Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 548
Beckett’s fiction looks much more difficult than it actually is, but it does require careful attention, almost word to word, and certainly sentence to sentence because his narrators are constantly changing their minds. Beckett’s strength lies not in telling the usual narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, although there...
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Beckett’s fiction looks much more difficult than it actually is, but it does require careful attention, almost word to word, and certainly sentence to sentence because his narrators are constantly changing their minds. Beckett’s strength lies not in telling the usual narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, although there is a rudimentary structure of such in this tale, but in the texture of his monologues. His characters (if they can be called such) may be down and out, both physically and socially, but that is sometimes taken to suggest that they are stupid—which they are not. His is a plain, oral style, but the content and manner of his expression are often highly intelligent.
From early in Beckett’s career, he was interested in the nature of human existence. By the time he got to this kind of work, he was almost exclusively concerned with the question of how one knows things, and particularly, with how one exists within one’s own mind. This story is best read in the context of the other tales in Stories and Texts for Nothing (Nouvelles et textes pour rien, 1955; English translation, 1967) because, as a group, they form a kind of tone poem of musings, sometimes poignant, sometimes angry, sometimes self-pitying, about the nature of living at the lowest level of self-perception, cut off from most normal social connection, and living a bare-bones existence.
The story can also be read by itself, with the understanding that there is no action, no plot, and no resolution as one expects in the usual short story. What there is must be read carefully and slowly to keep track of the constant changes. Simply, it seems to be the musings of an old man, though his bodily aspects are clearly played down, who seems to be trying to make sense of his life by inventing it in the form of a story, but cannot make up his mind what or who or where or when to do it.
The aesthetic pleasure in this story lies not in its conclusion, nor in its incidents, but in listening to its cranky, eccentric, but intelligently wayward voice. As a result, the standards for judging the quality of the tale lie not in plot, or in characterization in the ordinary sense, but in the act of entering the mind of this odd creature. It requires, in a sense, an abandonment of the usual touchstones of short-story judgment, although it can be argued that Beckett is using a rather narrow form of the “dramatic monologue” in which the speaker reveals problems, and sometimes solutions thereof, while often inadvertently revealing character. It is an old literary form, which can be seen in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Pardoner, in William Shakespeare’s soliloquies, and in some of the poems of Robert Browning, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden. The real standard for its credibility as a work of art lies in the experience of keeping track of what is happening in the mind of an interesting character. It is quite possible to do so, but it demands the reader’s close attention, patience, and willing suspension of disbelief in much of what is ordinarily presumed to be the normal elements of the short-story form and content. Form illustrates meaning.