Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5546
Beckett, Samuel 1906–
Nobel Prize-winning playwright and novelist, Beckett is a transplanted Dubliner who has lived in Paris since 1937 and has written almost exclusively in French. His absurdist comedy focuses on solitude, silence, meaninglessness, and despair. Waiting for Godot is his best-known work. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Even though Samuel Beckett as a dramatist has frequently taken critical precedence over Beckett as a novelist, it is in his six novels that his originality is demonstrated; the plays merely add a footnote to what the novels indicate with greater range and force. The plays themselves—Waiting For Godot, Endgame, Krapp's Last Tape, Act Without Words, for example—are fragments of the novels, episodes submerged in the larger context. The real Beckett—if one presumes to define him—is the novelist who almost arbitrarily broke off segments of his fiction and labeled them tragicomedies, monologues, mimes, et al….
Beckett is a Joyce gone completely sour, a Joyce who went underground after Ulysses. Had Stephen Dedalus failed at everything he tried and consequently become a bum, a tramp, or an aimless writer, he might have fitted into one of Beckett's novels, nearly all of whose protagonists are writers chronicling their own weary odysseys. Their aimless tales—the very point is their aimlessness—are egoistic ventures to note whatever keeps their past before them, for their present brings with it no pleasures. Even their past, however, is painful, an unrelieved string of misadventures and lost opportunities, of relationships forced upon them they never sought, of jobs and families and strangers bobbing up to torture them. In all instances, they become increasingly aware of the absurd difference between their small expectations and their even smaller fulfillment.
The use of the existential absurd becomes for Beckett, as much as it did for Camus, a metaphysical device to explore existence, and it takes many shapes. The "reality" of a Beckett novel is an exaggerated dream, a nightmare extended to cover past and future, a fluid manifestation of something seemingly preconscious….
A Beckett hero is always in conflict with objects around him, for only he himself has reality…. [He] has long ago refused complicity with objects. Or else, objects have remained outside his attainment. In every instance, he is divided from the rest of the world, a stranger to its desires and needs. The dichotomy between his own mind and body finds an analogy in the outside world in the dichotomy between people and objects. Thus, Beckett's world operates in halves, and the dialectic of any given novel occurs when these halves conflict, when tension is created between mind and body, on one hand, and people and objects, on the other….
In quest of an identity which is cosmic in its scope, a Beckett protagonist leaves the everyday world far behind. For Beckett, moreover, the quest is not melodramatic or tragic, but comic, the quest for a self that even the protagonist knows cannot be recovered….
The bum for Beckett is a metaphysical entity, a person so far outside "normal" society that his actions and behavior take place almost cosmically…. Inhabited by bums, tramps, misfits, and cripples, this world is a collage of surrealistic images pinned together less by narrative force than by states of individual feeling. Nuances of feeling have to resolve everything, and here Beckett suggests the central philosophical conflict that permeates all his work.
If states of feeling, or mind, or thought are the only ascertainable facts, then how does one account for the existence of things?… The only way, according to Descartes, that one could make mind come to terms with...
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bodies was through God…. What happens, however, if one removes God from the universe, as Beckett does?… The fact is that a kind of chaos results, the chaos of Beckett's novels in which the only order imposed is that placed there by the characters themselves who state the problem through their own writing. The fact is that Beckett replaces God by making the character into an author substitute who can then create his own world and himself draw the necessary connection between mind and body…. The quality of [the characters'] hopelessness surpasses that of any other characters in literature, with Céline's Ferdinard Bardamu and Swift's Gulliver perhaps excepted…. How, then, does Beckett make this view comic, for comic it is, although the comedy is qualified? Principally, his main device is his use of language that mocks, outrages, bores, clots, and exasperates, but language at all times in the hands of an expert. Secondarily, he uses parody, slapstick, the delayed joke, the juxtaposition of dissimilars, the paralleling of the familiar and unfamiliar—all aimed at creating a reality that is both fantastic and grotesquely true.
Frederick R. Karl, "Waiting for Beckett: Quest and Request," in his A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1962 by Frederick R. Karl), Farrar, Straus, 1962, pp. 19-39.
It is idle to ask what Beckett's novels and plays are "about." In any traditional or conventional sense, they are "about nothing"; they do not possess "human reference," as that phrase is customarily used. They presuppose no "society"; they are, for the most part, neither defenses of nor attacks upon society, civilization, culture, or class. Brendan Behan once said that if a man wanted entertainment, he might do worse than to see one of his plays; but if he wanted "lectures," he should visit Beckett's theatre. (p. xii)
The significance of the underground man as a symbol of the marginal self achieves its final position in the nonheroes of Samuel Beckett's novels and plays…. Here, in a room or in an open spaceway, the self as object maneuvers spatially from a shifting center, pondering and querying its significance, in effect trying to resolve the minimal doubts of existence itself. (p. 48)
Waiting for Godot is a complete, skeletonized, miniature history of the human self. Estragon and Vladimir are underground-hobo-clown reductions of maximum self-power. All phases of self-pretense are contained within the play. Belief in God is now reduced to a "filling in" and a tolerating of hours and days, a waiting for a nonexisting or an imprecisely visioned Godot. Godot is himself authority of whatever kind in which the comic heroes place a hesitant and unknowing trust. Theology is represented in the cacophony of Lucky's remarkable "sermon" about the nature of God and perfection; echoes of all portentous affirmations assault the air…. Human cruelty, and a few of its manifestations in drives toward power, are acted out in the two appearances of Pozzo and Lucky. Above all, the play shows its two principals as comically and pathetically inept, though aware of the need to persist in time, to remain statically and repetitiously themselves. Their strength lies in their "waiting," in their having been—not without some small suggestion of heroic endurance—responsible for the continuance of themselves. (pp. 52-3)
Beckett occupies a curiously ambiguous position in his analyses of self. His novels and plays are in one sense solidly traditional: In their preoccupations with self-definition, they invoke a language of careful and even arduous inquiry; they are precise almost beyond the decent limits of precision. This does not mean that they are comprehensibly structured, or that their concerns are easily associated with matters of traditional fiction. The problems are themselves obsessively traditional; the manner of presentation is not. (pp. 56-7)
His novels are epistemological inquiries about man-as-machine and man-using-machine; his plays are residual reflections upon the existence of God and the imminence of annihilation. Neither theme is precisely indicated; the time is too much taken with the two minimal agonies: over the question whether or not another being exists who (in the fading last rays of the Cartesian sun) may have a meaning for the self; over the terrible necessity to "wait." (pp. 73-4)
Godot is no more God than is the Mr. Knott whom Watt serves. The suggestions of a remote theological being fail to attract the inhabitants of Beckett's world, who choose the metaphors and techniques of transcendence that are to their own liking. As Beckett says of Joyce's, so he might have said of his own work: that his is a world of "vegetation," where people wait, or endure existence, without great expectations beyond mortality. The Christian beliefs are turned to secular metaphors; and the great line of progress in time is toward death rather than either a secular or a theological perfection. (p. 146)
The essential "doctrine" of Beckett's work is … contained within his best play (and one of the best of all contemporary plays), Waiting for Godot. It is that life consists of "waiting," an individually existential premise which incites no one to an exercise of a Sartrean "dreadful freedom" but has its own agonies and dreads. It is an agony to "wait for Godot" in a place deprived of almost all recognizable natural promise and from a point-of-view all but deprived of confidence. But we "can't go on, we must go on, we will go on": unquestioning, as the Unnamable says, but also unbelieving, in "It, say it, not knowing what."… (p. 161)
Frederick J. Hoffman, in his Samuel Beckett: The Language of Self (© 1962 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press; "Crosscurrents/Modern Critiques" Series), Southern Illinois University Press, 1962.
It would be vain to attempt to say what Beckett's plays are 'about' or what they 'mean,' for they belong to what has been labelled 'the theatre of the absurd'…. Waiting for Godot is a kind-of-play, though in the traditional sense not a play at all but an abstruse metaphysical disquisition.
The fact that Waiting for Godot attracted audiences for an unexpectedly large number of performances was evidence of a tendency among audiences to pay more regard to whatever might be the current mode—which veered from Eliot to Fry to Beckett to Osborne to Pinter to Wesker—than to any significance or merit in the work patronized.
With Waiting for Godot the reign of the do-it-yourself drama began. Scores of amateur writers, finding that a spate of words about anything might win approbation in the theatre, tried their hand. Construction was out, characterization was out, style and decency of language were out. Commitment was in.
A. C. Ward, in his Twentieth-Century English Literature 1901–1960, Methuen-University Paperbacks, 1964, p. 138.
The trouble with [Samuel] Beckett, for those intent on affinities or influences, is that he seems to have read everything—all the novels, plays, and poems—and that, whatever the echoes, his work is like nothing else. All philosophy seems his province, from the pre-Socratic fragments to Heidegger and Sartre; all psychology from William James to Freud and the Gestalt. References to these, improving the pedantic air of novels and plays, have led some to think Beckett more of a thinker than he is. Whatever the air, he is first of all an artist: "I am not a philosopher," he said. Not ideas but particulars are his concern, not systems but arrangements. Yet those who think Beckett a thinker are not altogether mistaken; for in his way he confronts what a philosopher does in his: subject, object, and the nature of things. (p. 4)
Perhaps the safest thing to say, since one feels compelled to say something, is this: his plays and stories are metaphors for the nature of things and for man's condition. Comment c'est, if this safe guess is right, offers its title as clue. Settings, actions, speech, and all the strange details of Beckett's works compose an elaborate analogy, far from realistic, for how it is or else for the feeling of how it is. The world, says Beckett in Proust, "is apprehended metaphorically by the artist." Metaphor is equation, more or less. Although, as Beckett says, "the Proustian equation is never simple," the equations of Beckett are simple enough to make his method plain—in the pantomimes, at least. (pp. 7-8)
Weeping Beckett laughs at man in the mess, but he is not alone. Hardy had preceded him, and in our time Beckett's response to things is shared more or less by Queneau, Ionesco, and others. Occasional resemblances to Ionesco have led critics to place Beckett in the school of the absurd. This is worth looking into; for if there is such a school—indeed, if schools, such as those of the metaphysical or symbolist poets are more than academic conveniences for ignoring peculiarity—Beckett might belong to this school. The critical mind, amorous of categories, wants to put him there. Amorous of individuality, Beckett rejects membership: "I don't think I deserve a place in this school." His rejection may mean no more than the distaste for category, concept, and cause and effect that he announces in Proust, or it may be a declaration of independence from all he has been linked with—Joyce, for example, or Kafka. Beckett wants to be alone. (pp. 12-13)
Why Beckett turned to French … is uncertain, but there are several possibilities. For affirming exile in France, French seems suitable, especially for one who knows it. Perhaps he felt the need of purging a language too rich, lovable, and playful for his growing austerity. At once alien and familiar, French offered distance and a precision…. Perhaps French seemed a kind of mask, and masks, as Yeats knew, permit another personality, yet the same, to sound through. Since reality depends upon our words for it, new words might change it a little—for the worse maybe. (The indelicacies of French surpass even those of English.) Whatever the reason for the shift, the Molloy trilogy has smoother texture, less bravura. Since Beckett's translations differ at times from the French originals—passages are omitted, added or changed—one must keep one text in one hand, the other in the other. A return to English in some of the later plays may mean purgation's success or old love too great to be denied. (pp. 21-2)
Among Beckett's comic tricks are parody, overscrupulous qualification, and long Rabelaisian catalogues that allow what Beckett calls in Proust the comedy of "exhaustive enumeration." The French have a word for this. Marrant, which means both tiresome and funny, is the exact word for Beckett's books.
Plainly, whatever his care for identity, Beckett belongs to an old and respectable literary tradition. When asked if he minded being placed, more or less. in the company of Rabelais, Swift, Fielding, and Sterne, he said, "No." His answer is less surprising than it seems; for, not only respectable, this tradition is suitably remote. The pity is that Joyce belongs, more or less, to the same tradition. (pp. 36-7)
William York Tindall, in his Samuel Beckett, Columbia University Press, 1964.
Samuel Beckett is Irish and published his early works in English. But he wrote most of his novels and plays in French. Today he is among the greatest of 'French' writers, and some people consider him the most important….
[Beckett's] narratives trace a movement: from words to silence, from life (even a precarious one) to death (in life). As they develop, Beckett's 'heroes' become more and more deprived of their physical capacities, more and more withdrawn from the bustle of the world, take refuge more and more in their own minds, losing the use of memory and of their senses, reduced to a pure consciousness that comes to possess, exclusively, but with infinite power, the capacity to suffer….
Beckett's questioning of everything is itself under question: it is the description of a state of fact, not a protest…. The questioning of language is accompanied by a questioning of the work. Condemned to speak, Beckett's heroes spend their time denying what they have just affirmed, saying yes and no at the same time. If one has to speak, then at least let it be about nothing. In the regions in which Beckett moves and in which the work dissolves in a fog of meaninglessness as it is being created, it is easy to believe that nothing is said. And yet no words seem to me to be more essential than his.
The achievement of Samuel Beckett marks the end of a trial of literature, language and speech. It is now impossible to move further towards silence through the word. The author is now left with only one alternative: to stop writing or to repeat himself.
Maurice Nadeau, in his The French Novel Since the War, translated by A. M. Sheridan-Smith (reprinted by permission of Grove Press, Inc.; © 1967 by Methuen and Co., Ltd.), Methuen, 1967, pp. 123-25 (in the Grove-Evergreen paperbound edition, 1969).
Samuel Beckett is one of the great controversial playwrights of our age, whose Waiting for Godot goes on infuriating audiences or moving them profoundly but never leaves them indifferent. As a novelist he is just as important, though his novels often repel with a total lack of action, colour, solidity…. Beckett is obsessed with rendering [life's] misery. This is not perverseness, the deliberate grinding of the bad tooth; it is rather an attempt to discover what man is really like when he is stripped to show his essential condition, which is one of struggle against unheroic odds…. All of the wretches who give their names to Beckett's novels—Watt, Molloy, Malone (of Malone Dies)—as well as those who never reach the glory of a title, are reductions of mankind—tramps, outcasts, poverty-stricken old men. They wear rags, they are diseased, they smell, they are rejected by us, thrown out of doss-houses, told to get off the bus. They are not only disgusting, they are absurd. And yet they are human beings like ourselves, humiliated by charity, demanding something better than condescension or contempt. The point about them is that they manage to survive, finding the odd hole in the ground to sleep in, the odd crust to gnaw. Ultimately they are stoical, expecting nothing from God, aware that the stars they sleep under are indifferent, insentient matter. Indeed, neither religion nor philosophy can offer any comfort. Beckett does not believe in God, though he seems to imply that God has committed an unforgivable sin by not existing. All that stripped, poverty-eaten, diseased, stinking humanity possesses is the ability to do better than God—namely, to exist….
To write novels about characters who have so little requires very great literary skill. Beckett is a master of form: his books have a shape that suggests music. Out of the nothingness of life he can call up fantasies of great power, and his unheroic heroes grow, by the very starkness of their lives, into genuine pieces of mythology. His language, whether English or French, is highly idiosyncratic, and he is not afraid of making his sentences exactly mirror mental states…. Such art, such integrity, such deliberate limitation of subject-matter must keep Beckett in the proud company of novelists who are not 'popular', but there is no denying his originality. His novels, like all important works of art, have the stamp of the inevitable on them: they had to be written and, though we suffer reading them, we are glad that they have been written.
Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 75-7.
Samuel Beckett,… knowing that art cannot be art nowadays unless it is wrested from impossibility,… comes close to reducing literature to a mathematical tautology. The syllogism of Beckett assumes that history has spent itself; we are merely playing an end game. The syllogism can be relentless. Language has become void; therefore words can only demonstrate their emptiness. Certainty in knowledge is no longer possible; therefore epistemology must become parody. Religion and metaphysics have lost their authority; therefore we shall wait for Godot in vain. Human relations are at bottom cruel; therefore love is a disguise of power and power a disguise of solitude. Decaying matter remains forever alien to the mind; therefore mind and crippled body can have no union. In this Cartesian nightmare, Beckett leaves only one thing intact: the capacity of human consciousness to reflect upon itself and to entertain its own end. Thus literature becomes the inaudible game of a solipsist. No wonder that Beckett believes art to be the apotheosis of solitude. In this rigorous fidelity to failure, he also reveals the secret tendency of literature to contract into silence. Despite the monstrous endurance of his characters and the deadly skill of his words, Samuel Beckett may be considered the author who wants to seal the lips of the Muse. Yet his silence, despite its grim, satiric note, has something in common with the silence of holy men who, after knowing pain and outrage, reach for a peace beyond human understanding. (pp. 30-1)
Beckett has emerged as a supreme artist who turns all the malice of art against itself and as a visionary comedian who knows that human consciousness must be stripped to naught before it can be shown as the bitter joke it is. He is an apocalyptic by reduction, possessed by the idea that the universe must evacuate itself. Only then will the end of all things become identical with their beginning, as Giordano Bruno once believed, and Beckett's art find its consummation. (pp. 113-14)
[His] works … mark an asymptotic line moving steadily, cruelly, toward silence and immobility. The end in view is glacial, aboriginal sleep. By contrast, our daily world seems a giant garbage heap from which our lives rise like polluting steam…. [Yet even] his silences dramatize, in Cartesian parody, the laws of thought; they exist, Hugh Kenner has noted, prior to action and below language, the shadow play of a mind struggling with itself. The works are indeed all of a piece, a vast anonymous poem probing, with wit and precise erudition, the essence of life. And the anti-hero of the poem is always the same: quidam, "somebody; one unknown," universal man in bits and pieces. (p. 114)
Much of Beckett's prose seems like the arithmetic of a primitive tribe struggling to convey in numbers its dim sense of reality. His anonymous heroes solemnly perform combinations and permutations; they repeat their words and vary their gestures ad nauseam; they add and tabulate all the trivia of existence. They are indeed what happens to the mind when the mind has nothing to contemplate but its own symmetry, when language, caught in the paradox of its own self-denial, aspires to ratio. What began as Cartesian science ends as fiction, and fiction. Geulincx once argued, is intelligence demonstrating its sole freedom. Thus the tabulators of Beckett are also narrators; they employ number to tell a story…. The wordy stillness of Beckett's characters tends toward death as a surd tends toward infinity. (pp. 129-30)
The heroes of Beckett, we see, are metaphysical clowns and jongleurs of solipsism; but they are also morbid quietists, cripples, impotents. They suffer from radical acedia…. Yet human effort, in Beckett's view, appears not only vain; it is also blighted from the start…. If God is dead, then nothing is permitted, and man is superfluous. A universe drained entirely of life or consciousness, drifting ever slower into empty spaces—such may be his vision of apocalypse. (pp. 130-31)
Nothing is ontologically whole in Beckett's world; objects and persons are predetermined to be partial, and events can be more accurately described as near-events. All processes, as in games, are subject to arbitrary or absurd rules and subject, moreover, to the final decree of slow decay. Nothing ends, because potentiality overwhelms reality and alternatives proliferate; nothing is therefore consummated. Hence, time tends to be viciously circular; it worsens things without altering their nature. Its true function is to reveal essences in the course of their disintegration. Epistemologically, all things are ambiguous. It is as if persons, objects, and events were observed hazily from a distance, and the act of observation itself invalidated both subject and object. The senses are seldom offered data sufficient for judgment, and when they are, the time lag between perception and expression condemns the latter to eternal obsolescence. The senses thus end by refusing to distinguish between illusion and reality, and consciousness, far from directing action or controlling matter, ends by displaying its infinite mutations…. When definitions are attempted, they are usually made in the negative, by a process of elimination, a protocol of reduction, as if to define the world were to empty it. In the game that the mind plays with itself, language, of course, is the original flaw. (p. 132)
Vaudevillian and grotesque, Beckett's humor is essentially metaphysical; it assumes the absurdity of the universe and eludes conventional tragedy or comedy by confronting the automatism of number with the cruelty of nightmare. His satire is neither social nor even moral. It is the satire of a man who tries to bear his own company…. In the end,… it stresses the absurd isolation of all human concerns. Because Beckett's humor is reductive and sadistic, it tends to focus on scatological rather than erotic functions. Waste is the sole process of nature in a wasting universe from which Eros must be banished. Copulation, therefore, thrives but feebly, usually among cripples or octogenarians, as further proof of the mind's disgust with life. Beckett's comedy is the contractive comedy of disgust. (p. 135)
The novels of Samuel Beckett are products of the solitary game that the human voice plays by itself. With time, the game becomes increasingly difficult; so do the novels. The novels, in fact, clearly reflect the striking changes in Beckett's style; for unlike his plays, they span his whole career. A subtle dislocation of language is already apparent in his earlier fiction. Later, we know, his words seek to meet their death in silence at some point projected outside of the work. Throughout, the comic tone asserts itself more and more grimly, and the characters, haunted by the author's spirit of epistemological inquiry, begin as philosophical buffoons and end as mechanical cripples. Their thoughts define the shrinking contours of the skull, which is Beckettland. (p. 139)
The pure and terrible art of Samuel Beckett finds its consummation in his plays. His novels had been known earlier, especially in France; static and wordy, they appealed mainly to the cognoscenti. In the plays, however, the sound of a universal silence echoed in every act, and the rigorous game of living and dying took ineluctable form. Since Waiting for Godot, Beckett has come to be known as the glum apostle of a new theatre…. Beckett emerges from his drama not simply as an absurdist; he appears also as a geometer, a wizard, a black apocalyptic. (pp. 174-75)
Samuel Beckett has … touched the darkest aspirations of the age. In revealing man in his absolute nudity, doubt, and solitude, he has bravely revealed what modern man has experienced and wished to conceal from himself. Beckett has gone to the root of nihilism in our time, to the question of Being and Nothingness, of Death, and has imagined the ineluctable form of dissolution. He touches the deepest aspirations of the age by touching on its darkest dread: the void. (p. 209)
Ihab Hassan, in his The Literature of Silence: Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett (© 1967 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Knopf, 1967.
Waiting for Godot and Endgame, the plays Beckett wrote in French, are dramatic statements of the human situation itself. They lack both characters and plot in the conventional sense because they tackle their subject-matter at a level where neither characters nor plot exist. Characters presuppose that human nature, the diversity of personality and individuality, is real and matters; plot can exist only on the assumption that events in time are significant. These are precisely the assumptions that the two plays put in question….
If Beckett's plays are concerned with expressing the difficulty of finding meaning in a world subject to incessant change, his use of language probes the limitations of language both as a means of communication and as a vehicle for the expression of valid statements, an instrument of thought….
Language in Beckett's plays serves to express the breakdown, the disintegration of language. Where there is no certainty, there can be no definite meanings—and the impossibility of ever attaining certainty is one of the main themes of Beckett's plays.
Martin Esslin, "Samuel Beckett: The Search for Self" (© 1961, 1968, 1969 by Martin Esslin; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Company, Inc.), in his The Theatre of the Absurd, Doubleday-Anchor, revised edition, 1969, pp. 11-65.
The irremediable lowness of human life, the obscenity of time's continual defecation, the nothingness corroding the heart of everything—this is the theme of Beckett's plays, and it is boldly, almost laughably, unrelieved. Foundered in the earth, these plays contain nothing whatever positive, not even the earth itself as an aesthetic object, and certainly no hope or meaning or spiritual value: the heart, here, is an obsolete organ….
That our only heights should be manure crests, our dreams of glory mounted on hinnies—it is enough to make us sit down and weep. But there are no tears in Beckett. The air is too dry, the wind has an edge of asperity. Beckett's world is a vicious expression of self-pity so frozen that it burns to the touch. Never has self-commiseration been more austere, more aggressive, more elemental, more like a geometrical law, than in these plays. How it pervades, how like a fatality it is. We sense it in the sterile landscape, we hear it in the silence of the void….
This world of flattened summits, of a universal diminuendo, of sordid despairs—we have all encountered something like it before, in our off moments, our nightmares, our fears. Of course so much insistence on incompleteness is funny; but because it is the dark that is insisted on, it is dismaying as well. Almost to the degree that it unsettles us, Beckett's theater is amusing; but there is uneasiness even in our laughter. Let us say it: Beckett's plays are nasty surprises. What saves them is their subtlety and power, their remarkable inventiveness, their wit and negative poetry—above all, their masterful and instantaneous creation of a universe….
Let us not judge the wisdom of so much negation. What matters is that Beckett has the great artist's power to shape a new and compelling world. And while his wizardry, his black magic, is upon us, he is neither wise nor perverse; he is simply magical. As a bonus, he offers us the assurance that even absolute sterility can become poetry to the mind. And if this is an assurance that we scarcely dared to wish for, it is not a contemptible gift to have.
Calvin Bedient, "Beckett and the Drama of Gravity" (© 1970 by University of the South), in Sewanee Review, Winter, 1970, pp. 143-55.
The fictional world of Samuel Beckett is one of complete degradation. His protagonists are often aging men who are degenerate, near-blind, lame, bedridden, or doomed to crawl about in the mud. Not only are they paupers who reside in garbage cans, in mental institutions, or on the cold ground; they are also physical and moral cripples who have lost control of their bodily functions. Ignorant and lonely, they know not who they are or who anyone else is. Indeed, they have no effective relationships with others and are reduced to inadequate stammerings in their attempts at communication. Beckett's man lacks every security and even fails to enjoy his nothingness. But, he does struggle to discover himself—even if he is to find that he is ultimately nothing. Beckett does not reject the existential "faith" that man is possibility, that man is always becoming. Yet, he also accepts the existentialist realization that since all men die, human existence is rooted in nothingness….
Beckett's view of the human predicament incorporates many tenets of French existentialism. He seems more pessimistic than most atheistic existentialists, but it is possible to interpret Beckett's work as an expression of modern man's need for God. Beckett is concerned with the state of modern man. He is intrigued by man's religious strivings. Still, his concept of man's situation includes no possibility for any religious answer. Beckett's view is a negation of religion.
Patricia O. White, "Existential Man in Beckett's Fiction," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 2, 1970, pp. 39-49.
One is often amazed by the very literary virtuosity of Samuel Beckett. Certainly this friend and disciple of James Joyce has an incredible command of language—both French and English. But as anyone who has ever struggled with the later works must realize—there is far more here than wordplay or mere logorrhea. Beckett seems to be communicating in an essentially symbolic language, one which is quite capable of communication while seeming to say nothing and of going nowhere. A language, moreover, which all of us learned and (more or less) have forgotten….
By seemingly closing all issue to his characters, and by making them incapable of real intellectual achievement or even of locomotion, Beckett has made them into a dark and distorted image of ourselves. We note that Beckett's primary concern is more psychological than narrative, and most certainly treats the impotence with which he professes to deal, but an impotence which is found in each of us. He is describing Man and his rather pitiful condition.
Raymond T. Riva, "Beckett and Freud." in Criticism, Spring, 1970, pp. 120-32.