Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

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In the course of his career, Beckett’s name has become virtually synonymous with certain themes and with the absence of absolute, definite meanings. Among his themes are the absurdity of human existence, the difficulty (if not impossibility) of communication, the dissonance inevitably produced by attempts to harmonize thought and deed, heart and head. Such themes, together with the author’s predictably mocking misgivings about anything as localized and specific as a theme are once again present in Ill Seen Ill Said. Nevertheless, in the case of an author as philosophically sophisticated and aesthetically adventurous as Beckett, themes are at least as important for the way in which they are presented as for what they say, and may not be abstracted from the work without defacing it.

A preoccupation of Ill Seen Ill Said which forces itself upon the reader with particular emphasis concerns matters of completeness and finality. The novel’s insistence on a closed setting, and on the apparent singularity of its protagonist, does not, paradoxically, negate the depiction of totality. Instead, Beckett sets up an ostensibly self-sustaining presence—the old person engaged in mindless though absorbing routines of time-killing is used here, as elsewhere in both his fiction and drama—which Beckett then proceeds to consider problematically. The noncharacter is a tissue of abstractions, knowable primarily because of its existence within the most minimal dimensions of space and time. Typically, however, Beckett refuses to accept the model’s success and flaws appear: options, choices, changes, needs. Since neither space nor time is necessarily static, there is no justification for equipping their symbolic embodiment with stasis. Without stasis, however, there is imperfection, mutability, failure—the human lot. The protagonist, and indeed the title, of Ill Seen Ill Said are further reminders of Beckett’s lifelong concern with such preoccupations.

It seems difficult, therefore, and also unwise, to elicit definitive meanings from this or any other Beckett text. Yet it should be noted that the work offers a number of approaches to meaning, some more promising than others. There are a number of cultural and intellectual references—to “the rigid Memnon pose,” for example, and to Michelangelo. Such references offer areas of speculation beyond the text and briefly break its claustrophobic enclosure. A numerological interpretation seems possible because of the prominence of the number twelve in the text, and this approach may be associated with the astral traffic vaguely reported as relevant to the protagonist’s outlook. Perhaps, however, the quest for meaning in this or any other Beckett text is most appropriately undertaken with the author’s use of language in mind. Its rhythmic variety and poise, its lexical range, and its spareness all speak eloquently of the novel’s portrayal of the unspeakable, yet communicable, vicissitudes of existence.