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

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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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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...

(The entire section is 119,097 words.)