Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404

Beckett’s Proust is an important critical essay for two reasons. First, it serves as a strong thematic and aesthetic introduction to Proust, focusing on many ideas that the Irishman and the Frenchman share: time and loss, habit and its relationship to time, and the failure of the intellect. Second, it serves as a strong introduction to Beckett’s own canon. At the same time that Beckett explains Proust he takes on Proust, wrestling with the greatest French writer of the early twentieth century, continually redescribing the Proustian universe so that it comes increasingly to resemble his own. The result, as Vera Lee has shown, is that Beckett now and again misreads Proust. For example, Beckett often forces Remembrance of Things Past, which in the final analysis is a work full of affirmation and promise, into a grim, pessimistic interpretation.

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In any case, Proust marks the apex of Beckett’s interest in critical theory. It also marks the first full gesture Beckett made toward articulating his personal aesthetic. Many of the philosophical and aesthetic ideas he discusses in his pages on Proust inform his later work. Waiting for Godot, for example, reveals the boredom of living which Didi and Gogo experience, while its intent is to cast its audience into the suffering of being. Krapp’s Last Tape amorally probes how people are all victims of the past. The Unnamable and How It Is explore the inability to express and assert that one cannot know and cannot be known.

Beckett, then, appropriates many of the obsessions of a modernist writer and transforms them to suit his own early postmodern enterprise. While it is true that Proust dismantled existential illusion after illusion, it is equally true that the culmination of his work is an act of transcendence through the very act of creation. Proust, a quintessential modernist, sought desperately for a metanarrative—an overarching belief system that would shape his life and give it meaning—and he believed that he had found it in art itself. Beckett, on the other hand, in a quintessentially postmodern gesture, never locates a metanarrative. In fact, from his earliest work such as Whoroscope and Proust, he takes a certain dark comic delight in the belief that there are no answers, that there is nothing to express, nothing from which to express, and nothing with which to express—but that there is a need to express the fruitlessness of expression.

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