Samuel Beckett Beckett, Samuel (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Samuel Beckett 1906-1989

(Full name Samuel Barclay Beckett) Irish-born French short-story writer, dramatist, novelist, scriptwriter, poet, essayist, and translator.

The following entry provides criticism on Beckett's short fiction from 1991 through 2002. See also Samuel Beckett Literary Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 11, 18.

One of the most celebrated writers in twentieth-century literature, Beckett is known for his significant impact on the development of the short story and novel forms as well as on contemporary drama. His works expound a philosophy of negation through characters who face a meaningless and absurd existence without the comforts of religion, myth, or philosophical absolutes. Often described as fragments rather than stories, his short fiction in particular evidences his use of sparse, economical language and stark images of alienation and absurdity to present truths that are free of rhetorical embellishment.

Biographical Information

Beckett was born on April 13, 1906, and raised in Foxrock, near Dublin, Ireland. In 1927 he received his B.A. in French and Italian from Trinity College in Dublin. Beckett taught French for a short period in Belfast before receiving a fellowship to the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. There he met James Joyce, who had a profound influence on Beckett's early writing. Beckett returned to Trinity College in 1930 for his M.A., after which he accepted a position as a French instructor at the college. In 1932 he resigned his post at Trinity to move back to Paris and concentrate on his writing. When World War II began, he worked for the French Resistance and was forced to flee Paris when the Nazis discovered his activities. After the war, Beckett began writing almost exclusively in French and translating his work into English, beginning his most prolific and, according to many commentators, his most artistically complex period. In 1969 Beckett received the Nobel Prize for literature. He died in Paris in 1989.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Beckett published More Pricks than Kicks, his first collection of short stories, in 1934. A series of related episodes describing the adventures of a fictional Irishman named Belacqua Shuah, More Pricks than Kicks derived in part from Beckett's unpublished novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1992). In the collection, Beckett used an elaborate prose style and language derivative of Joyce. Most of Beckett's subsequent works of short fiction were originally written in French and translated into English by Beckett. Nouvelles et texts pour rien (1955; Stories and Texts for Nothing) consists of three stories and thirteen prose fragments. The three stories feature protagonists whose lives are desolate and at the same time highly comic. The prose fragments are rhetorically formalized vignettes with minimal narrative characterization. Beckett's style reached the extremes of minimalism in the 1960s and 1970s when he abandoned both conventional plot and conventional syntax, stripping his language down to fragmented phrases and one-word expressions to mirror what he considered the difficulty, if not impossibility, of human communication. Imagination morte imaginez (1965; Imagination Dead Imagine) takes place in an abstract rotunda, “all white in the whiteness,” where two bodies reside in a state of minimal existence. Bing (1966; Ping) uses depersonalized, machine-like language to describe a box containing a faceless and nameless figure. In Assez (1966; Enough), Beckett returned to a more traditional prose style. The first person monologue combines romantic and scientific language to describe a lost relationship. Sans (1969; Lessness) is perhaps the most extreme example of Beckett's experimentation with language in his short fiction. Beckett wrote sixty sentences, placed each in one of six groups containing ten sentences, and drew sentences randomly to create a work of art ordered by chance. Le dépeupleur (1970; The Lost Ones) examines the possibility that those who stop struggling against hopelessness will be the most content. Companie (1979; Company) depicts the thoughts of an individual lying in bed alone in the dark.

Critical Reception

Initial response to More Pricks than Kicks was mixed. While the book received positive reviews outside of Ireland, Irish commentators found its ornate style distasteful. Several commentators have investigated the influence of Joyce's Dubliners on the collection. Beckett's later short works fared better with critics as the critical schools of Post-structuralism and Deconstruction complemented his linguistic experimentation. Some commentators have applied the linguistic theory of Jacques Derrida to Beckett's work and have explored the role of theology in his shorter texts. Recent criticism has focused on his short story “First Love” and its significance in Beckett's short fiction oeuvre. While generally not as highly regarded as his novels—particularly the trilogy Molloy (1951), Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies), and L'innommable (1953; The Unnamable), considered his masterpiece—Beckett's short fiction is acclaimed for its verbal experimentation and artistic formalism. Although some commentators have debated the genre of some of his short prose works—classifying them alternatively as dramatic fragments, poetry, or short stories—most recognize the immense value of Beckett's short fiction and view him as a distinctive and innovative short-story writer.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

More Pricks than Kicks 1934

Nouvelles et textes pour rien [Stories and Texts for Nothing] 1955

Imagination morte imaginez [Imagination Dead Imagine] (drama and prose) 1965

Assez [Enough] (novella) 1966

Bing [Ping] (novella) 1966

No's Knife: Collected Shorter Prose, 1945-1966 (dramas and short stories) 1967

Sans [Lessness] (novella) 1969

Le dépeupleur [The Lost Ones] (novella) 1970

Premier amour [First Love] (novella) 1970

First Love, and Other Shorts (short stories) 1974

Foirade [Fizzles] 1976

Four Novellas; also published as [The Expelled and Other Novellas] (novellas) 1977

Companie [Company] (novella) 1979

Mal vu mal dit [Ill Seen Ill Said] (novella) 1981

Worstward Ho (short novel) 1983

Stirrings Still (novella) 1989

As the Story Was Told: Uncollected and Late Prose (prose) 1990

Nohow On (novella) 1993

Collected Shorter Prose, 1945-1988 (prose) 1995

Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989 (prose) 1995

Whoroscope (poetry) 1930

Proust (essay) 1931

Echo’s Bones, and Other Precipitates (prose) 1935

Murphy (novel) 1938

Malone meurt [Malone Dies] (novel) 1951

Molloy (novel) 1951

En attendant Godot [Waiting for Godot] (drama) 1953

L'innommable [The Unnamable] (novel) 1953

Watt (novel) 1953

All That Fall (radio drama) 1957

Fin de Partie [Endgame] (drama) 1957

Krapp's Last Tape (drama) 1958

Comment c'est [How It Is] (novel) 1961

Happy Days (drama) 1961

Poems in English (poetry) 1961

Comédie [Play] (drama) 1964

Va et vient [Come and Go] (drama) 1966

Eh Joe, and Other Writings (drama and screenplay) 1967

Film (screenplay) 1969

Mercier et Camier [Mercier and Camier] (novel) 1970

Not I (drama) 1971

Breath and Other Shorts (drama) 1972

All Strange Away (prose) 1976

Ends and Odds (drama) 1976

Footfalls (drama) 1976

That Time (drama) 1976

A Piece of Monologue (drama) 1979

Ohio Impromptu (drama) 1981

Rockabye (drama) 1981

Texts for Nothing (drama) 1981

Catastrophe (drama) 1982

Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment (criticism, interview, and drama) 1983

The Complete Dramatic Works (dramas) 1986

Dream of Fair to Middling Women (novel) 1992

Eleuthéria (drama) 1995

Collected Poems, 1930-1989 (poetry) 1995

Francis Doherty (essay date autumn 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Doherty, Francis. “Paf, Hop, Bing and Ping.” Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 17 (autumn 1991): 23-41.

[In the following essay, Doherty provides a stylistic examination of Ping and traces its revisions to gather further insight into the story.]

Beckett's short prose work, Ping, of 1967 is a complex text which presents the reader with many difficulties. In the first place, the sentences which the reader has to confront are daunting in their tonelessness, their fragmentariness and their apparent randomness. Repetition of over-repeated collocations seems to have the effect of neutral counters endlessly shifted in patterns, without the usual comforting illusion of a voice apparently speaking through language and of some kind of a story being told. We seem to have come into a world of language stripped of significance with a slab of text which refuses the conditions of narrative. Readers have grown used over time to a narrative voice which is their link to a shared humanity, and any story which is read is one which takes place in time, and some kind of teleology will take the reader to an “end”, and, equally, the story will engage with some of the small range of human emotions and with a relatively small number of situations and relationships which might be expected to engage a reader's attention. But Beckett's text, at first encounter, seems to be devoid of a human voice and of any human story, to be instead an aleatory dealing out of chance-delivered collocations.

However, many readers from David Lodge in 1967 on, have felt that, after reading the piece with care, some meaning and some human concerns not only emerge, but, paradoxically, are very powerfully communicated, albeit through what seems to be an inhuman and mechanically articulated text. The early conclusion that this was a literary text much like other literary texts, being “like any literary artefact, a marriage of form and meaning”, and that, after close reading, “the rewards are surprisingly great” might still seem worth confronting and questioning.1

Beckett's short work at first reading seems to discard so much that is necessary for a fiction; it seems to abandon narrator, jettison plot, erase human emotions, limit human actions to their possibly barest minimum, reduce the multiplicity of the created universe to a body in a box in a larger box of a room. All movement (nearly) gone; all colour (nearly) gone; all events (nearly) gone, and nothing left of interest for a reader.

But this is not the outcome of immersing oneself in the repetition of those staccato fragments enclosed between full stops. There is, indeed, something going on within the text which raises important questions about Beckettian narrative and his creative enterprise in short prose works.

In their early bibliographical study of Beckett, Raymond Federman and John Fletcher have an “Appendix II” which gives the texts of Bing and Ping, preceded by the ten variant stages of the French text.2 It may be possible to arrive at some clearer understanding of this puzzling text by making use of those early drafts. However, any attempt to come to a clearer understanding by reading through those successive versions carries its own problems when we can only guess at the changing conceptions of the author, and we have to acknowledge too that a critic cannot simply follow ideas or images from beginning to end if a writer's inner conceptions change en route, though using apparently the same words or formulations. Nonetheless, reading the drafts does yield something, however frailly hesitant the reader might feel about claiming to upgrade Lodge into “Some Ping More Understood”.

As the text is problematical in its relation to common expectations of narrative, I should like to begin with the obvious questions about the “Ping” element and with the analogous words which are used in both the final French Text, Bing, and the drafts which precede it. It is important to be as precise as I can about this, as I believe a good deal depends on the use of this word (and its predecessors and counterparts) in our understanding of what Beckett was concerned to express about the creative act and the meaning of literary texts. A careful reading of the drafts of the short text is helpful and instructive, but especially so when we add to our reading a knowledge of Beckett's themes and artistic concerns, and this should help towards some initial understanding of what this kind of emptied, staccato prose might be accomplishing.

The text is plainly a reductionist text, and is something which at first sight seems to be inhuman and devoid of readerly interest, claiming a territory of pure text for its operation. Still, I would claim, it possesses all the elements of fiction, even all elements of discourse, but stamped down to the smallest compass which the artistic abilities can manage for them (‘All I could manage and more than I could’). The questions about who writes and what is written and the ends for which writing exists are all raised by this text. In it we are shown at work a fastidiousness of manner which seems to forbid not only what must have been deemed an excess, but demonstrates a sensibility which jettisons what would previously in classical fiction have been taken as minimal requirements for both creating and being created. To a great extent, this is what Beckett was making his own especial artistic task, a special kind of minimalist writing which, while aiming at existing purely as a text, a construct, nonetheless could never escape the tragedy of the human plight, could never escape from the long tradition that human suffering has its central significance for the artist.

To begin with a simple observation: we have here an example of the Beckettian parody of Cartesian reductionism. We have a situation where, rather than show an attempt being made to build up the whole system of thought and reality from an irreducible and ultimately self-evident “truth”, “je pense donc je suis”, we see attempt after attempt in later Beckettian prose to find ways of reducing all systems of thought and reality to an irreducible minimum, getting as close to absolute zero as can be contrived, getting as near silence as possible and wishing to stay there or end there—and never again to build up a system. For at least forty years Beckett worked his themes of impotence and ignorance, and pursued his art which turned its back on reality, “the plane of the feasible”, “weary of puny exploits, weary of being able, of doing, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road”, preferring the paradoxical state of

The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, together with the obligation to express.3

The problem, of course, is that such a logic would seem to demand silence, a void—and absolute zero yields absolutely nothing. But just how close can you get to absolute zero, how near to silence can you take your art and still be heard? This seems to be the enterprise, and it is emphatically anti-Cartesian, at least in this sense: Descartes's reductionism concealed a sublime confidence and optimism which allowed the fiction of a ne plus ultra, the fiction of a thinking being conscious of itself thinking, where all the problems associated logically and philosophically with such a formulation in language are both embedded and overcome. Beckett's reductionism is always within a given, a formula which defies logic, and which is, literally, meaningless. An urge to write is a donnée. You cannot write without appearing to say something, without in that sense communicating, given that writing means using structures of language (already given) and words (which usually pre-existed the present user), & c.

What this particular text of Beckett's shows clearly, especially when read in its drafts, is that part of the text's complex procedure is to focus on obligation, and it does this by introducing prompting or urging words at a variety of junctures. The text may be said to give a kind of account of a state or situation rather than being a straightforward narrative of events. The reader is given staccato bursts on “how it is”. These bursts, or “reports”, start their textual life as details accumulatively delivered about the precise (?) state of existence of a creature in a situation which is non-real, a situation which for the literary reader will parody other situations which we either knew from experience or from the experience of reading, say, Dante's created worlds of the Purgatorio and Inferno. The details of the Beckett world are progressively but discontinuously delivered. Standard classical texts are content to give “factual” details about the fictional world being created for the reader and then to pass on, and consequently readers would be very disconcerted to find themselves repeatedly being given (as they are in Beckett's text) expressions which might be held to represent “facts” about the physical features of the fictive universe over and over again. Readers would feel that some kind of contract had been broken, that they were being asked to read something that was not “literature”. Such readers would, I assume, give up and throw away the text as “mad”, not worth the time and effort needed to persevere with it. It is hard to be precise about how Beckett does persuade the reader to continue with the enterprise of reading his text, but I believe that he does.

In the first attempt at the creation of this work, the text is organised so that we are gradually led in Text I from a located situation to the “person” within that situation, and the “person” is then systematically presented, moving from the head, through the limbs, cylindrical trunk, arms, penis, feet. The rudimentary “voice” of the piece which has done its best, it would seem, to exclude emotion or genuine readerly interest from itself, does, however, come through to the reader when there is a strong interest shown in mathematics, in figures, but oddly, with a kind of mad precision. Characteristically, after hearing “Largeur un mètre. Hauteur deux mètres”, we have “Mesures approximatives comme toutes à venir”, a voice which is very like the deranged voice of Lucky's speech in Waiting for Godot:

… the dead loss per caput since the death of Bishop Berkeley being to the tune of one inch four ounce per caput approximately by and large more or less to the nearest decimal good measure round figures …4

This version of the text seems to have a rudimentary “voice”, shown through what might seem to be a simple and neutrally “scientific” interest in the penis: “Membre glabre. Brèves demi-érections spontanées”. The neutral term “membre” (for membrum virile) might seem fussy and remote from ordinary humanity, and yet the enjoyed rhythm of “membre glabre” is, in its turn, strangely removed from medical neutrality (where “glabre” might be more commonly encountered in expressions like “visage glabre”—“clean-shaven”). Smuggled in, then, against what seems to be the text's “factual reporting”, is a something more, and that “something more” is what, were it sustained and built on might, make the artful. But this interesting “sign of life”—both in the text and in the object presented—might well have seemed excessive, as it is removed from all succeeding versions of the text. All must be controlled, deadened.

Proceeding with its account of the state of affairs, the text seems, much like the earlier novel, Watt, to delight in spending time and energy in an exhaustive and exhausting enumeration of what seem to be the possibilities of the ways in which the several named physical states which are listed may be combined one with another. These states are, it is said, “Non liées”. So: “Chaleur lumière. Chaleur noir. Froid lumière. Froid noir.” are perfectly acceptable as possible states of affairs in a world like our own, but the text gets more from the list than this limited set of combinations. It asserts the reality of

Chaleur lumière et noir.
Froid lumière et noir.
Lumière chaleur et froid.
Noir chaleur et froid.

It can only have these logically possible (but practically impossible) combinations if the rules which govern the meanings of words (or those laws which govern the state of the universe as we know it) are changed. This is implicitly accepted but at the same time is circumvented. What is said to be a state of affairs with all elements co-existing at the same time, is said to be so, but not so at the same time, because these conditions are subject also to the modifier, “Changements foudroyants”. This last qualification might be calculated to persuade a reader that we can have both “light” and “dark” coexisting by the expedient of having changes in the basic states as “lightning-flash-like”. This, then, is a text which tries to remain both within a world which is a possible world which the reader would feel comfortable with and yet within another one which, though mathematically logical within a system of permutations, is practically impossible. It is at this point that the text is punctuated by its first three encouraging or urging expression, “Paf”. This expression is allowed into the sentence without any signal that it might belong to another level of discourse.

This word, which other more standard texts might well have given an exclamation mark to, and which might be rendered as “Slap!” or “Bang!”, presents the reader with initial problems. It cannot exist at the same level of meaning as its context, and it needs, for a full sense of its meaning in its operation its own context and voice. It is a word which has no dictionary definition other than its being noted as a word which accompanies an act. Its reference is beyond the context of the words as they are presented on the page, and it demands to be understood in its own way. It is an alien, and we could allow it into the text only if we had the necessary conditions for its inclusion made plain to us. But no such conditions are ever going to be made plain, and hence it is one of the many sources of puzzlement for the reader trying to negotiate the text.

Readers of Beckett are, of course, well used to his characters being manipulated by outside forces, the reluctant being forced into speech, “quod erat extorquendum”.5 So, if we try to associate the usage of the “paf” with some violence, some blow, however unemphatically allowed into the text, however unattached to context and shorn of a voice, then we do land ourselves with problems. These problems which are created for the reader partly derive from the elision of levels of discourse in the text, flattening the plane of the “speaker” or “voice” from which we have been taught by the text's procedures so far how to read, how to try and hear the words, and from which we are used to hearing that which may be believed (or that which we allow, having suspended our disbelief, to count as believable) with another plane, that of a (possibly violent) controller who is demanding from the voice something which the voice and only the voice can give. We would then have a kind of dramatic situation being enacted within the text.

We could go on to observe that any tyrannous demands are met with an incompetent instrument. The “controller” has no articulated language, utters no real word, is present only by inference from the “paf” it might be held to make. It has to use the only instrument which exists to have said what it wants to have said, though it has no control in the end over what is said. The only user of language, the instrument, is the text, and this is worn out, beyond interest, incompetent. The almost exact analogy might be Lucky as “thinker” in Waiting for Godot, where “thinking” is one of his noted skills (like his equally worn-out “dancing”) and is offered as one of the entertainments which Pozzo can offer his guests, Vladimir and Estragon. Presumably the audience is to be appalled that this “thinking” represents what has happened to that capacity which has so often been held to mark man from beast (“What a piece of work is man!”), that “thinking” has been so eroded into this farrago. Again, there are many ways in which the Trilogy tries hard to give an account of this process which seems necessary to be ascribed to a controller or torturer. Of course, to attribute purpose and intelligence, even to a tormenter, is to invent the resolution as part of the perceived problem, to give a spurious meaning to the activity of issuing words to that “issueless misery”. If something is perceived as a task, there must be a taskmaster.6

In this text the “Paf”s selem to be there to make further demands on the voice, to stimulate it to further efforts. So, while it is only able to elicit “noir” from “noir” (there seems to be no further intensity of “black” possible, even when the voice seems madly to being urged on to find one), it does manage to stimulate “éblouissement” from “blanc”, and “fournaise et glace” from “chaleur et froid”, but there is no further to be gone than rhetorical exaggeration of what is already elemental, “black, white, hot, cold”. The voice can do no more with what it has got. It might seem that it wanted to escape from the figure, the “character”, to spend some of its energies in the dubious delights of mathematical permutations. But it seems that there is no avoiding the figure and what must be constantly reported about it. And here arises one of the text's central ambiguities. When, driven back to the body and its eyes, the text presents certain details, the reader is unsure of the source of those details. We cannot know whether these details come from a narrator or whether they represent the unspoken voice of the “body”, whether we attribute them to a “creator” or to one we might call the “creature”, or whether it makes no difference which. We might have to come to terms with this truism, that it is a vain question, as all artists can ever...

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Robert Cochran (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Cochran, Robert. “The Short Fiction.” In Samuel Beckett: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 3-20. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Cochran surveys Beckett's early short fiction, including his short story collection More Pricks than Kicks.]


Samuel Beckett was 23, a scholar in the making recently arrived in Paris as lecteur at the École Normale Supérieure, when his first published study appeared in the spring of 1929. An auspicious debut, it was the lead essay in the imposingly titled Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, a collection...

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Robert J. Kloss (essay date March 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Kloss, Robert J. “The Turning Point at Last: Beckett's ‘First Love’ There is a Choice of Images.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 13, nos. 1-2 (March 1992): 21-33.

[In the following essay, Kloss identifies four short stories—“The End,” “The Calmative,” “The Expelled,” and “First Love”—as the turning point in Beckett's artistic career and provides a close reading of “First Love” to gain insight into the images, themes, and characterizations that came to preoccupy Beckett.]

In her biography of Samuel Beckett, Deirdre Bair vividly depicts a vision he had during one of his late-night, non-stop, drunken prowls that finished on the...

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Nicoletta Pireddu (essay date summer 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Pireddu, Nicoletta. “Sublime Supplements: Beckett and the ‘Fizzling Out’ of Meaning.” Studies in Short Fiction 29, no. 3 (summer 1992): 303-14.

[In the following essay, Pireddu considers the disjointed and confused nature of the short texts in Fizzles, arguing that these texts “exhibit the idea of aborted endeavor as their constitutive element.”]

“Perhaps there is no whole, before you're dead” (Beckett, Molloy 35), meditates Molloy while lying in the ditch without remembering how he left town. If his name suddenly comes to his mind as in an epiphany, the purpose of his visit to his mother inevitably escapes him: “My reasons? I...

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John Fletcher (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Fletcher, John. “Joyce, Beckett, and the Short Story in Ireland.” In Re: Joyce 'n Beckett, edited by Phyllis Carey and Ed Jewinski, pp. 3-20. New York: Fordham University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Fletcher finds similarities between Beckett's “Fingal” and James Joyce's “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.”]

In freshman classes, I tend to define the short story as a short prose narrative of concentrated effect, complete within its own terms, showing a firm story-line and often an abrupt ending, limited in its temporal and spatial location and in the number of characters deployed, and tending to work through understatement and humor rather than...

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John P. Harrington (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Harrington, John P. “Beckett, Joyce, and Irish Writing: The Example of Beckett's ‘Dubliners’ Story.” In Re: Joyce'n Beckett, edited by Phyllis Carey and Ed Jewinski, pp. 31-42. New York: Fordham University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Harrington investigates the influence of James Joyce on Beckett's short fiction, arguing that “A Case in a Thousand” is “the most apparent adoption in Beckett's early fiction of the style of Joyce's own early work.”]

After his work had taken on characteristic form and after he had acquired the public stature usual on winning the Nobel Prize, Samuel Beckett described his younger self of the 1930s as “‘a...

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Michael J. Noble (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Noble, Michael J. “Speaking the Same Language: Samuel Beckett, Jacques Derrida and Vice Versa.” The Journal of the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters 70 (1993): 81-90.

[In the following essay, Noble underscores the common characteristics of the language in Beckett's short stories and Derrida's language theory, contending that “the texts of Derrida and Beckett speak the same ideological and theoretical language.”]

The title page of an English edition of a work by Samuel Beckett or Jacques Derrida is likely to include a translation credit because these writers originally wrote in French. But French is not the only common characteristic of the...

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Harry Vandervlist (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Vandervlist, Harry. “Nothing Doing: The Repudiation of Action in Beckett's More Pricks than Kicks.” In Negation, Critical Theory, and Postmodern Textuality, edited by Daniel Fischlin, pp. 145-56. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994.

[In the following essay, Vandervlist identifies the repudiation of action as a unifying theme of the stories in More Pricks than Kicks.]

Samuel Beckett's early stories may not appear, at first sight, to share the kind of negative strategies characteristic of the better-known prose works, dating from the trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. Yet his 1934 collection of stories, More...

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S. E. Gontarski (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Gontarski, S. E. “From Unabandoned Works Samuel Beckett's Short Prose.” In Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989, edited by S. E. Gontarski, pp. xi-xxxii. New York: Grove Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Gontarski assesses Beckett's achievements as a short fiction writer.]

While short fiction was a major creative outlet for Samuel Beckett, it has heretofore attracted only a minor readership. Such neglect is difficult to account for, given that Beckett wrote short fiction for the entirety of his creative life and his literary achievement and innovation are as apparent in the short works as in his more famous novels and plays, if succinctly...

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Robert Scholes (essay date 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Scholes, Robert. “Playing with the Cries.” Samuel Beckett Today 7 (1998): 379-90.

[In the following essay, Scholes approaches “First Love” as a hypertext and recommends that the reader explore links found in the story.]

There is a page on the World Wide Web called “Play It Again, Sam”. If you should visit that page, you will find a sold black background, with the words “I Can't Go On” written there. If you click on those underlined words, you will find yourself on another black page, on which the words “I Must Go On” appear. A click there and you are back to the black page with “I Can't Go On” inscribed thereon. You can continue this as long as you wish. Play it again, Sam, indeed.

I mention these pages because they afford some insight into the way that Beckett appears in the modern cultural text—and because, like the words of any durable writer—they speak for us as well as to us. In my case, they speak for me. I have read this text, Beckett's “First Love”, many times, and I have nothing to say about it. And yet I must. I am back in school, a place I never really cared for, and the class is waiting for my book report. I am stalling, of course, trying not to begin, but I must begin. I have undertaken to write about “First Love”, and to write “semiotically”, if possible, so here I am, about to begin, which I shall certainly do—in a moment or two.

Actually, I would rather write about my own first love, and would certainly do so if I were sure which one it was. I think it must have been Carrie, who worked for my parents, was beautiful, I believe, and made wonderful cookies—of that I am certain. Yes, Carrie and her cookies would be a much pleasanter subject than Beckett and his “First Love”, but, come to think of it, Carrie left me—I must have been eight years old at the time—for a man. She married, had a child, and that was that. As Beckett says at the end of “First Love”, “either you love or you don't”.

I seem to have begun speaking of Beckett and his story (though perhaps not “semiotically”), but not because I promised do so. No, it is rather because Beckett is insisting. His words, as he almost said himself, can be applied to our situations. Yes, despite everything, these disgusting and somewhat boring post-Kafkaesque narratives of despair and degradation have something to say to us about our ordinary lives. And what's more, they are often funny—yes, amusing. You have to like a man who can say, “I have no bone to pick with graveyards”. What, then, is Beckett saying to us in “First Love”? How should we read this text?

We can take what we might call the pigeon's-eye view, flying high over this story, noting its broad outlines, and dropping our little messages upon the text, as pigeons do with monuments, thereby obscuring some of its words and meanings. Or we can take the worm's-eye view, grubbing around in the mouldering text, chewing on this or that bit to see if there is anything in it that can nourish us, but never seeing the whole picture. Let us not, however, get too caught up in our own grubby metaphors. Let us be eclectic—a little flying and dropping, with a little grubbing and chewing. From up above, we can see that this text has just seven paragraphs. Let me, like a good semiotician, list them, in order, with their size noted, and their opening phrases:

1. (four lines) I associate, rightly or wrongly, marriage with the death. […]

2. (fifteen lines) I visited, not so long ago, my father's grave, […]

3. (a page and a half) Personally, I have no bone to pick with graveyards […]

4. (almost two pages) But to pass on to less melancholy matters, […]

5. (over nine pages) But to pass on to less melancholy matters, […]

6. (almost three pages) There were in fact two rooms, […]

7. (about three pages) Gradually, I settled down, in this house.

Very irregular paragraphing, notes our pigeon: Splat! In fact, the fifth paragraph is just about as long as all the others combined? Splat! A semiotician might find these matters interesting and revealing—but not this semiotician, at this moment. Our pigeon's flight over the text has not been in vain, however, for it has called our attention to the fact that the two central paragraphs in this text begin with exactly the same phrase: “But to pass on to less melancholy matters.” Given what is recounted in these paragraphs, it is clear that we are in a universe divided between more and less melancholy matters, like that Hegelian night in which all cows lose their colours. This repetition is also a clue, however, as to how we should be reading this text. It suggests that we should attend to repetition—of which, it turns out, there is a lot in these few pages. Let us return, then, by this commodious vicus of recirculation, to the beginning.

The first words of the text, after the title, are: “I associate.” Stop right there, please. Hold that phrase. (The semiotician, as Roland Barthes told us too long ago, breaks up the text! And where is our Roland? Where is the author of “A Lover's Discourse” and other lovelorn, melancholy texts? Where is the great apologist for écriture? He sleeps with kings and counsellors and other scriveners, including our Sam, whose corpse, if I may borrow some words from our narrator at the end of paragraph 4, has finally come “up to scratch”. Am I being macabre? Am I being impious to our great dead writers? I am being nothing that Samuel Beckett has not taught me to be, and my point is that these lessons are useful. Sam carried his heavy burden lightly, which is why he could indeed play it again and again.) But back to those first words: “I associate”—indeed you do, Sam, indeed you do—and so, then, must we, your readers, in our own attempts to come up to scratch. The first paragraph, I am suggesting, is, among other things, telling us how to read this text and others: by associating, by finding links. Even, as the text suggests, “other links on other levels”.

Finding links! How hypertextual! Like other postmodernist writers, Beckett seems to have been writing for hypertext avant l'ordinateur. Let us try to come up to scratch ourselves, however, and attend to our own itches. This text offers us—nay, insists upon—two orders of association, which semioticians once liked to call the metaphorical and the metonymical. Unhappy with the confusions evoked by those two terms, I shall refer to these two orders of association as simply the semantic and the syntactic. The semantic is based upon words, as they lie quietly in dictionaries and thesauruses—words, that is, referring to one another by similarity or opposition of meaning, like live and quick (semantic, based on similarity), or quick and dead (semantic, based upon opposition). The syntactic order, on the other hand, is based upon linkages established outside the dictionary, in the world and its texts, like death and the grave, the grave and the tombstone. I would say, “Let us get back to Beckett”, but death and graves and tombstones have already brought us back. Let us, in any case, look more closely at the words of “First Love”.

The first paragraph begins not with narration, as the seventh paragraph does (“Gradually, I settled down”), nor with description, as the sixth paragraph does (“There were, in fact, two rooms, separated by a kitchen”), but with a meta-discursive statement (that is, a statement about the discourse itself): “I associate.” The one who is recounting this narrative (the author? the speaker? the narrator?) is telling us how his mind and, by extension, his text, work. And what does this “I” associate? He—let us call him “he”, for various reasons—He associates marriage with death. Marriage and death—not your standard pairing of concepts—or mine either. This unusual combination, because of its oddity, offers us food for thought. The text, as early as the next paragraph, clarifies this odd association by supplying a middle term: birth. The entire narrative has in fact been organized as a working out of variations on the themes of death, marriage, and birth, in their various combinations and permutations—and Beckett, as a reading of Watt will remind us, is a virtuoso of the combinatoire. He takes pleasure—perhaps gives it, too, to readers who share his own combinatorial perversion—in expressing all the possible combinations of a few simple elements—often playing them over, again and again. At the beginning of “First Love”, however, Beckett's narrator poses for us the problem of what death and marriage may have to do with one another, and, in particular, what his father's death may have to do with his own marriage. Our reading thus becomes motivated by the desire for answers to these questions—which the text will indeed supply.

(Dear old Roland, in the heady days of early structuralism, when narratologists were scrambling around, pasting labels on every narrative device or code, offered us a name for this kind of motivation—but I have forgotten it. Does this mean that Barthes and other laboured in vain? No more than we all do, no more than we all do. The codes offered to us in S/Z could never be the last word in the study of narrative. Like other rhetorical and critical terms, they serve to call our attention, as readers, to certain aspects of texts that might otherwise escape us. Breaking up the text, as Barthes did in that justly famous reading of Balzac's Sarassine, also serves a great interpretative purpose, in that it forces us to awaken from our narrative slumbers, induced by the teleological charms of realistic narration. By breaking up the text arbitrarily we experience the kind of alienation or estrangement that enables us to stop, for a moment, reading, and start, for a while, thinking. A late (or post-) modernist writer like Beckett, however, is likely to alienate us himself, needing no critic to break up his text. Beckett, needless to say, is very good at this. Having broken up my own text, which was never seductive enough to lull the critical faculties of its audience, though perhaps capable of lulling in a more somatic sense, I must now find my way back to Beckett's. Ah, yes, we were talking about the way that the opening conundrum of “First Love”—that association of marriage and death—works to rouse a curiosity that only the text could supply.)

These supplements begin in the second paragraph, in which the narrator recounts his visits to the graveyard, to read a tombstone and thus obtain the dates of his father's death and birth. He does so, apparently, by way of research for the account he is offering us, in order to ascertain his own age (about twenty-five) at the time of his marriage. Knowing that he married shortly after his father's death, he will be able to calculate his age by subtracting his birth date from his father's death date. But he can look at no tombstone to find the date of his own birth. Where, then, does that date repose? It is, he tells us, “graven on my memory”. You will forgive the semiotical “aha” which caused me to emphasize that word “graven”. To engrave is to scratch, to dig, and, of course, to write in a durable way, to produce writing that cannot be easily erased, like the words scratched upon tombstones. If you look for me tomorrow, says the dying Mercutio to Romeo, you will find me a grave man. Well, this is a grave man who is writing our story here, a man who believes that, if his dead Papa could see him, he would find his “corpse not yet quite up to scratch”.

To “come up to scratch” is a term from the old days of bare knuckle boxing. It referred to a line scratched in the earth, to which a fighter who had been knocked down had to return or lose the fight. In English idiom now, it signifies, loosely, being ready, measuring up. In Beckett's text, the dead father, “in his great disembodied wisdom”, may see “further than his son, whose corpse was not yet quite up to scratch”. The living son is, paradoxically, a corpse, but not yet a finished one, not yet perfected, not yet ready to be disembodied, to cross the line graven between life and death—“not yet quite up to scratch”. “Scratch”, then, signifies, at this textual moment, a line between being bodied and being disembodied, corpsed and decorpsed. One thinks of Yeats and his soul, “sick with desire and fastened to a dying animal”—that is the line of thought embodied or engraved in Beckett's prose, here. To be alive, in this textual universe, is to be a corpse, dragging the flesh around, whereas to be dead is to be disembodied, freed from the drag of the flesh, which prevents one from “seeing”. And the drag of the flesh is very much what this story is about. It is also, of course, about scratching, engraving, in a word: writing.

(Semioticians are always finding out that texts are about writing, about how they were written. How boring! How stultifying! And yet—Look! I have nothing up my sleeve. The references to writing are in Beckett's text. He put them there. And this is important. If I were bringing these meanings to the text all by myself, the whole process would be trivial and silly. Why bother? Interpretation is a game in which both the writer and the reader are players. “No symbols where none intended”, says Beckett at the end of Watt, knowing full well that intention is a slippery notion, extending, as it does, from conscious purpose to unconscious revelation. In the third paragraph our narrator concentrates on graveyards, telling us he prefers the scents of the dead to the odours of the living, but we mustn't let the shock of this revelation distract us from the attention paid to writing in this paragraph. For it is here that we discover our narrator to be a writer. He enjoys, he tells us, wandering among the slabs, “culling inscriptions”. He never wearies of these, since he always finds a few that are so amusing, “of such drollery”, he says, that he has “to hold on to the cross, or the stele, or the angel, so as not to fall”. More important for our interpretative purposes, however, is the revelation that the narrator has composed his own epitaph, which he inscribes not on stone but in our text, and that he has written other things that he finds revolting as soon as they are “dry”. This is a curious moment, for the narrator's life, as revealed in the subsequent paragraphs, seems to be that of a homeless person, expelled from his father's house after his father's death, briefly taken in by a woman, driven out again at the moment of his own dubious paternity by the cries of his new-born of his child. There seems to be no place in this life for pen, ink, and paper—for “writing” in the physical sense suggested by that expression: “My other writings are no sooner dry than they revolt me.”

I am inclined to read this curious allusion to “other writings” as a kind of break in the text, in which the author's voice is inscribed over that of the narrating character. If we attend to what I have called the “circumstantial” evidence about this text, we can note that Beckett did not like it very much when he wrote it in French, nor, again, when he translated it into English. This story, “First Love”, is, no doubt, one of the “other writings”, that our narrator/author finds revolting. Of this paring, author/narrator, it is the author, Sam, who writes on paper. Our narrator, who tells us that he should have made a note “on paper” of Lulu's proper name, did not in fact do so, though, in the throes of first love, he finds himself “inscribing the letters Lulu in an old heifer pat”, or, as he also puts it, “tracing her name in old cowshit” (paragraph 5). When our narrator writes (inscribes, traces—how many words he has for writing!), he writes on dung. But who has written this story—and on what? There are other moments, as well, when what we might call the register of this account shifts from the abjection of a dispossessed vagabond, to a different level, where the abjection and dispossession are on a grander scale, seeming to mirror, in however distorted a manner, the life of a citizen of modern Europe, who is, in fact, an exiled (self-exiled, like Joyce, no doubt) Irish writer, who has wandered through Europe, writing, in a foreign language, texts he finds revolting.

Our narrator is not the only one whose words are writ in cowshit, and cowshit is not the only kind of shit in this text. It seems that history also excretes. In one of the few passages that serve to locate these events in a specific place, the narrator speaks of his native land in this way:

What constitutes the charm of our country, apart of course from its scant population, and this without the help of the meanest contraceptive, is that all is derelict, with the sole exception of history's ancient faeces. These are ardently sought after, stuffed and carried in procession. Wherever nauseated time has dropped a nice fat turd you will find our patriots, sniffling it up on all fours, their faces on fire.

(“First Love,” 33-34)

Many a nation, not excluding my own, has had its moments of worship for the droppings of history. But that scant population, achieved without birth control, seems to point to Ireland more clearly than to anyplace else. (The text's most specific geographical reference, of course, is to the Ohlsdorf graveyard, in Hamburg, which is present by association, as the complete opposite of the graveyard visited by our narrator. Beckett, of course, did indeed spend some time in Hamburg early in his career.) The mask of this character/narrator is being worn loosely by the author, whose voice repeatedly makes itself heard, though the story is clearly too absurd, too beautiful, too neat—to be literally his. History's “ancient faeces”, of course, are themselves signs, already traces, inscriptions—which is why they are worshipped. By positioning them within his account of inscribing the word Lulu on cow pats, the author/narrator compares his own behaviour, when crazed by “first love” to the behaviour of his crazed compatriots, sniffling up the droppings of history: “Would I have been tracing her name in old cowshit if my love had been pure and disinterested? And with my devil's finger into the bargain, which I then sucked? Come now!” He sucks his sticky finger, the devil's finger, too, like the patriots, sniffling up the faeces of history with their faces on fire.

A pretty pass, to which our narrator was led by the events that took place on a bench by one of the town's two canals. These events, narrated in paragraph 5 (the second devoted to “less melancholy matters”) may be said to reach a climax when he stretches out, with her “fat thighs” under his “miserable calves”. Let us follow the event in his own deadly prose. (I will need to quote at some length, here.)

She began stroking my ankles. I considered kicking her in the cunt. You begin to speak to people about stretching out and they immediately see a body at full length. What mattered to me in my dispeopled kingdom, that in regard to which the disposition of my carcass was the merest and most futile of accidents, was supineness in the mind, the dulling of the self and of that residue of execrable frippery known as the non-self and even the world, for short. But man is still today, at the age of twenty-five, at the mercy of an erection, physically too, from time to time, it's the common lot, even I was not immune, if that may be called an erection. It did not escape her naturally, women smell a rigid phallus ten miles away and wonder, How on earth did he spot me from there? One is no longer oneself on such occasions, and it is painful to be no longer oneself, even more painful if possible than when one is. For when one is one knows what to do to be less so, whereas when one is not one is any old one irredeemably. What goes by the name of love is banishment, with now and then a postcard from the homeland, such is my considered opinion, this evening. When she had finished and my self been resumed, mine own, the mitigable, with the help of a brief torpor, it was alone.

(“FL” [“First Love”], 31)

One may pause to note the misogyny of this text. Our narrator, like many male modernists and postmodernists, wants to associate the female with the body and the male with the mind or soul. Unfortunately for him, however, he has a phallus, which ties him to woman, reminds him that he has a body, that he shares “the common lot”. “Even”, he says, “even I was not immune”. Of course, this narrator and his world being what they are, his erection is nothing to brag about—“if that may be called an erection”. But this is a strangely philosophical passage, is it not. The actual physical act, to which the title of the story may refer, seems to have taken place here, somewhere in or behind this paragraph, between the erection and the torpor, while the narrator was philosophising about the self and the nonself in his enervated existentialist jargon. “What goes by the name of love is banishment”, says this Irish exile. And he says it at the present moment, “this evening”. And which evening is that? We may well ask. Is it the evening of this first act of “love”? Probably not. That would be “then”. This is now, this evening. But the text also situates this moment as “today, at the age of twenty-five”, the age, that is, which the narrator was then. Uh-oh! Beware, interpreters! Traps and snares are being set for you. Is it the evening of the act of narrating? Perhaps. Is it also the evening of the writing? Possibly. Or of the translating? Maybe. Or is it no actual evening at all, but just the word “evening”, a signifier, with a signified, but no referent? Almost certainly. And yet, to read is to assign not only signification but reference to words, even if to read fiction is to assign fictional reference.

It is possible that this particular reference to “today, at the age of twenty-five” is intended only to describe how men in general, at the age of twenty-five, even in the present era still behave. But “today” and “this evening”, in association, reinforce one another in their apparent reference to a present time. This is a text that both invites and undoes the assignment of specific reference to its significations. But let us look more closely at certain other features of this paragraph. “She began stroking my ankles. I considered kicking her in the cunt. You begin to speak to people about stretching out and they immediately see a body at full length.” Notice first the pronouns: She, I, You, they. Two sentences of narration, referring to the two characters in this little drama, followed by two clauses of generalization, in which “you” and “they” have replaced “I” and “she”. This late modernist narrator generalizes almost as much as Balzac or George Eliot. But these generalizations do not reach us with the same ethical authority, because the narrator is neither steady nor reliable, and the author has been contaminated by the narrator—or vice versa.

That “stretching out” should lead visions of “a body at full length”, should come as no surprise to any late modernist with T. S. Eliot's “The evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table” always hovering in the intertextual background. Which ought to remind us that another major intertext for Beckett's story is “The Waste Land”.

While I was fishing in the dull canal,
Musing upon the king my brother's wreck
And on the king my father's death before him.
White bodies naked on the low damp ground. […]

(ll. 189-192)

In Eliot's world, however, one doesn't consider kicking one's neighbour in the cunt. Such are the advances of late modernism over its predecessor. The narrator of “First Love”, in his own “dispeopled kingdom”, is not fishing in the canal near which he is positioned. He becomes, rather, to his own disgust, one of the “white bodies”, though neither naked nor on the ground. Unlike Eliot's mythical Fisher King with his sterilizing wound that will not heal, our narrator's wound is precisely his unsterility—that is, both his erection and his potency, his ability to engender. Or, perhaps better, his inability not to engender, his inability to terminate the absurd dance of corporeality so as to avoid passing it on to the next generation. His corpse, unable to come up to the scratch of decomposition, must continue to itch with the fever of procreation—and of composition. He must, in short, fuck and write.

He, that is his consciousness, cannot remain in the realm of pure thought but is “banished” by love to the badlands of the body, where his active corpse continues the gross joke of human existence. This is why the birth of his child is the final, unendurable indignity. Before that dreadful event, things had begun to get better for our narrator: “Already my love was waning […] Yes, already I felt better, soon I'd be up to the slow descents again, the long submersions, so long denied me through her fault.” At this time he also began to hear his voice uttering unintended sentiments: “I was so unused to speech that my mouth would sometimes open, of its own accord, and vent some phrase or phrases, grammatically unexceptionable but entirely devoid if not of meaning, for on close inspection they would reveal one, and even several, at least of foundation […].” He does not say what his words are devoid of. Which makes this particular utterance, written not spoken, grammatically exceptionable. But here again, where there is no narrative need for a discussion of expression and interpretation, the text finds it necessary to introduce the topic—and to leave it very much up in the air. The utterances of this speaker are alien to him, they may be full of meanings but they are (a) not really his, and (b) only “foundational”—whatever that may mean. I take it to mean that interpretation, working on these “foundational” meanings may indeed rise to others, but that these other meanings will be doubly detached from the author of the words being interpreted. Another warning from the author. Not only, no symbols where none intended, but also a guarantee that the utterances are cut off from any intention whatsoever. They will be the interpreter's responsibility. We must respect that thought, I believe, and take responsibility for our interpretations of this text and others—but we must also try to pin them on the author as a blindfolded child tries to pin a cardboard tail on a cardboard donkey—which means that we may pin out interpretative tails to the author's ear, or his haunch, or completely off the authorial image, but the goal is clearly to pin the tail to the author's ass, where it belongs.

Coming back from this metadiscursive excursion into the larger topic of interpretation, I want to pick up the interpretative thread of the birth/death connection. After Lulu/Anna begins speaking about “our” child in her womb, the narrator tells us that, “From that day things went from bad to worse, to worse and worse”. And then, the worst happened—not something like the death of mother and child that gives a modern novel like Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms its pathetic ending, but a perfectly normal live birth: “But I did not know yet, at that time, how tender the earth can be for those who have only her and how many graves in her giving for the living. What finished me was the birth. It woke me up.” He leaves a house for the second time in this narrative, driven out of his first home by the death of his father, and out of the second by the birth of his child. From this second house, however, he takes something with him—or rather something accompanies him. He is pursued by the cries of the new-born. He looks to the stars for orientation, if not for consolation, but he cannot even find the one he used to remember out of the many that his own father had shown him. He discovers that he cannot hear the cries when he is walking. His footsteps drown them out. But, whenever he stops he hears them. Then, he tells us, he “began playing with the cries”—playing a kind of fort-da game, “on, back, on, back, if that may be called playing”. The cries became fainter as he distanced himself in space and time from the dreadful event of the birth, but, like the beating of the telltale heart in Poe's gothic tale, they never stopped altogether. And what, he asks, does it matter, that they grew fainter: “cry is cry, all that matters is that it should cease. For years I thought they would cease. Now I don't think so any more. I could have done with other loves perhaps. But there it is, either you love or you don't”.

With these final words the narrator brings us up to the present again, and the author's voice once again seems to be heard. “Playing with the cries” is an apt description of everything this author has written, text after text, in which we are allowed to hear the cries of corpses who have not yet come up to scratch. All of which would be unbearable for us as readers, if it were not for the fact that Beckett is indeed playing, that the texts are full of jokes and other verbal gifts, and that this author does not stand aside and sneer at his characters, nor blame the cosmos for its structure, but recognizes his own implication in his texts and allows us to see and share it, too. For this kind of playing with the cries of human existence, however, imperfect, however, in Beckett's own word, “revolting”, we must simply be grateful. There is much more to be said about a rich text such as this one. There are scenes and episodes I have left unconsidered, and I have not said nearly enough about “the dread name of love”. But limits are limits, and I must now abandon my own text, which I assure you, revolts me as much as Beckett's revolted him.

Carolyn Jursa Ayers (essay date 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Ayers, Carolyn Jursa. “An Interpretive Dialogue: Beckett's ‘First Love’ and Bakhtin's Categories of Meaning.” Samuel Beckett Today 7 (1998): 391-405.

[In the following essay, Ayers applies Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of dialogue to “First Love.”]

Discussing Beckett and Bakhtin together presents a challenge, to say the least; it seems remarkable that two men who led somewhat parallel lives could come to such diametrically opposed conceptions of man's place in the world. They were, after all, rough historical contemporaries (Bakhtin's dates are 1895-1975, Beckett's are 1906-1989), and lived through some of the same experiences of the twentieth century....

(The entire section is 6388 words.)

Willie van Peer (essay date 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: van Peer, Willie. “Beckett's ‘First Love’ and Cynical Philosophy.” Samuel Beckett Today 7 (1998): 407-17.

[In the following essay, van Peer places “First Love” within the philosophical tradition of cynicism.]

My interpretation of “First Love” forms part of a larger argument, that sees all interpretation, contrary to present-day fashionable theories, as a quest for truth, guided by specific methodological rules. There is no space to expound on this matter here, so let me restrict the issue with a reference to an article where I have developed this matter in more detail; see Van Peer (1998). As a brief illustration, however, I would like to point...

(The entire section is 4370 words.)

Henk Hillenaar (essay date 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hillenaar, Henk. “A Psychoanalytical Approach to Beckett's ‘First Love’.” Samuel Beckett Today 7 (1998): 419-37.

[In the following essay, Hillenaar provides a psychoanalytical reading of “First Love.”]

“First Love” is the first soliloquy that Beckett wrote, just after World War II. It has the characteristic features that we find in all his novels, plays or short stories. Especially striking is the combination of a strongly structured, and often comical language, which presents the thinking of a very “adult” person, on one side, with descriptions of very elementary sensations and feelings—those of an earlier life—supporting and feeding...

(The entire section is 8263 words.)

Peter Boxall (essay date 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Boxall, Peter. “‘The Existence I Ascribe’: Memory, Invention, and Autobiography in Beckett's Fiction.” The Yearbook of English Studies 30 (2000): 137-52.

[In the following essay, Boxall maintains that “First Love” signals a turning point in Beckett's writing style with his employment of the monologue form as well as his “oscillation between remembrance and invention as a form of storytelling.”]


This essay takes as its starting point what I suggest is a seminal moment in Beckett's fiction. In his 1946 novella, “First Love,” the narrator draws attention for the first time...

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Birgitta Johansson (essay date 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Johansson, Birgitta. “Beckett and the Apophatic in Selected Shorter Texts.” Samuel Beckett Today 9 (2000): 55-66.

[In the following essay, Johansson explores Beckett's utilization of the apophatic approach, which is the theory that God is unknowable, in his short texts.]

Samuel Beckett's rambling discourses play with boundaries between the sacred and the secular. His protagonists can represent voices that pray, although they may not always be conscious of this. At least, praying does not appear to be their main objective in life, if one can speak of objectives or volition in their case. As Lawrence E. Harvey puts it, “renunciation of personal will” in...

(The entire section is 4891 words.)

Julie Campbell (essay date 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Campbell, Julie. “‘Echo's Bones’ and Beckett's Disembodied Voices.” Samuel Beckett Today 11 (2001): 454-60.

[In the following essay, Campbell situates Beckett's unpublished story “Echo's Bone's” within his earlier and later texts.]

The dead die hard, trespassers on the beyond, they must take the place as they find it, the shafts and manholes back into the muck, till such time as the lord of the manor incurs through his long acquiescence a duty of care in respect of them. They are free among the dead by all means, then their troubles are over, their natural troubles. But the debt of nature, that scandalous post-obit on one's own...

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Joseph F. Connelly (essay date 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Connelly, Joseph F. “The Shared Aesthetic of Jack Yeats and Beckett: More Pricks than Kicks.Notes on Modern Irish Literature 13 (2001): 47-54.

[In the following essay, Connelly investigates the relationship between the short stories in More Pricks than Kicks and the visual arts, particularly the work of the Irish painter Jack Yeats.]

When the Irish short story comes under scrutiny, Samuel Beckett's collection More Pricks than Kicks (1934) is neither at the forefront nor, at least, even mentioned. As a writer of prose fiction, Beckett is an anomaly as he is considered more French than Irish, and his reputation rests in theater and the...

(The entire section is 3958 words.)

Adrian Hunter (essay date April 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hunter, Adrian. “Beckett and the Joycean Short Story.” Essays in Criticism 51, no. 2 (April 2001): 230-44.

[In the following essay, Hunter determines the influence of Joyce's Dubliners on More Pricks than Kicks.]

Reviewing More Pricks than Kicks in 1934, Edwin Muir identified a Beckett very much at home in Bloom's kitchen: ‘the toasting of a slice of bread, or the purchase and cooking of a lobster, can become matters of intellectual interest and importance to him’.1 For Muir, the influence of Joyce was no cause for concern, though he was firm in his conclusion that, as yet, Beckett's work ‘[did] not nearly come up to’ the...

(The entire section is 5293 words.)

Jan Alber (essay date spring 2002)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Alber, Jan. “The ‘Moreness’ or ‘Lessness’ of ‘Natural’ Narratology: Samuel Beckett's ‘Lessness’ Reconsidered.” Style 36, no. 1 (spring 2002): 54-75.

[In the following essay, Albert utilizes “Lessness” to test the narratological approach of Monika Fludernik's Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology.]


According to J. E. Dearlove, the fragmentary short prose works that Samuel Beckett produced in the period following the publication of Comment C'est (1961), i.e., “All Strange Away” (1963-64), Imagination Dead Imagine (1965), Enough (1965), Ping (1966), Lessness...

(The entire section is 9579 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Amiran, Eyal. Review of Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989, by Samuel Beckett. Studies in Short Fiction 34, no. 4 (fall 1997): 523-25.

Laudatory review.

Cathleen Culotta, Andonian, ed. The Critical Response to Samuel Beckett, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998, 428 p.

Collection of critical essays.

John, Pilling, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Beckett, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 249 p.

Collection of essays on Beckett's work.

Additional coverage of Beckett's life and career is contained in...

(The entire section is 231 words.)