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

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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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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