Samuel Beckett Beckett, Samuel (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Samuel Beckett 1906-1989

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

The following entry provides criticism on Beckett's works from 1992 through 2003. For criticism prior to 1992, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 11, 14, 18, 29, and 59; for discussion of his play En attendant Godot (1953; Waiting for Godot), see CLC, Volume 57; and for discussion of his play Fin de Partie (1957; Endgame), see CLC, Volume 83.

One of the most celebrated authors in world literature, Beckett is especially recognized for his significant impact on modern drama. His play En attendant Godot (1953; Waiting for Godot) is a seminal work of the Theater of the Absurd, a post-World War II trend in drama characterized by experimental techniques and philosophical nihilism. In his works, Beckett expounds a philosophy of negation through characters who face a meaningless existence without the comforts of religion, myth, or philosophical absolutes.

Biographical Information

Beckett was born on April 13, 1906, and raised in Ireland. He traveled to Paris in the late 1920s and became associated with James Joyce, whom he regarded as a consummate literary artist. Beckett's first volume of fiction, More Pricks than Kicks (1934), won modest critical attention. This book, which can be considered a novel or a collection of interrelated stories, reflects Joyce's influence in its embellished prose and in retrospect is considered atypical of Beckett's work. The novel Murphy (1938) initiated the spare prose style that has since come to be identified with Beckett's fictional works. During World War II, Becket worked with the French Resistance and had to flee Paris in order to avoid capture by the Nazis. In the years immediately following the war, he returned to Paris and created what many consider his finest prose achievements. The novels Molloy (1951), Malone meurte (1951; Malone Dies), and L'innommable (1953; The Unnamable), introduced into Beckett's writing two important developments: he began writing French rather than English, finding that he could write with greater austerity in that language, and the novels are narrated as first-person monologues. Dissatisfied with the progress he was making as a prose writer, Beckett experimented with drama. He wrote Waiting for Godot in the late 1940s, but the text of the play was not published until 1953. First performed in Paris, Waiting for Godot became an immediate success. Beckett produced several more acclaimed dramatic and prose works throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including the plays Fin de partie (1957; Endgame), Krapp's Last Tape (1958), and Happy Days (1961), and the novel Comment c'est (1961; How It Is). In 1969 Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for creating, as a representative of the prize committee declared, a “body of work that, in new forms of fiction and the theater, has transmuted the destitution of modern man into his exultation.” Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Beckett continued to be productive both as a playwright and a prose writer, focusing on short and densely complex works in both genres. Since his death in 1989, two significant early works by Beckett—the novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1992) and the play Eleuthéria (1995)—have been published for the first time.

Major Works

Beckett's major prose works are three novels that are often considered as a trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. Each of these novels is narrated by a different character who may be viewed as a variation of a single individual. All three of the novels feature either narrators or characters with names that begin with the letter “M,” and it has been suggested by critics that this is a cipher for “Man.” The narrators suffer rapid physical decay while their minds reassure them of their continued existence. In The Unnamable this decay culminates in a being composed only of a mind and a mouth. This being, like many of Beckett's characters, creates stories and contrives a long, rambling monologue as a means of counteracting the pervasiveness of silence and nothingness. Beckett's prose work since the trilogy is marked by the omission of various elements of conventional sentence structure, including conjunctions and punctuation, the result being what appears to be an accumulation of verbal fragments. The most important instance of this tendency is How It Is, in which Beckett abandons all punctuation. Several of Beckett's later prose works are either collections of short “texts” or “novels” that are the length of a chapbook. In these works, Beckett projects intense, often painful images through rhythmic language that stresses and repeats individual words or phrases. One of the most acclaimed examples of Beckett's later prose is Companie (1979; Company), which concerns a voice telling its life's story to a being lying alone in the dark.

Among his dramatic works, Beckett's first produced play, Waiting for Godot, has received the most critical analysis of his entire output as a writer and is one of the most celebrated works in modern literature. The play concerns two down-and-out characters, Vladimir and Estragon, who await the arrival of a Mr. Godot, with whom they apparently have a meeting planned for some unspecified purpose. While waiting for Godot, these characters for the most part pass the time by engaging in conspicuously trivial conversation and activities and occasionally reflecting on weightier issues of human existence. Their attempts to amuse themselves are played out against a bare stage setting. While the actions, gestures, and words of the characters are usually taken to illuminate the predicament of humanity in general, Waiting for Godot has also been subject to various interpretations that include viewing the work as a parable of Christian aspirations for salvation to a depiction of the absence of meaning in human life. Such interpretations, however, are often considered to limit the full implications of the play. In its deemphasis of plot, scenery, dramatic action, and character psychology, Waiting for Godot defies conventional forms of drama as well as conventional critical readings.

Beckett's next play, Endgame, like Waiting for Godot, focuses on a pair of characters faced with nothingness as they attempt to find meaning in their existence. Critics have noted that the characters of this play resemble chess pieces playing an “endgame” in which the outcome has already been determined. The black humor and pathetic circumstances of these players is grimmer and more intense than the plight of Vladimir and Estragon. In Endgame and subsequent plays, Beckett further develops innovative theatrical techniques and philosophical concerns. Krapp's Last Tape depicts a single character who, with the aid of a tape recorder, relives the past that has led to his present, alienated state. Winnie, the central figure of Happy Days, continues to perform her daily rituals while sinking into the earth. Beckett's later drama becomes even more minimalistic, often displaying great technical virtuosity by forcing the audience to concentrate on a single image, such as the raving, disembodied mouth in Not I (1972). Many critics consider Rockaby (1981) one of the most striking achievements of Beckett's minimalization of drama. Rockaby is structured on the image of an old woman in a rocking chair while listening to a recording of what seems to be her life story. Most critics praise the mixture of poetic language and dramatic image as contributing to the power of this work. While some commentators judge these minimal dramas as a whole to be a waste of Beckett's talent, many others find his work to be continually fresh and innovative, applauding him for realizing forceful dramatic statements with increasingly less material.

Critical Reception

Although Beckett's works are darkly comic, his characters often grotesque, and his themes evocative of the absurdity and meaninglessness of human existence, he is not generally considered a nihilistic writer. Instead, he is widely recognized as having a keen sense of the condition of modern life, especially the impotence and ignorance of a world that has purportedly reached an advanced stage of technological and intellectual sophistication.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Whoroscope (poetry) 1930

Proust (essay) 1931

More Pricks than Kicks (short stories) 1934

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

Murphy (novel) 1938

Malone meurte [Malone Dies] (novel) 1951

Molloy (novel) 1951

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

L'innommable [The Unnamable] (novel) 1953

Watt (novel) 1953

Nouvelles et texts pour rien [Stories and Texts for Nothing] (short stories) 1955

Actes sans paroles I (play) 1957

All that Fall (play) 1957

Fin de Partie [Endgame] (play) 1957

Krapp's Last Tape (play) 1958

Actes sans paroles II (play) 1960

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

Happy Days (play) 1961

Poems in English (poetry) 1961

Comédie [Play] (play) 1964

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

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

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

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

Film (screenplay) 1969

Breath (play) 1970

Le dépeupleur [The Lost Ones] (play) 1970

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

Premier amour [First Love] (short story) 1970

Not I (play) 1972

First Love, and Other Shorts (short stories) 1974

All Strange Away (prose) 1976

Ends and Odds (plays and radio plays) 1976

Fizzles (prose) 1976

Foot Falls (play) 1976

That Time (play) 1976

Companie [Company] (novel) 1979

A Piece of Monologue (play) 1979

Mal vu mal dit [Ill Seen Ill Said (poetry) 1981

Ohio Impromptu (play) 1981

Rockaby (play) 1981

Texts for Nothing (play) 1981

Catastrophe (play) 1982

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

Worstward Ho (novel) 1983

The Complete Dramatic Works (plays) 1986

Stirrings Still (novella) 1988

Dream of Fair to Middling Women (novel) 1992

Eleuthéria (play) 1995

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

Collected Poems (poetry) 1999

Michèle Praeger (essay date spring 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Praeger, Michèle. “Self-Translation as Self-Confrontation: Beckett's Mercier et/and Camier.Mosaic 25, no. 2 (spring 1992): 91-105.

[In the following essay, Praeger explores Beckett's views on language and linguistics by studying the writer's translation of his own work Mercier et Camier.]

Until recently, Beckett's activity as a self-translator has largely been ignored equally by French and Anglo-Saxon critics, both of whom have tended, without feeling hampered, to overlook Beckett's production in the other tongue. Thus we have a farcical, New Novelist-like, Francophone Beckett and an existential, bleak, Anglophone Beckett. Ruby Cohn's 1962 study...

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Rupert Wood (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wood, Rupert. “An Endgame of Aesthetics: Beckett as Essayist.” In The Cambridge Companion to Beckett, edited by John Pilling, pp. 1-16. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Wood analyzes Beckett's essays as lying on a continuum between systematic philosophy on one end and self-deconstruction on the other.]

Whilst it is easy to see where Beckett's discursive writing begins, it is difficult to see where, or how, it ends. It is possible to outline the loose assemblage of aesthetic theories and philosophical ideas that form their point of departure, but it is extremely difficult to see what happens to these ideas and where they...

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Graham Fraser (essay date fall-winter 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fraser, Graham. “The Pornographic Imagination in All Strange Away.Modern Fiction Studies 41, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1995): 515-30.

[In the following essay, Fraser discusses the differences between “imagination” and “fancy” as they relate to the pornographic elements of All Strange Away.]

On first looking into All Strange Away, one is struck by the change in tone between this and Beckett's other texts of the period. Rather than the measured rhythms of Imagination Dead Imagine, the dispassionate pseudo-empiricism of The Lost Ones, or the abstract patternings of Ping and Lessness, the reader is confronted with...

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Mary Catanzaro (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Catanzaro, Mary. “Disconnected Voices, Displaced Bodies: The Dismembered Couple in Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, Happy Days, and Play.” In Literature and the Grotesque, edited by Michael J. Meyer, pp. 31-51. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1995.

[In the following essay, Catanzaro argues that the dismembered bodies of couples in Beckett's works are metaphors for the failure of communication in relationships.]

Beckett's plays of the late 1950's and the 1960's can be read as grotesque commentaries on unsatisfying personal relationships caused by failure in communication. Krapp's Last Tape,1Happy Days,2 and...

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David D. Green (essay date autumn-winter 1995-96)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Green, David D. “Beckett's Dream: More Niente than Bel.” Journal of Beckett Studies 5, nos. 1-2 (autumn-winter 1995-96): 67-80.

[In the following essay, Green presents Dream of Fair to Middling Women as a critique of the novel form.]

Written in the summer of 1932, Dream of Fair to Middling Women entered the world inauspiciously as a hastily produced work by a young Irish poet and translator living in the Trianon Hotel in Paris. For thirty years the novel, unpublished and unnoticed, languished as a quarry for more successful endeavors. During the next thirty it became accessible to the curious in the libraries of Dartmouth College and...

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Steven Miskinis (essay date winter 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Miskinis, Steven. “Enduring Recurrence: Samuel Beckett's Nihilistic Poetics.” ELH 63, no. 4 (winter 1996): 1047-67.

[In the following essay, Miskinis examines Beckett's postmodern nihilism.]

In Proust, Beckett remarks, “by no expedient of macabre transubstantiation can the grave sheets serve as swaddling clothes,” a parenthetic comment that explains why the moments of the self's transition between different habitual adaptations to its world “represent the perilous zones in the life of an individual.”1 Beckett's comment could easily apply to his own oeuvre insofar as we place it within the broad context of the close of the...

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Julian A. Garforth (essay date autumn 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Garforth, Julian A. “Translating Beckett's Translations.” Journal of Beckett Studies 6, no. 1 (autumn 1996): 49-70.

[In the following essay, Garforth analyzes the plays Beckett translated and produced for performance in Germany, finding in them variants in language, style, and meaning.]

Samuel Beckett is often described as a bilingual playwright, due to his having composed virtually his entire dramatic canon in both French and English. However, between 1967 and 1978, Beckett directed seven of his stage plays in German in Berlin, suggesting this attempt at categorisation is somewhat inadequate. Beckett claimed his productions were not intended to be...

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Xerxes Mehta (essay date autumn 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mehta, Xerxes. “Shapes of Suffering: Image/Narrative/Impromptu in Beckett's Ohio Impromptu.Journal of Beckett Studies 6, no. 1 (autumn 1996): 97-118.

[In the following essay, Mehta examines Ohio Impromptu as a modernist interpretation of the classic theatrical impromptu form.]

Beckett called his play an impromptu.1 An impromptu in the theatre is a quite specific form in which the playwright—usually through the vehicle of a play within a play—attacks his critics, defends his practice, and, traditionally, lets his audience in on a few of the tricks and all of the tribulations of his profession. Molière's L'Impromptu de...

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K. Jeevan Kumar (essay date winter 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kumar, K. Jeevan. “The Chess Metaphor in Samuel Beckett's Endgame.Modern Drama 40, no. 4 (winter 1997): 540-52.

[In the following essay, Kumar argues that the chess symbolism in Endgame serves as a unifying element for the play as well as a metaphor for existential uncertainty and despair.]

Samuel Beckett's drama depicts a relentless search for the central self1 or the ultimate being which remains unidentified, unseen and unattainable. Time makes this search an unending process by presenting the seeker with the illusion of being static and at the same time creating a flux, making the distinction between illusion and reality...

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Jeanette R. Malkin (essay date spring 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Malkin, Jeanette R. “Matters of Memory in Krapp's Last Tape and Not I.Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 11, no. 2 (spring 1997): 25-39.

[In the following essay, Malkin discusses Beckett's dramatic presentation of memory in Krapp's Last Tape and Not I.]

Krapp's Last Tape (1958) embodies memory and the dislocations of time; in Not I (1972) even the “body” disappears—“whole body like gone”—and only a dislocated memory, visualized as a “subjectless” mouth, is left us. Theatrically, we have here the break between a mimetic theatre (however reduced), and postmodern dissolutions. Krapp may be drawn as a...

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Marguerite Tassi (essay date summer 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tassi, Marguerite. “Shakespeare and Beckett Revisited: A Phenomenology of Theater.” Comparative Drama 31, no. 2 (summer 1997): 248-76.

[In the following essay, Tassi suggests options for staging Shakespearian plays in light of Beckett's absurdist theater.]

Comparisons of William Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett have been popular among academic critics over the past few decades. In the locus classicus of such comparisons, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, Polish critic Jan Kott memorably argued that Shakespeare's King Lear bore a deep thematic resemblance to Beckett's dark absurdist dramas.1 Beckett's universe of the grotesque, of...

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Jacqueline Thomas (essay date winter 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thomas, Jacqueline. “Happy Days: Beckett's Rescript of Lady Chatterley's Lover.Modern Drama 41, no. 4 (winter 1998): 623-34.

[In the following essay, Thomas studies Happy Days for evidence of a subtext influenced by D. H. Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover.]

The importance of Beckett's use of literary references in Happy Days is well established.1 The juxtaposition of truncated yet recognizable fragments of literature provides a frame of reference for the erudite reader or spectator to appreciate fully—at least subconsciously—the irony of the characters' speech and situation. In his manuscript study of the...

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S. E. Gontarski (essay date fall 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gontarski, S. E. “Beckett's Play, in extensor.Modern Drama 42, no. 3 (fall 1999): 442-55.

[In the following essay, Gontarski finds Play to be a crucial element in the formation of Beckett's theatrical sensibility.]

To date none of the commonly available English texts for Samuel Beckett's Play, in fact, none of the printed texts in any edition in any language, is entirely accurate. None reflects the final text Beckett took such pains to establish; none, that is to say, includes the revisions he made after first consulting on the world premiere in German (1963), then overseeing more directly near-simultaneous productions in French and...

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Daniel Katz (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Katz, Daniel. “‘Ways of Being We’: The Subject as Method, Method as Ritual in Watt.” In Saying I No More: Subjectivity and Consciousness in the Prose of Samuel Beckett, pp. 43-70. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Katz studies Watt as a transition between Beckett's life in Ireland and England and his move to France as well as between his early conventionally composed works and his later experimental writing.]

Beckett's mystifying second novel, Watt, seems to have generated two main lines of critical approach. One influential trend points to the mock-Cartesian elements of the novel and...

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William Cloonan (essay date winter 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cloonan, William. “Placing the Unplaceable: The Dilemmas of Samuel Beckett's Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies 47, no. 4 (winter 2001): 1009-18.

[In the following essay, Cloonan discusses several of Beckett's novels.]

Samuel Beckett easily divides into groups of two, the Anglo/Irish writer and the French author, the playwright and the purveyor of often unsettling fictions. However, the initial dichotomy in large measure quickly resolves itself, since the translator of the French texts into English is the author himself. More troublesome is the distinction between the very successful dramatist, whose works have fascinated audiences ranging from Parisian...

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Daniel Katz (essay date summer 2003)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Katz, Daniel. “Beckett's Measures: Principles of Pleasure in Molloy and First Love. Modern Fiction Studies 49, no. 2 (summer 2003): 246-60.

[In the following essay, Katz discusses Beckett's Molloy and First Love.]

Toward the beginning of the first part of Samuel Beckett's Molloy, Molloy utters the following words concerning the object of his endless discourse: “My life, my life, now I speak of it as of something over, now as of a joke which still goes on, and it is neither, for at the same time it is over and it goes on, and is there any tense for that?” (Three Novels 36). This passage is one of the very many in Beckett...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Bernstein, Stephen. “The Gothicism of Beckett's Murphy.Notes on Modern Irish Literature 6 (1994): 25-30.

Considers Murphy as an example of “gothic revisionism,” arguing that in this novel “Beckett dismantles the scenario of middle class married bliss positively envisioned in the endings of such earlier gothics as The Castle of Otronto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Monk, and The Italian and suggests instead that such an existence is where horror truly resides.”

Caselli, Daniela. “Beckett's Intertextual Modalities of Appropriation: The Case of Leopardi.” Journal of Beckett Studies 6,...

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