Themes and Meanings
Belacqua Shuah, the prototype for many of Samuel Beckett’s fictional heroes, makes his presence felt initially, in this the opening story of the author’s first book of fiction, by means of a failure. He is unable to understand a passage from canto 2 of Dante’s Paradiso. The story ends with another failure, Belacqua’s misunderstanding of how a lobster is cooked. In the afternoon between these two incidents, typical scenes from what must be regarded as Belacqua’s ordinary life are presented.
In contrast to the stupefaction that accompanies his failures, the demeanor to which Belacqua’s afternoon activities give rise is intense, aggressive, fastidious, and perfectionist. By means of this contrast, the story satirically places activity above thought. Belacqua’s round of time-killing appointments serves to distract him from the abyss of unknowing into which his mind, in its ignorance, can lead him. The vehemence and relish of Belacqua’s encounters with the everyday are astutely and economically dramatized as overstatements. The air of triumph with which Belacqua concludes his business with the story’s various, almost invariably anonymous tradesmen is misplaced and, in any case, ephemeral. The sense of completeness that attends these transactions is spurious, given that they occur between the twin inscrutabilities of Dante and the lobster. Thus, the story can be seen as a comedy of misperceptions and absurdly inflated responses, framed by what the mind cannot grasp (the passage from Dante) and by what it grasps so well that it cannot bear to contemplate (the fact that, to be cooked, lobsters must be boiled alive).
Dante and the lobster are extremes, in the presence of whose reality Belacqua becomes virtually speechless. As though to distract himself from the ineluctability of such extremes, Belacqua creates an extreme of his own, the story’s celebrated Gorgonzola sandwich. The production of this concoction, which it is pleasant to imagine Belacqua uniquely capable of consuming, is a splendid comic set piece. In a way that Beckett’s later work perfects, however, the sandwich ritual’s excruciating humor has a directly conceptual, but obliquely narrational, bearing on the more distressing components of the story’s framework. The tears that the preposterously spiced sandwich bring to Belacqua’s eyes are tears of...
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