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Waiting for Godot

by Samuel Beckett

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Does the friendship between Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot undermine an existentialist reading of the play?

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My understanding of Existentialism is that it's a DIY ("Do It Yourself") philosophy, in which the character of human existence is an intellectually open-ended proposition, and the purpose of life and existence for the individual (as well as the demands placed on the individual and therefore one's response to those demands) is subjective.

This central idea means that the world, and one's place in it, is a matter of personal responsibility. As a principle, this is in contrast to a faith in a higher power or in belief systems that dictate appropriate actions and responsibilities attached to that set of beliefs. Therefore, Existentialism isn't the ideal philosophy for someone seeking external structure and comfort intellectually or as an article of faith.

In Waiting for Godot, there's a line—an aside by one of the tramps—about "faith deferred." The problem with Existentialism is that, for all its advantages in self-determination, it can never determine whether or not the Self is aligned with the Universe (or any aspect of it), since it’s a presupposition of Existentialism to assume that the universe is a vacuum of meaning.

All of the above might indicate that the Existentialist is "a man alone." However, Sartre (a philosopher with a similar world-view to Beckett's) wrote in his play No Exit: "Hell is other people." Despite its misanthropic tone, this statement is not advocating that one avoid flawed human society and go it alone. It actually means that, once again, we make our own reality—for better or for worse. To simplify things, then, we succeed or fail (but—arguably—mostly fail) as part of a group.

In this thought process, one's sense of Self is tied to the image of oneself reflected back by other people. This image can exist within the context of a metaphoric Hell (Sartre) or metaphoric Purgatory (Beckett), but it doesn’t provide escape from others or from the Self.

In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon vacillate between being friends and antagonists. Companionship is their buffer against the void confronting them, and yet, within Existentialism, they are responsible for their own expectations. And, since those are constantly dashed, they are consequently responsible for their own defeatism.

Thus, the relationship between Vladimir and Estragon is perfectly in-keeping within an Existentialist reading of the play.

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No, it does not undermine it. In fact, it probably helps to accentuate the human need for connection in the process of determining whether life is worth living, or not.

If you apply Albert Bandura's theory of Social Learning, as well as Vygotsky's constructivist theory to existentialism, you realize that the process of self-realization does require a lot of external communication. Otherwise, how would you be able to know what is real, what is important, and what is truly worth living for?

Through the inherent need for human bonding we learn to shape who we are, and we determine what exactly is our role within our circumstances.

If you look closely, Vladimir and Estragon feed each other's lives. Even when depression and suicide thoughts lurk beneath, they operate together to think as one, and they support each other somewhat in the wait for Godot.

That is what existentialism is about, in preserving the question of what life's meaning is. It has little to do with communicating with others. In fact, it is in the process of understanding existence (namely, other people's) that we learn to understand our own.

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The apparently circumstantial nature of the friendship seems perfectly in line with existentist ideas of:

  • The necessity of constructing meaning from what you are given and from experience. (They create a friendship based on circumstance alone.)
  • The lack of any deeper emotional connection, or any pre-existing spiritual connection, beyond the mere circumstances that have thrust the two together.

There is room for disagreement on this one, but that is how I read the play.

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