Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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Samuel Beckett’s plays and prose narratives do not so much possess meaning as provoke responses, often of confusion and dismay. The frustration experienced by the reader or listener of Embers derives in large part from Beckett’s unwillingness to satisfy conventional dramatic or philosophical expectations. Like Henry, the listener or reader conceives of drama and human life in Aristotelian terms: exciting, representative, and with meaningful action leading to climax, recognition, and resolution—Henry’s clashing “thuds.” Beckett offers just the opposite. Here, for example, Henry describes putting on his jaegers: “What happened was this, I put them on and then I took them off again and then I put them on again and then I took them off again and then I took [sic] them on again and then I”—at which point his wife Ada asks him where his jaegers are now and Henry admits that he does not know.

Henry’s existence follows the same structural pattern as Beckett’s play: repetition of the same or similar elements ending in ignorance, incompleteness, and above all disappointment (rather than the climax that comes at the end of a causally related sequence of events). As Beckett notes in his early study, Proust (1931), “we are disappointed at the nullity of what we are pleased to call attainment.” The complexity and diversity of meaning which Embers generates derives from Beckett’s permutations of the simplest and most basic elements: father and son, past and present, male and female, fiction and fact, fire (embers) and water (sea), time and space, habit and memory. “All my life,” one Beckett narrator says, “there were three things, the ability to speak, the ability to be silent, and solitude, that’s what I’ve had to make the best of.” That is also what Henry, and Beckett’s audience, have to make the best of.

Henry represents the meeting place of these three conflicting human desires: for speech, for solitude (or silence), and for society. He possesses the need to speak and, subsequently, develops the desire to speak to someone “other” who, by listening, will confirm Henry’s existence. The failure of this other to respond, or to respond as expected, disappoints Henry, but so does all speech other than his own. Consequently he withdraws into his own solipsistic imagination. Even there, however, Henry continues to conceive of speaking as a seeking—despite the fact that his solitude causes him to project the others to whom he speaks and who speak to him. Thus Henry continues his search for meaning and company by paradoxically withdrawing into a world of...

(The entire section is 674 words.)