Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The theme of How It Is is the human being’s quest for the core of selfhood. The discovery of this core—within one of the tins within the sack—would give life meaning. The insoluble problem, however, is that the self is simultaneously an entity and a duality. The fetid landscape of the narrative is the microcosm within which the perceiving self attempts to explore the objective self. The closer the perceiving self’s approach to the objective self, the narrower and more distorted is the perspective. Each time the narrator thinks that he has experienced an insight, he immediately realizes that it will not serve, that something was wrong there.

The novel presents an absurdist view of existence. Because the narrator has consciousness, he is driven to understand “how it is.” Because he never can understand, consciousness affords only mental anguish. The stream-of-consciousness narrative is appropriate to the setting, which is the human mind. The syntactical fragments, the repetitions, and the non sequiturs reflect the fits and starts of the narrator’s journey of perception.

Samuel Beckett’s view of life is unrelentingly pessimistic. Since true self-awareness can never be attained, talk about it (such as the narrator’s rambling talk in this novel) is absurd. Beckett has the final voice in the narrative to cancel all the descriptions of movement that have gone before. All that has been told is negated, but the narrator has been preparing the reader for this conclusion throughout the telling. He repeatedly characterizes speech as merely a brief movement of the lower face, thus trivializing it. Toward the end of the novel, the narrator reflects upon “all we extort and endure from one another from the one to the other inconceivable end of this immeasurable wallow.” If language is futile, is it not better to be silent? If the only end of striving is torment, is it not better to lie quietly, face down in the mud?