Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable can be read in at least three different ways or combinations of ways. The work is the final volume of a trilogy of novels beginning with Molloy (1951; English translation, 1955) and Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies, 1956), and it can be read in conjunction with those texts. It might be suggested that the character in The Unnamable is, in fact, Malone, who apparently dies in the second novel. It might be that the complaining voice of this novel is all that is left of Malone after death—a cruel joke of continuing existence after departure from the corporeal world. This might go some way toward explaining why the character has no body but is living in a kind of miserable limbo. The matter of interpretation is complicated by the fact that so many of the names of supposed imaginary characters mentioned by the speaker are, in fact, characters in previous Beckett novels, and not only those of the trilogy. The possibility therefore arises that the novel is autobiographical, above all because there is considerable talk about the Unnamable having invented these characters.
The best way to deal with the novel is to take it at face value as a factual account of an absurd experience in the late twentieth century. The idea of the absurd is, quite simply, that something means what it says. Beckett’s work in general is a literary representation of the proposition that life is meaningless and absurd in the sense of not making any sense, a conclusion reached on the basis of the twentieth century loss of social, political, and religious certainties. The novel may thus be read as a metaphor for the chaotic nature of the human condition during that time. The work can also be interpreted philosophically, given Beckett’s interest in the problem of how human beings know not only themselves but others and their relations with those others. How do people know things? It is an old problem for philosophers, and it is a question that shows up regularly in Beckett’s work.
The Unnamable is a long account narrated in the first person by someone, supposedly a man, who does not know who or where he is but has strong suspicions that he...
(The entire section is 906 words.)