Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 906
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 is being manipulated. He is prepared to talk about this situation and complain about it in terms not only of the past but of the present. The complaints make sense as a psychological representation of that sort of problem, and there is considerable credibility in how the narrator acts and reacts. There is further confirmation of reality in the way Beckett explores how a person’s mind goes on and on even when the individual might want to stop that mind, particularly in times of stress. In that sense, The Unnamable is a sensible study of an odd but not uncommon human predicament.
The narrative voice in the novel is subject to quick changes, not only of subject but also of opinion, and a fact established at one moment is denied in the next. The form of the work is, in fact, a dramatic monologue in prose form. The dramatic monologue as a poetic form was perfected by Robert Browning, but it was already used in William Shakespeare’s soliloquies and later with considerable success by poets such as T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. In all these cases, the narrator has a problem—sometimes trivial, sometimes very serious—and his or her speaking about it usually leads to some sort of solution that is apparent either in a new understanding or in action. Sometimes, however, the act of consideration leads to failure, as it does in T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915). Much the same thing happens in The Unnamable. The speaker neither learns the truth of his situation nor is able to escape from it, despite his determined attempts to consider the matter from all angles.
However odd or absurd the situation may be, it has its basis in the human condition. This is particularly true in the twentieth century, a time characterized by skepticism, disbelief, and sheer destructiveness. Beckett’s characters may be physically impoverished, but intellectually they are formidable, sometimes foul-mouthed but astringently clever and blessed with the gift of saying things wittily and with flashes of graveyard humor. It is possible to read the novel as a realistic representation of a man who has lost touch with reality and is living within his own mind in paranoid terror. Certainly, there is a gritty reality about him, despite his denial of corporeal proportion. A more valid reading, however, interprets the novel as absurdist. The absurd is, in fact, not simply content that does not make ordinary sense; it is a literary genre that demands to be accepted as it is presented. Like many of the arts, literature in the twentieth century occasionally attempted to disassociate itself from meaning in the realistic sense. Music and the visual arts were often successful in this endeavor. Literature, however, wedded as it is to words that have fixed meanings, a fixed form in sentences and paragraphs, has been hard-pressed to become “meaningless” in the artistic sense. Beckett made this attempt. His greatest ambition was to write on nothing, and in later works he goes even further in his attempt to get beyond sense. The Unnamable can be considered to represent the midpoint of this development.
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