Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


“She,” an unnamed old woman who lives alone in a stark, unspecified rural area at an indeterminate time. Her body is slowly decaying because of her advancing age, and she is going blind. She spends her days carrying out the most rudimentary of human activities: She does little more than eat, sleep, and stare. Despite or perhaps because of her encroaching blindness, she spends almost all of her time staring. She examines repeatedly the few, rustic items in her small cabin and the slight changes in the harsh, barren landscape surrounding that cabin. She cannot tell whether these changes actually occur or whether they happen because her sight is failing, because they are “ill seen.” Like her eyes and body, her mind also seems to be failing. She cannot remember the beginning of a thought when she arrives at its end, and her thoughts seem almost random. She no longer grasps the most basic notions: She has lost her sense of direction, so that the differences between east and west, and north and south, are meaningless to her; time is not continuous for her but seems to move slowly, quickly, or not at all; she cannot find the center of anything, including the “zone of stones” outside her cabin, “at the inexistent centre of a formless place”; and even sky and earth do not always seem distinct for her. These difficulties lead her to wonder what these notions meant for her when she was healthy. She questions the reality of many of the “opposites” humans posit to orient themselves within their world: good and bad, right and wrong, love and hate, reality and illusion, subject and object, self and other, center and periphery, black and white, and pleasure and pain. She suspects that no one has ever understood precisely the meaning of these words, that they may have no meaning at all, and that they have always been “ill said.” Because she cannot see properly or think properly, however, she has no way of resolving her suspicions. The suspicions themselves are thus misleading; they are simply a waste of time, whatever time might be. She is isolated and without hope. She can only await death.

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The protagonist of Ill Seen Ill Said is, surprisingly for Beckett’s fiction, a woman. Superficially, the protagonist suggests a specific feminine archetype. With her long white hair, black dress, waxen pallor, and remote habitat, “she” appears to be a witch. Nevertheless, such a figure seems to be suggested only in order to help the reader discover that the association is of no interpretive assistance. The inference is that attempts to decode and enlarge upon the protagonist’s existential poverty are misleading. This conclusion seems to be underlined by her lack of other feminine connotations, as suggested by the barrenness of her surroundings and her childlessness. “She” is a woman in order that gender be rendered inconsequential.

The protagonist’s most salient feature, her eye, has nothing to do with her putative femininity. This obdurate organ is what connects her with a perceivable world. It admits light and the objects that light illuminates, and its unflinching operation lends its owner a Cyclopean power and fixity. As in the case of the protagonist’s femininity, however, the nature of the eye is not natural. The connections, facilitated by the optic nerve, between world and thinking mind are nonexistent in this case. Instead of an interaction between perceiver and perceived, Beckett depicts a disjunction between them. The protagonist, therefore, maintains a fidelity to a world which she cannot comprehend—the world of stone. At the...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett: A Biography, 1978.

Ben-Zvi, Linda. Samuel Beckett, 1986.

Coe, Richard N. Beckett, 1964.

Knowlson, James, and John Pilling. Frescoes of the Skull: The Later Prose and Drama of Samuel Beckett, 1980.

Pilling, John. Samuel Beckett, 1976.