpredictable, Waiting for Godot would soon achieve landmark status in the history of Western drama, drawing upon the familiar (stock characters from silent film or British music hall, bowler-hatted and stiff-gaited), yet leading toward unexplored territory, in concept as well as in location. Still contemplating suicide, as they have more than once in the past, Vladimir and Estragon decide to leave because Godot has yet to show himself. As the curtain falls, however, they are both still in place, waiting.

Waiting for Godot Act Summary and Analysis

Act I, Section A-1: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Estragon: (Gogo): half tramp, half clown, ex-poet, well over 50 years old; has sore feet, limps

Vladimir (Didi): once respectable friend of Gogo’s; protective but domineering; walks with short stiff strides and legs apart; has bladder pain

The play opens on a country road with a bare tree. It is evening. Estragon is sitting on a low mound, trying to remove his boot. “Nothing to be done,” he says, as Vladimir approaches.

They greet each other as before. They have been apart, at least for the night, and Estragon tells of having been beaten by strangers in a ditch. Vladimir reminds himself of the burden of caring for Estragon. Suicide seems...

(The entire section is 1202 words.)

Act I, Section A-2: Summary and Analysis

Estragon gets up from the mound. He is in pain. He limps around and wants to leave. Vladimir reminds him that they must stay and wait for Godot. Estragon is not sure that they are waiting in the right spot or on the right day. Vladimir examines the spot, points out the tree as the landmark, but gets confused about the day.

Estragon naps on the mound. Vladimir paces, then wakes him. “I felt lonely,” Vladimir says. Estragon wants to share his dream, but Vladimir resists. They argue, then embrace.

The idea of suicide seems to appeal to both of them. They chat about the possibility of hanging themselves from the tree. “It’d give us an erection,” Vladimir says. “Let’s hang...

(The entire section is 964 words.)

Act I, Section A-3: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Lucky: male, looks very old and tired; has long gray hair and bulging eyes; his neck has running sores caused by the rope that is tied around it; once a great dancer and thinker, he now serves as Pozzo’s slave; carries Pozzo’s things and responds to his commands; has a temper that he uses against Estragon, and cries easily

Pozzo: gentleman landowner; bald and old; commanding presence; sadistic owner of Lucky; occasionally wears glasses, smokes a pipe

Lucky enters with a rope around his neck. He is carrying “a heavy bag, a folding stool, a picnic basket and a greatcoat.” Behind him, jerking the end of the long rope, is Pozzo. He is cracking a whip and yelling...

(The entire section is 749 words.)

Act I, Section A-4: Summary and Analysis

Lucky goes back to his spot. Pozzo opens the basket, removes the chicken and wine, and starts eating.

Vladimir and Estragon takes a closer look at Lucky. They inspect his face and the sores on his neck. They wonder out loud whether he is “a halfwit” or “a cretin.”

Estragon wants the chicken bones Pozzo’s thrown on the ground. He is told to ask Lucky for permission to eat them. When Lucky ignores him, Pozzo grants him permission to eat them.

While Pozzo smokes his pipe, Vladimir and Estragon complain about the “disgrace” of Lucky’s treatment. They decide to leave. However, Pozzo reminds them about their appointment with Godot. He does not want them to go; he...

(The entire section is 971 words.)

Act I, Section A-5: Summary and Analysis

Pozzo wants to repay Estragon and Vladimir for being “civil” to him. Although Estragon suggests money, Pozzo offers entertainment.

He proposes that Lucky dance, sing, recite, or think for them. Estragon suggests that Lucky first dance, then think. On command, Lucky puts down his bags and dances the same step twice.

Although this attempt proves disappointing, Vladimir wants to hear Lucky think. Pozzo insists that Vladimir return Lucky’s hat to his head in order to get him to perform. Once this task is accomplished, Pozzo commands, “Think, pig!”

Lucky does so. He shouts out a litany of remarks. At long last, Vladimir grabs his hat. Lucky falls and is finally silent....

(The entire section is 806 words.)

Act I, Section A-6: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
Boy: delivers messages for Godot and takes care of his goats; somewhat fearful and shy

Estragon wants to leave. Vladimir reminds him that they must wait for Godot. A boy arrives with a message from Godot. Before he has a chance to continue, Estragon grabs him and shakes him. Vladimir intervenes.

Estragon admits that he is “unhappy,” but doesn’t remember why. He manages to limp to his mound, sit down, and remove his boots.

Finally, the boy blurts out the message. “He tells them that Godot will not come this evening but surely tomorrow.”

Vladimir questions the boy about his job, his brother, and his relationship with Godot. The...

(The entire section is 445 words.)

Act II, Section B-1: Summary and Analysis

It is the next day, the same time, the same place. Estragon’s boots are where he left them, “heels together, toes splayed.” The tree has a few leaves.

Vladimir enters and sings a song. Estragon arrives, barefoot and unhappy. They greet each other and embrace. Vladimir’s singing made Estragon feel unwanted. “He’s all alone, he thinks I’m gone forever, and he sings.”

Vladimir tries to explain his mood, but can’t. Estragon’s been beaten again, this time by “ten of them.” Vladimir is reminded of Estragon’s dependence on him. They agree to say to each other, “We are happy.”

Vladimir remembers “yesterday,” the tree, Pozzo and Lucky, the scenery....

(The entire section is 697 words.)

Act II , Section B-2: Summary and Analysis

Vladimir talks about what just occurred. He notices how the tree has changed. The tree was bare and black and now it is covered with leaves.

He tries to remind Estragon of the encounter with Pozzo and Lucky. He succeeds in finding Estragon’s wound. Then he sees Estragon’s boots. Estragon insists they are not his.

Estragon is tired and wants to leave. Vladimir reminds him about Godot.

This time, the only food in Vladimir’s pocket is a black radish and turnips. He offers to go find carrots, but he does not move.

Vladimir puts the boots on Estragon’s feet. They are loose but fit. Estragon sits on his mound and tries to sleep while Vladimir sings. At first,...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Act II, Section B-3: Summary and Analysis

Pozzo and Lucky enter. Pozzo is now blind. Otherwise they seem the same. The rope is shorter than before and seems to be pulling Pozzo; the other trappings are the same. As they enter, Pozzo bumps into Lucky, and they both fall.

Vladimir recognizes Pozzo; Estragon thinks he is Godot. Although Pozzo asks for help again and again, his pleas are ignored.

Estragon and Vladimir discuss the situation. Vladimir philosophizes about this-and-that. Estragon concludes, “We are all born mad. Some remain so.”

Pozzo offers to pay for help. Vladimir finally attempts to pull him up, but fails. Estragon threatens to leave. Someone farts. Estragon tries to help Vladimir up, but he also...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

Act II, Section B-4: Summary and Analysis

Pozzo crawls away but remains down. Vladimir, is afraid Pozzo is dying. Estragon responds by amusing himself. He calls Pozzo, “Abel,” and Lucky, “Cain.” Then he ponders a cloud.

Vladimir and Estragon decide to pass the time by helping Pozzo. Once up, Pozzo tells them he is blind. They carry him around for a while, then release him. Pozzo has lost his sense of time, and wants to locate Lucky. “Where is my menial?” he asks.

Vladimir suggests this is Estragon’s chance to get back at Lucky for kicking him. Lucky is down, and Estragon can revive him by following Pozzo’s suggestions of pulling the rope or giving him “a taste of his boot, in the face and the privates....”...

(The entire section is 784 words.)

Act II, Section B-5: Summary and Analysis

Vladimir and Estragon are alone. Vladimir awakens Estragon,does not want to hear his dream, and wonders about Pozzo’s blindness. Estragon again asks if Pozzo was Godot.

Estragon’s feet hurt. Vladimir ponders the “truth” of what happened, and what will continue to happen.

The boy enters. He doesn’t recognize Vladimir and doesn’t remember being there before. Vladimir knows the message by heart. He says it for the boy. He asks the boy about his brother. “He’s sick, Sir,” the boy says. Vladimir asks if Godot has a beard, if it’s “fair” or “black.” The boy replies, “I think it’s white, Sir.”

Again, the boy wants to know what to tell Godot. “Tell...

(The entire section is 1039 words.)