Article abstract: Poet, playwright, novelist, and critic, Beckett has created a corpus of drama and fiction that has established him as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.
Samuel Barclay Beckett was the second of two sons born, in an outlying district of Dublin, to wealthy, Anglo-Irish, Protestant parents, William and Mary Beckett. William Frank Beckett, Jr., was a self-made businessman who amassed a considerable fortune as a quantity surveyor for builders. He was bluff, robust, and coarse, with a streak of stubborn cruelty which insisted that his sons strain their bodies performing demanding athletic feats. Beckett’s mother, Mary Roe (called “May”), came from a moneyed, leisured background that she defied by working as a nurse in the Dublin hospital where she met her husband-to-be. She was even more forceful and demanding than her husband, with a biting wit, imperious manner, and moody, autocratic temperament. While William often laughed and sported with his boys, May grew increasingly stern, formal, and censorious. She may well have been the model for the troubled, embittered mothers in Beckett’s works.
“I had little talent for happiness,” Beckett recalled of his childhood. “I was often lonely.” True, young Beckett excelled in athletics at the Portora Royal School in Northern Ireland, starring on the cricket and rugby teams, while also playing tennis, swimming, and boxing, but he puzzled his classmates with his aloofness, melancholy, reserve, and sullen rebelliousness; his teasing was often vicious. He followed his brother to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1923, spending his first two years there dabbling at his studies. In his third year, he discovered the charm of modern languages, improved his grades impressively, and took a cycling trip through France, in the summer of 1926, which instilled in him a growing fondness for that nation. In December, 1927, he received his B.A. degree from Trinity with first rank in modern languages. His reward was a two-year exchange lectureship at the distinguished École Normale Supérieure. The École’s exchange scholar at Trinity, Alfred Péron, became his lifelong friend and thawed some of Beckett’s social shyness with his congeniality and popularity.
In Paris, Beckett was introduced to the great Irish expatriate author James Joyce. For years, Joyce served as both a surrogate father to Beckett and his standard for artistic integrity and commitment. Joyce welcomed Beckett into the coterie of willing young men who hunted down obscure references and took direction for their master’s Work in Progress, which was to be published as Finnegans Wake (1939). At Joyce’s urging, Beckett contributed an essay, “Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . . Joyce,” to a 1929 volume devoted to criticism of the novel that would consume sixteen years of Joyce’s life. In 1930, Beckett translated, with Péron, the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section of Work in Progress.
Concurrently, Beckett was seriously studying philosophy, particularly René Descartes. When the Parisian Hours Press offered a prize of one thousand francs for the best poem about time, Beckett wrote, in one night, a ninety-eight-line punning poem, Whoroscope (1930), which described Descartes’ life in an oblique but witty manner that earned for him the prize and his first separate publication.
Whoroscope caused two of Beckett’s friends to suggest him to a London publisher for a short study on Marcel Proust. The resulting monograph, Proust (1931), anticipates several of the themes Beckett would develop in his mature work: love as painful frustration, friendship as largely an illusion, habit as “the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit,” and recognition of “that irremediable solitude to which every human being is condemned.” The text is as much a self-diagnosis of Beckett’s state of mind and heart as it is of Proust’s, stressing the painfulness of life, the unlikelihood of joys, the assuredness of suffering—and turning to art as the only viable consolation.
In December, 1931, Beckett took his M.A. degree from Trinity but became seriously depressed at the prospect of an academic career. He resigned from Trinity in 1932 after only a few months in the classroom, fled to the Continent, and wrote a novel that has remained unpublished, “Dream of Fair to Middling Women.” In June, 1933, his father died of a heart attack, leaving him an annuity of two hundred pounds annually. Beckett spent the next three years in London, writing some poetry and more fiction, maintaining an increasingly angry relationship with his taunting mother (who compared him unfavorably to his successful businessman-brother), and undergoing a two-year Jungian psychoanalysis which he abandoned in 1936.
His collection of ten stories, More Pricks than Kicks (1934), focuses on an indolent young Irishman, Belacqua Shuah, who wanders through Ireland though plagued by bad feet. The collection contains one great story, “Dante and the Lobster,” which concludes with an extraordinarily powerful passage, full of anguished compassion for all living creatures—even a lobster about to be boiled alive by Belacqua’s aunt. Beckett here found his voice and style as a significant writer: language that was precisely controlled, swinging from the colloquial to the cosmic; a tone that altered hilarity with somber despair; and a sad affirmation of pain and injustice as life’s leading realities.
In his late twenties and early thirties, Beckett was a frequently depressed and close-to-impoverished, struggling writer, miserably shuttling between London and Dublin, chafing at the slowness of his analysis, drinking heavily, suffering several breakdowns. Published photographs feature what was to become a famous gaunt, aquiline profile, with a furrowed forehead, sparrowhawk eyes, lined cheeks, and a wide-eyed, anguished stare. What probably saved him from self-destruction was his writing, particularly his first novel, Murphy, on which he worked, off and on, between 1934 and the end of 1937; rejected by forty-one publishers, it was first issued by Routledge in 1938 but received almost no critical attention.
The novel is remarkable for its linguistic dexterity, sophisticated humor, and brilliant fusion of philosophical implications with a fluently propelled narrative. Beckett’s solipsistic protagonist is a prototype of Watt, Moran, Molloy, and Malone. Murphy is a lazy theological student who—like Beckett—has come to London from Ireland. He lives with a kindhearted whore, Celia, who threatens to return to streetwalking unless he finds work. He becomes a mental hospital attendant but spends most of his energy examining his own mind, regarding it, in Cartesian fashion, as containing everything in the universe. Beckett expressed at length in this text the leading themes of his mature work: loneliness, isolation, physical disintegration, mental alienation, creative failure, and the tragic split between mind and body, self and society, with man’s reason a ludicrously inadequate instrument for controlling a world of chance and disorder. Murphy’s mind and body are united only when both are killed in a gas...
(The entire section is 2995 words.)