Existentialism In Waiting For Godot

How does Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot reflect on the existentialist view of human reality?

Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is generally regarded as a quintessential example of existentialism precisely because of its treatment of the play's titular figure. Godot never appears in the play—forcing readers and playgoers to ask questions like "does Godot actually exist?" Troublingly, no answer is provided by the play, which forces audiences to confront the absurdity of potentially waiting for someone who does not exist.

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Waiting for Godot examines the problem of existentialism in some detail, without ever suggesting a solution. Although "existentialist" is a label applied to a wide range of thinkers, some of whom, such as Camus, rejected it, the philosophy is always concerned with meaning and, more specifically, with the idea that life has no predetermined meaning for us to find. The solution often suggested, with varying degrees of confidence, is that one must decide for oneself the meaning of one's own life.

The characters in the play, however, do not find, decide upon, or create meaning. Vladimir and Estragon wait endlessly for someone who never comes. Lucky babbles incoherently when requested to think. Pozzo falls from a position of dominance and confidence, yet his fall has none of the significance and dignity of tragedy. These actions and attitudes are all failures of meaning.

Beckett, however, adds to existentialism some of the ideas he learned from Proust, on whose work he wrote an incisive critical essay almost twenty years before Waiting for Godot. Proust believed that wisdom cannot be taught. It is the result of a journey through absurdity which no one else can make on your behalf. The audience of Waiting for Godot is presented with absurdity, and it is up the the audience to find the meaning. Some audience members may feel they can interpret and learn from Lucky's speech. Others may decide that the comradeship Vladimir and Estragon find in the face of absurdity is a form of meaning. The very fact that you are sitting and being confronted with words and images will impel your brain, a sense-making machine, to try to bring order to them. This is how Beckett leaves the solution of the existentialist conundrum, the finding of meaning, to each individual member of the audience, making the number of meanings to be found in the play potentially limitless.

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Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot is widely considered the quintessential literary expression of existentialism.  Vladimir and Estragon are waiting endlessly and, conceivably, pointlessly, for an unseen figure named Godot who may or may actually exist.  “Existentialism,” of course, is a thoroughly amorphous concept pertaining to the nature of man and his relationship to the world he inhabits.  It is a relatively new philosophical concept that many critics and analysts feel found its greatest expression in Beckett’s treatment.  One of the central tenets of existentialism is the sense that life is cyclical and what happened before will happen again.  As such, Waiting for Godot presents seemingly endless examples of its two main characters repeating themselves and speaking in circles – the very style and pattern of dialogue that can make Beckett’s play a thoroughly maddening experience if the viewer does not happen to be in the right frame of mind, which would beg the question of why that viewer would be in the audience in the first place.

As noted, Waiting for Godot, depicts two tramp-like figures, Vladimir and Estragon, standing near a tree in an otherwise sparse setting.  Their ostensible purpose for being there is that they are waiting for a character named “Godot.”  They repeatedly refer to Godot in terms that indicate this is a real person:

ESTRAGON:

Charming spot. (He turns, advances to front, halts facing auditorium.) Inspiring prospects. (He turns to Vladimir.) Let's go.

VLADIMIR:

We can't.

ESTRAGON:

Why not?

VLADIMIR:

We're waiting for Godot.

ESTRAGON:

(despairingly). Ah! (Pause.) You're sure it was here?

VLADIMIR:

What?

ESTRAGON:

That we were to wait.

VLADIMIR:

He said by the tree. 

Godot, of course, will never appear.  The question of Godot’s existence is only part of the play, as the visits by Pozzo and Lucky will provide the opportunity for Beckett to inject additional absurdity into his narrative, as when the second visit by these two travelers evokes an increased sense of existential doubt when Pozzo disputes the notion that he had been at this precise spot on the day before, claiming to have lost his sight, with Vladimir and Estragon then engaging in the seminal discussion of whether they exist and how they know they do:

POZZO:

Who are you?

VLADIMIR:

Do you not recognize us?

POZZO:

I am blind.

ESTRAGON:

Perhaps he can see into the future.

VLADIMIR:

Since when?

POZZO:

I used to have wonderful sight— but are you friends?

ESTRAGON:

(laughing noisily). He wants to know if we are friends!

VLADIMIR:

No, he means friends of his.

ESTRAGON:

Well?

VLADIMIR:

We've proved we are, by helping him.

ESTRAGON:

Exactly. Would we have helped him if we weren't his friends?

 Further indication of Beckett’s intent to immerse the audience in an existentialist crisis involves Vladimir and Estragon’s insistence on referring to themselves by different names, specifically, Gogo and Didi, thereby lending the play an additional level of identity uncertainty.  Waiting for Godot is all about the question of existence.  Discussions of the tree near which the two tramps stand for the duration of the play, as when they converse about whether the tree is a tree as opposed to a bush or shrub and, if it is not actually a tree, then are they waiting at the wrong place? 

Existentialism is a fine and legitimate subject of discussion.  Waiting for Godot, however, adopts the basic concept and takes it to its logical conclusion, which can be entertaining, but can also be intellectually stultifying and emotionally arduous. 

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