Abstract illustration of two hats under a leafless tree in black and white

Waiting for Godot

by Samuel Beckett

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Student Question

Explain the thematic and structural unity in Waiting for Godot.

Quick answer:

The play is about existentialism (forlornness), Angst, and despair. The thematic unity is found in the fact that the play continually asks "Why are we here?" and then proceeds to answer it through a variety of characters and their interactions. The structural unity, on the other hand, can be found in the repetition of issues between characters and their similarities to one another.

Expert Answers

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The thematic unity of the play lies in the existential question: why are we here?  What is our “charge,” our task, our purpose?  Gogo and Didi live in a vague world with little physical features—one tree and a few carrots or turnips, boots and a bowler hat each.  Thematically, every small action—the hat game, the tossing about of words, the description of (possible) past violent episodes—are all “passing the time,” which in this theme means living our lives waiting for purpose and direction.  Godot is a personification, however mysterious or nondescript, of the theme of existential Forlornness—their general anxiety is Angst, and the thoughts and discussions of suicide are Despair—these three elements constitute the existential condition.  When Pozzo and Lucky appear, much of the same thematic actions occur—Lucky’s obsequiousness, his “slavery”, his loose attachment to a “guide,” a “giver” of no real direction, his animal-like longing for a scrap of food—these carry the theme into the “diversion” of other people” a valueless, meaningless “society” of sorts.  They too are waiting, a fact made dramatically viable by the constant attempts to move on.  Pozzo’s false fame (“Does that name mean nothing to you?)” is another parody of human attempts to give ourselves, our existence an importance.  It is a play “in which nothing happens—twice.”

   Which brings us to structure. The pairing through the play is obvious, not only in the two pairs of characters, but also in the choices they have before them—a carrot or a turnip, sitting down or standing up, leaving or staying.  Even the messenger-boys come in pairs.  Duality (cf. binary code) is reflected in virtually all inquiries of a philosophical nature—Buber’s I and Thou, Kierkegaard’s “Either/Or,” Eastern notions of duality, etc.  In this play the major duality, as shown in the two-act play structure (innovative in its time), is the “now” and the “not now.”  That is, the mind’s act of separating the present form the past and the future.  “We have a past and a future, but we don’t live there.”  The eternal present is the moment in which we all are “waiting for Godot.”

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