Samuel Beckett Beckett, Samuel (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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. Being capable of an infinite number of sexual and basic biological connotations, the word occurs in innumerable metaphoric and proverbial expressions and can be associated with gestation, birth, and burial. Not only the protagonist is naked here, but his entire world has been reduced and stripped to its essentials.


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Mark J. Sachner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Beckett's novels push the concern of art beyond its visible object, beyond even "the fiction of the artist" in the act of manipulating that object, and deep into the artistic consciousness as it perceives itself in action. Beckett uses the novel and the necessary presence of a narrator to focus on the problems that are inherent in the basic narrative task of telling a story, the act which is the narrative premise of his trilogy—Molloy, Molone Dies and The Unnamable—and of How It Is. But before the Beckettian story can be told, an initial act of perception must occur as the springboard for the narrative. The object perceived by Beckett's characters and narrators can be either external or internal, and the resultant form and content of the novel are largely determined by that object. Viewed chronologically, each of his narratives moves progressively away from plot as its key ingredient and toward a growing concern with the acrobatics of language and consciousness within the narrative act itself. Hence, the initial act of perception in Beckett's novels is usually of the self at work, telling stories, creating fictions: stories and fictions about the self at work, telling stories, creating fictions.

In Murphy and Watt, his characters are distinguished by the tight, behavorial grip which they compulsively maintain on themselves and on their personal environments…. Each man turns the world of experience into one of private games that, once played, replayed, and yet again replayed, eventually cease to look like games and ultimately become the real thing. Each man is consumed by a consciousness turning ever inward and is finally consigned to the quintessentially private world of Beckett's fiction, the insane asylum.

The physical and psychological preoccupation with self in the characters of Murphy and Watt intensifies in the trilogy, in which each of the first-person narrators is a writer. Each narrator seizes experience qua experience and refines it into literary experience…. Not only is the experience written about through the eyes of the narrator, but the experience itself is one of writing. So, too, the consciousness that lies behind the writing is an artistic consciousness, preoccupied not only with self, but with the artistic self at work.

For example, in Molloy, the first novel in the trilogy, Molloy's and Moran's consciousnesses ostensibly focus on external objects: Molloy is looking for his mother, and Moran is looking for Molloy; but each also focuses his attention on himself in the act of pursuing his external object…. Each receives instructions to write, apparently from an outside source, yet each chiefly concerns himself with his own private need to relate his story. The novel's narrative style reflects the tension between the external and internal objects of the narrator's consciousness; the narrative attempts to proceed according to linear plot, but is structurally maintained by its highly self-reflexive quality.

The game that Murphy and Watt make out of life, and which eventually overtakes them, becomes in the trilogy progressively less of a game for Molloy, Moran, Malone, and the Unnamable as each respective narrator becomes progressively immersed in the game that he has chosen as his life style. Each character in the trilogy, as a writer, becomes a successive avatar of the Beckettian consciousness that endures the sufferings and failures of an existence that must be not only lived, but also explained and justified through its artistic recording. (pp. 144-47)

As Poe points out in "The Imp of the Perverse," "It would have been wiser, it would have been safer, to classify [man's behavior] (if classify we must) upon the basis of what man usually or occasionally did, and was always occasionally doing, rather than upon the basis of what we took it for granted the Deity intended him to do." Beckett's characters, like Poe's often anonymous but highly self-conscious first-person narrators, resist our need to judge on the basis of what should or ought to be. Rather, they embody the failings that are more characteristic of human nature than are the triumphs, and they insist on being drawn idiosyncratically. In Beckett's trilogy, they draw themselves idiosyncratically, since their metaphor for life is the act of writing itself. Likewise, the attempt by Murphy and Watt to manipulate their lives by subjecting every facet of experience to seemingly endless permutations prefigures the attempts by the trilogy's narrators to gain an aesthetic control over their fictions as they write them.

What is especially revealing about this control of the narrator over his fiction in Beckett is that we are made to see life as Poe saw it—that is, "upon the basis of what man usually or occasionally did, and was always occasionally doing." What man "always occasionally" does is to live a life based largely on lapses and failures. Like Molloy, we base our lives largely on failures that are not always punctuated by triumphs. Like Molloy, we forget more than we remember. In fact, the more we know, the more we have to forget. We see more that repels us or that we are indifferent to than that gives us pleasure. We ingest and then belch, break wind, vomit, snore, sneeze, sweat, secrete mucous or excrement from every opening in our bodies; we spend enormous periods of time flat on our backs; we grow fungus between our toes and collect lint in our navels; lice love us; other humans rarely do. Our bodies age and grow infirm; we die. We also go mad. The psychological disease that characterizes Poe's narrators is handed down through Dostoevsky—whose Underground Man has both a heightened consciousness and a diseased liver—to Beckett, whose narrator's consciousnesses also heighten in response to their ailing bodies. (pp. 147-48)

This coincidence of failure, or of the impossibility of continuing, with the absolute necessity of going on manifests itself through...

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J. D. O'Hara

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In English the Irish are the great sentimentalists. The dour Scots, the babbling Welsh, and the destiny-laden English are not in it for sheer heart-wringing sentiment, the chuckle that stops short in a sob, the tear in the sparkling eye. Pause now for an ad hoc definition: sentimentality emphasizes not the racking passions—snarling hatred, implacable resentment, love that makes the heart leap in its bone-cage—no, not those, but the retrospective melancholy of sweet love lost, life's intensity cooled, chances missed and the road not taken, the living backwards with one's wet eye fixed on what might have been, with the absurd conviction that what can never come again was unutterably valuable … ah there! and ah...

(The entire section is 1185 words.)

Robert Martin Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Beckett is Irish as was Joyce; but there is no sign that the politics of Irish independence ever disturbed Beckett as they did the writer who was eighteen years his senior…. Beckett makes only vague, distant, and occasional allusions to Ireland in his fiction. Names of characters apart, a couple of hundred words deleted from his four-hundred-page trilogy would efface every recognizable vestige of Ireland and the Irish. Irish folklore and Irish humor hardly exist in Beckett's world, even for purposes of parody or sardonic comment…. Beckett could much more properly, be described as a Parisian who was born in Ireland…. (pp. 90-1)

Beckett is … [close] to wholly mythless man; the philosophical...

(The entire section is 3976 words.)

Enoch Brater

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Though the originality and durability of Beckett's novels and plays assure his reputation as a major writer of our time, his work as poet has attracted far less sympathetic attention. All the while expanding that "gallery of moribunds" he has made so authentically his own, Beckett has been writing poems on the sly…. Distilled from the hardy irregularities of Joycean rhetoric, Beckett's voice in verse has the same haunting cadence, the same "dour questing," the same "dread nay" we recognize from his drama and prose. Like some "death-mask of unrivalled beauty," Beckett's poetry offers us a very unexpected detour into the formalities of lyrical structure.

Beckett's lyricism will come as no surprise to...

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Vivian Mercier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Perhaps because his father was not religious, Beckett seems to have felt no anguish in turning away from the Anglican beliefs of his youth; his mother, on the other hand, was deeply religious in a rather narrow evangelical way. Loss of faith, however, clearly has not prevented him from exploiting his Protestant heritage, any more than it prevented James Joyce from exploiting his Catholic one….

A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man has made millions of readers aware of the thoroughness of Joyce's Catholic education under the Jesuits. It is not generally known, however, that Beckett's Anglican training was almost as thorough. The religious education he received at his mother's knee is...

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Anthony S. Brennan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Most of Beckett's characters have, to put it mildly, come down in the world. From the heroic heights of freewheeling movement that some of them achieve on bicycles, they journey backwards down the evolutionary ladder to a reptilian crawling in mud, or even to the vegetable condition of Winnie in Happy Days…. Virtually all of the quotations Winnie uses come from literature that is concerned with confronting death or with despair at the limited amount of time we have on earth. Beckett knows how many writers have charted this territory before him. But Winnie tosses off these deeply troubled moments as though they were jingles…. Beckett chooses his quotations with great care and they are all more deeply...

(The entire section is 1126 words.)