Samuel Beckett Beckett, Samuel (Vol. 14)

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Beckett, Samuel 1906–

Beckett is an Irish-born playwright, novelist, poet, critic, essayist, short story writer, and translator who now resides in Paris and writes predominantly in French. He is usually grouped with Pinter, Genet, and Ionesco as a member of the Theatre of the Absurd and explores existential, absurdist themes in all of his creative work. His themes are reinforced by a literary style that experiments with formlessness and fragmented language, reflecting the influence of James Joyce, to whom Beckett was both secretary and literary colleague. The recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, Beckett has had a major influence on contemporary drama. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Edith Kern

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[No] one has been more felicitous in illustrating black humor than Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days, as she asks the rhetorical question: "How can one better magnify the Almighty than by sniggering with him at his little jokes, particularly the poorer ones?"… (p. 89)

One usually remembers with glee the scene in Gulliver's Travels where he tells about his arrival in the land of the Lilliputians and—frightening monster that he appears to be—has to submit to a minute search of his person by the country's officers. "I took up the two officers in my hands," he reports, "put them first into my coat-pockets, and then into every other pocket about me, except my two fobs, and another secret pocket which I had no mind should be searched, wherein I had some little necessaries that were of no consequence to any but myself. In one of my fobs there was a silver watch, and in the other a small quantity of gold in a purse." (p. 90)

If Swift's humor … provides us with a satire of and an insight into the spirit of the eighteenth century by revealing to us the content of Gulliver's pockets, Beckett's humor displays before us a great number of characters provided with or even contained in pockets and redolent of the spirit of our age as well as timelessly pointing beyond it. (p. 95)

It is perhaps because Beckett's protagonists are so often on the go, and carry all their belongings with them, that their pockets and bags are given so much attention in almost every one of his works. The protagonist of Watt, for example, as if to emphasize the futility and emptiness of his existence and to symbolize homeless man clinging to useless possessions, usually carries about two small bags. They are preferable to one large bag, he tells us, and he would have preferred to carry none at all. Those bags are three-fourths empty. One of them is carried by Watt as if it were a club, the other as if it were a sandbag. What they contain Watt never divulges, for what counts is that they are cumbersome and yet difficult to abandon; self-imposed yet insignificant—like most of man's burdens. In Waiting for Godot, Lucky almost collapses under the weight of a heavy suitcase each time he appears on stage. He seems unable even to put down his load and seems doomed to carry it for eternity.

There are other Beckett characters with pockets full of such futile objects as pieces of string, carrots, and turnips. Among them are Vladimir and Estragon of Waiting for Godot. The protagonists of the unpublished novel Mercier et Camier ransack the pockets of their only possession, a raincoat, before abandoning it, and find there "a whole life."… (p. 97)

[In the novel How It Is] the protagonist crawling naked through the mud clutches a sack which is tied around his neck with a cord. It contains cans of tuna which he opens by means of a can opener and whose content he consumes from time to time listlessly. In its sadism and its humor, which is as black as the mud, this novel seems to stress the sack as container even more than its content. The fact that the word sack belongs to the few basic words of the Indo-European vocabulary which have maintained themselves in almost unchanged form in all its tongues attests to its fundamental significance....

(The entire section is 12,608 words.)