Samuel Beckett Short Fiction Analysis
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2438
Samuel Beckett does not write short fiction in the tradition of the short story as it has developed in Europe and the United States over the last 150 years. He is not interested in telling a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and there are no trick revelations; nothing is withheld to the last minute that makes everything suddenly clear. He is not interested in social problems, personal confrontations, or the day-to-day eccentricities of modern life. His characters are usually nameless, barely existing in unidentifiable huts and hovels, at no special time, in no special place. If his art is a comment upon the meaningless nature of the human condition, he does not explore that problem sociologically as many writers do but draws the problem into a barren landscape barely inhabited by characters who often do not know who they are, have little—if any—memory, and simply want to die. To die is not an easy thing in Beckett’s world, and to exist is often simply torment. Beckett, in a sense, piles on the agony of late twentieth century unhappiness and meaninglessness by isolating his characters in a symbolic landscape, often with faint echoes of a post-atomic-bomb desert.
His characters are often physically tattered and psychologically distraught, and they can sometimes be so traumatized that they are speechless, but there is always an overriding intelligence present that attempts to shape the situation with precision but often fails in the act. Indeed, Beckett’s short fiction is often about the problem of writing short fiction that involves subjects who are so minimalized, so debased and confined that it is impossible to know what to say about them. On occasion, therefore, his stories are about the act of failing to capture the subjects artistically. This failure can be maddening, particularly for readers with a strong sense of what a short story or novella should be, and it is the first lesson in how to read Beckett. He is not slow to apprehend or unlettered; he knows what is expected of the writer; he has, however, like many contemporary painters, refused to accept the medium as it came to him.
“First Love,” written in 1946, can be helpful because it still uses some of the elements that are expected in short fiction, but it is also ripe with hints of things to come as Beckett works his way toward his ideal of the short story. Written originally in French and titled “Premier amour,” Beckett withheld publication until 1970, and admitted then that he only allowed it to be printed because of the pressure for material caused by the award of the Nobel Prize. Part of his reluctance came, as he admitted, from the fact that it was based in small part on an incident in his own life; as he told the actor Patrick Magee, it no longer mattered in 1970, since the woman had died. This habit of using stray bits of his own life continued to appear throughout his career, but was never very systematically pursued and hard to pin down.
The major character, however, is a much used type that is common in his novels. Nameless, shiftless, unpleasant, and unsanitary in his personal habits with a jaundiced view of humankind and a lively, vulgar way of looking at the world, he is happiest when left alone, able to live on the meagerest of provisions. He looks like a tramp and smells like one; his temperament is depressed, but he is intelligent. He can be very witty, if mordantly so, and he seems, given the arcane allusions that he makes, to be very well read and very well educated.
This story begins with the narrator telling how he was evicted from the family home at the time of his father’s death, how he managed to survive as a tramp, and how he met a woman who took him in and allowed him to occupy a room in her apartment, where she worked occasionally as a prostitute. The woman managed to slip into bed with the narrator who, reluctantly, had sexual relations with her once in a while. She eventually becomes pregnant, and a child is born. The narrator gathers up his rags and leaves, followed down the street by the cries of the child.
In his very early work, Beckett was often a humorous writer, and some of that humor is still present in “First Love.” The narrator, in fact, resembles Murphy, the major character in his 1938 novel Murphy, who also wants to be alone, but he also has the rather unpleasant, nasty streak in him that appears in the leading characters in the Trilogy. Perhaps the story can be seen as a kind of preliminary exercise in the line of stories that are going to become increasingly pessimistic and withdrawn in their exploration of solipsistic life among the homeless, who are often quite satisfied to be so, even if they suffer physically and mentally in the process of surviving completely outside society.
What will be noticed, however, is that the story does not make any point, save from the obvious one that the narrator is not fit for human intercourse and sees no reason to apologize for his preference. There is no trick to the ending; he just goes. Being seduced occasionally is one thing, but having a baby is too much. He is not a bad man, and he is not stupid. He simply wants to be left alone.
Later stories, however, are not quite that easy to understand. Even “First Love” has passages of monologue that have to be reread carefully. Much of the later material, however, must be reread. The stories are often monologues, rambling, discursive, contradictory, muddled in syntax, often denying previous passages, and usually deliberately short on facts. The stories have no names, no place, no time, often no reason for being written. The best way to read them is to understand them straight, in the first reading, in a simple paraphrase, perhaps by making a written précis, step by step. Once what is being said is understood and the sometimes excessive punctuation worked out, the story can be read again, and that will be when the aesthetic power of the story will work. It is, in fact, similar to the way in which much late twentieth century poetry must be read. What is said and in what order one idea leads to another must first be understood; then the artistic virtue of the story (or the poem) can be met; the second reading becomes a kind of aesthetic experience.
“The End,” originally published in French as “La Fin” in 1955 and in English in 1960, still retains some measure of structure and, like “First Love,” makes sense, if oddly so. The point about this work is that it is only “absurd” in the sense that odd things are taking place. They may be improbable but are not impossible, and they have a touch of authenticity, given the debased way in which the characters are living. Beckett, for all his perverseness, often is accurate in his understanding of how humans live on the very lowest level of survival. In “The End,” the major character is, as the character in “First Love” was, thrown out of his room. This time, however, there is no family connection; he seems to have been living in a public institution. The rest of the tale is occupied with his modest adventures, finding shelter, losing it, and ultimately achieving a kind of morbid contentment, hiding in an old boat and dreaming of going down with it. The tale has the short-story structure of beginning, middle, and end, but it is slightly farther away from civilization than “First Love.” Aside from the character passing his son on the street, there is no family connection, and he rejects the tentative friendship offered by an old friend. He so wants to be alone that he cannot tolerate the roar of the sea. Although he has adequate shelter in a cave, he must move on until he finds the comparative silence of the abandoned boat. The mordant Irish humor is still there, and the old man, however disgustingly unsanitary he may be, is not unintelligent. He is the teller of the tale, and it is important in Beckett’s work to remember that his speakers are often quite aware of what is taking place and quite able to comment on it, which is certainly the case in “First Love” and “The End.”
“Imagination Dead Imagine”
This kind of genial absurdity, however, is to give way as the years pass to that other line of deep malevolence and imploded melancholy that has an early place in his art. “Imagination Dead Imagine” (originally entitled “Imagination morte imaginez”), seems to be a snippet from a science-fiction story or from a tale about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. It is tersely written (a mark of Beckett’s work as he became older) by a character who describes the discovery of a small mound-shaped building in the wilderness. He, himself, seems to descend to it from some kind of flying vehicle, which is never described, and he finds inside it a male and a female, side by side in fetal position, alternately assaulted by light and heat, dark and cold. It is written without feeling, as a sort of scientific report, and may be as finely honed a metaphor for the possible aftermath of nuclear disaster as has ever been written, or it may not mean anything at all. Beckett would certainly deny any specific meaning, but his stories often reverberate with ambiguous, multilayered possibilities, which are part of their power.
“All Strange Away”
This story should be read in conjunction with “All Strange Away,” a story that appeared in the 1970’s. “Imagination Dead Imagine” is the last of the Beckett monologues but not the last time that he would reuse ideas and situations. In “All Strange Away,” the immured couple appears again in much the same state as in the previous story, but now the main problem has become how to describe them. The laconic, brisk confidence of the narrator in “Imagination Dead Imagine” has disappeared, and the story is not so much about the couple lying on the floor, but about how to write about them, and it is cluttered with false starts, rejections, and alternatives. It is comparable to seeing all the drafts of a story piled up in frustration to be handed to the reader in place of the finished product. The story, in other words, has become a work in progress, replete with a sense that there is no true way of expressing it.
Over the years, there has been a tendency for Beckett’s prose fictions to become shorter and shorter, despite the occasional description of these materials as novels. If they are “novels,” they are dehydrated ones. “All Strange Away,” however, is going in the opposite direction, opening up the tight bud of “Imagination Dead Imagine,” in a sense, adding further imaginative energy and improvisation to the idea and displaying Beckett’s gift for making an old idea new.
Company, published first in French as Compagnie and then as Company in the same year, 1980, is one of the most successful attempts by Beckett to explore the problem of how to make a work of art about the problem of solipsistic isolation while retaining some measure of narrative structure and tonal tenderness. A man lies on his back in the dark; he is old, immobile, and does not speak, but the narrator, who can enter his mind, makes it clear that he can hear a Voice that is speaking to him, retelling the story of the old man’s life. That Voice is some company to the man, and it in part explains the title of the story, but there is also a suggestion that the narrator may be, in fact, allowing the story of his own life to be narrated. He, the narrator, may be constructing this tale of a Voice telling a tale to an old man in order to keep himself company.
Behind this triple line of shadowy characters is another commentator, who claims to be responsible for everything: He is involved in a kind of constant criticism of the story as it progresses, keeping a wary eye on how well the tale is being related. As a result, the ordinary shape of third-party narration has been breached in order that someone who claims to be the author may enter the artistic object. The question is whether this is the end of it: Is the real author behind this figure?
Beyond this, however, is the story of the old man’s childhood, richly anecdotal and often seen as directly related to Beckett’s own history. Eccentric and somewhat morbid, it possesses, nevertheless, a comic and sometimes elegiac tonality, which is not often seen in his later work, and it draws the starkly symbolic setting of the story into conjunction with the real world, which is suprising this late in his career. Company rewards careful rereading with the best of Beckett’s literary concerns, fusing his concern with composition and structure with the unrelenting symbol of human isolation, relieved ever so slightly by the memory of life before it all goes wrong with age and experience; it is a kind of Wordsworthian absurd.
Beckett never wavered in his commitment to using short fiction as he saw fit rather than complying with its traditions. Fiction in his hands is not simply a comment, in realistic terms, upon life, but an object separate and apart from it, and his fiction is closer to poetry than to the novel. If his fiction is read as an aesthetic experience in which facts are of secondary and sometimes irrelevant concern, then Beckett’s contribution may be understood. It need not make sense, just as nonrepresentational painting, sculpture, or music need not make sense. It is much more difficult to draw language into a nonrepresentational mode than to draw the raw materials of the other arts into simply existing artistic objects, but Beckett, in part, is trying to do just that. He is also trying to say something about the “absurd” nature of twentieth century life. The form and content of a Beckett story make little sense because late twentieth century life makes no sense—that is, it is absurd. The question is whether one can make art out of that conclusion. Beckett’s fictions are attempts to do just that: to make form and content imitate the absurd.