Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Watt chronicles the failure of a quest, with Watt as Rational Man or Western Man or Homo sapiens, unable to apprehend the nature of a universe governed by Mr. Knott as an inscrutable God of mysterious unreason who mocks the hearts and maddens the minds of all who seek Him. Watt’s name inevitably suggests the interrogative pronoun, “what,” while Mr. Knott’s name can be regarded as a double pun on “knot” and “not.” Hence, one sees the futility of Watt’s undertaking, as he refuses until its end to admit the knotty Knottness or Gordian Nothingness of his universe.

Watt learns during his Knott servitude that not only his reason and senses but also his language fails him. His syntax breaks down when he tries to tell Sam of the perplexing mystery of his master. He resorts to an anti-language, inverting all of his words into anagrams which, Sam admits, for some time “were devoid of significance for me.” Yet even Watt’s anti-language is systematically organized, for he cannot renounce his rationality and is therefore doomed to madness in the accidental universe delineated in the novel. His mental collapse also constitutes the defeat of Cartesian rationalism, which tries—vainly, Beckett insists—to organize the world into clear and distinct categories. Bearing the Cartesian cross, Watt stumbles pathetically in search of some talismanic meaning for a baffling, epistemologically empty world. He can only fall off the ladder of logic, as he accidentally falls twice in the novel: when Lady McCann stones him, and when two railway employees knock him unconscious as they open the station’s waiting-room door.

Beckett’s novel addresses a theme which resounds in all of his work: the impossibility of certain knowledge, even of the simplest objects, places, and physical phenomena-—let alone of people or of any transcendent purpose. Watt’s journey, without beginning or end, motivation or any other explanation, is a typically Beckettian journey toward ignorance, failure, and chaos.