Ill Seen Ill Said

by Samuel Beckett

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Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 366


“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

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 604

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 same time, she exists in a realm of mental processes which occur without the immediate or obvious stimulus of external phenomena. In effect, the protagonist is less a character, or a woman, than she is an eye. In addition, she is less an eye than she is an instrument of process, even if the process in this case is denoted by its rarity.

A reading which suggests that “she” consists of two disparate zones—one unthinkingly in thrall to the world of things, the other submerged in the world of mind—seems more consistent than one claiming that there is more than one character in Ill Seen Ill Said. Nevertheless, the text does seem to support the latter reading as well. Some of this evidence is provided by the presence of a narrative voice which intermittently interjects advice and encouragement during the course of the narrative. The unexpected prominence of such a presence does not necessarily argue for the existence of what might be called an “independent narrator,” an authority similar to the omniscient narrator of more conventional fictions, but one who has let slip the mask of his omniscience. The manner in which the narrative voice is introduced at the beginning of the work seems calculated to alert the reader to the existence within the text of two different, mutually exclusive subjects. The first considers the realm of phenomena; the second deals with imaginative resources.

The protagonist’s reality, or destiny, is to shift unknowingly from one of these areas to the other in a manner which seems apprehensible only to the reader, not to “she” herself. For her to know the form she inhabits would bring a deceptive certainty and stasis to her condition—deceptive since, in the interests of stability, it would suppress all that can undermine it. Thus the protagonist is a persuasive embodiment of uncertainty and irresolvability, an embodiment of the auxiliary “may,” which needs a verb to achieve itself but which is not deprived of its meaning when standing alone. “She” convinces the reader of the reality of her existence. Near as she is to a condition of finality—death—the protagonist is not there yet and so may exemplify only the antithesis of finality.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 35

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.

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