Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 810
The world is nearing its end when Clov begins another day. He carefully surveys his employer’s unfurnished living space, then with the aid of a ladder looks out each window. With a single laugh, he seems to sum up what he sees. He then moves on to uncover two trash cans, one at a time, and looks inside each. With a brief laugh once again, he sums up what he sees within and then replaces the lids. He goes to remove the sheet that is covering the man he is caring for, Hamm, who sits in a makeshift wheelchair made of a wooden armchair on casters. Hamm is dressed in a housecoat, socks, a felt hat, and dark glasses to cover his sightless eyes.
Hamm awakens slowly and pulls off the bloodstained handkerchief that has been covering his face. Then, Clov says “it” is nearly finished. Hamm talks briefly to himself, ending his little monologue by saying that it is time to play the game. The two men talk about their daily routines, about each day being filled with the same questions and the same answers.
Clov, although able to stand and walk, is unable to sit down. Through habit, he has learned how to parry Hamm’s orders and insults by talking back and by taking his time about doing as he is told. More than once, Clov threatens to leave Hamm for good, yet he continues the repartee with Hamm until interrupted by Hamm’s father, Nagg, who lifts the lid on his trash can to beg for pap, food that is commonly given to the elderly or to infants.
Nagg pounds on the lid of the other can until his wife, Nell, pokes her head out. He asks her if she wants to make love, but because they are both in trash cans and have no legs, this is quite impossible. From their conversation, it becomes clear that Nagg and Nell lost their legs years earlier in a tandem accident and are now forced to live in the trash cans. Hamm, supposedly trying to sleep, tells his parents to be quiet, yet Nagg rambles on, regaling Nell with a long, involved joke that she has heard from him over and over again.
Tired of listening to them, Hamm orders Clov to “bottle them up.” Clov closes the lids of the trash cans. Hamm then orders Clov to push him on a ride around the room. During the ride, Hamm hugs the walls of his domain. He orders Clov to put him back where he was before, then they argue about whether Hamm is now in the exact center of the room, where he is supposed to be.
Hamm then orders Clov to look out the window to see if anything has changed. Clov reports back that the weather is the same, “light black from pole to pole.” However, a change seems imminent, as Clov feels a flea on his body. Fearing that humanity will start all over again, Hamm and Clov work desperately to kill the flea. Hamm then asks Clov if his dog is near. Like the makeshift wheelchair, the dog is actually a manufactured dog with only three legs. Again, as always, Hamm insists that Clov tell him about the dog’s looks and color.
Nagg, reappearing from his trash can, begins to tell a story about Hamm’s background as his son and how, for the most part, he and Nell ignored him just as Hamm is now doing to them. Hamm then begins to tell his own story, recalling how he was the lordship of a large estate, and how a beggar had come to him begging for food, and how the beggar gave his only son to Hamm. The question of the identity of Clov’s actual father comes up, but without any resolution.
Nagg then raps on the lid of Nell’s trash can and gets no answer. Clov checks on her and announces that she is dead. Nagg slides back down into his trash can and is covered by Clov.
Hamm lapses into a monologue, as Clov continues to keep busy about the room, still threatening to leave. Clov looks out the window again, and this time it seems there might be a change: A small boy may be visible in the distance. Clov delivers a monologue of his own before heading into the kitchen to pack his things. Meanwhile, Hamm settles down to sleep, or to die. Clov comes back into the room and watches silently as Hamm rambles on and on with more stories of his own.
Nagg apparently is still alive, although he remains closed up in his trash can. Hamm sits in his wheelchair, quietly waiting to die, and Clov, dressed and ready to leave, does not depart. Thus ends the game for the day.