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Waiting for Godot

by Samuel Beckett

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The exploration of life's meaning and the portrayal of time as meaningless in "Waiting for Godot."

Summary:

In "Waiting for Godot," life's meaning is explored through the characters' endless waiting for someone named Godot, who never arrives. This waiting suggests that life may lack inherent purpose. Time is portrayed as meaningless through the repetitive and cyclical nature of the characters' actions and dialogue, emphasizing the futility and uncertainty of their existence.

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What is the value of life in Waiting for Godot?

Vladimir and Estragon, the two protagonists in Waiting for Godot, spend most of the play waiting for the arrival of the eponymous Godot. Any value that their lives have seems to be bound up with the expected arrival of Godot. Therefore, the fact that Godot never arrives renders their lives valueless.

When the boy, sent by Godot, tells them that Godot "won't come this evening" as expected, Vladimir and Estragon immediately talk of killing themselves. Indeed, Estragon says to Vladimir, "Remind me to bring a bit of rope tomorrow," the implication being that they will hang themselves with that rope. Whatever purpose, meaning, and value their lives might have, Vladimir and Estragon seem to invest in the character of Godot, much as some people attribute meaning and purpose to God. With Godot, as it were, out of the equation, Vladimir and Estragon's lives are devoid of any meaning or purpose, as might be the lives of those who believe in God, should God be taken out of the equation.

Throughout the play, there is a recurring motif of nothingness. Vladimir and Estragon repeatedly lament that there is "nothing to be done." At one point in the play, Estragon comments that "nothing happens," to which Pozzo replies, "You find it tedious?" Estragon in turn replies, "Somewhat."

This exchange seems to nicely encapsulate the view of life that runs throughout the play, namely that life is full of tedious nothingness—there is no meaning, no purpose, and no value. A little later, Estragon repeats the same idea when he proclaims that "nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful!" In total, as if to emphasize the point, the word nothing is repeated twenty-eight times in the play.

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How does Waiting for Godot question the meaninglessness of life?

Waiting for Godot does not exactly question the meaninglessness of life. Rather, it represents or portrays the meaninglessness of life. If you start with the assumption that life is indeed meaningless, then how can you write a play that has meaning? Beckett evidently decided to write a meaningless play in order to parallel the meaninglessness of life. Ever since it was first produced, people have been asking, "What does it mean?" "Who is Godot?" and other such questions. The fact that the viewer struggles to understand the "meaning" of the play is what makes it absurb and comical. It has no meaning. It is life itself, and life itself, at least according to Beckett, has no meaning.

Shakespeare wrote long ago that life is meaningless. Here is a quotation from his most nihilistic play, Macbeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.      (V.5)

Here is a pertinent quotation from Hamlet:

suit the action to the word, the word to the action--with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.   (III.2)

Beckett is holding the mirror up to nature, showing his audience what life looks like in the modern world. Older writers, including Shakespeare himself, must have believed that life had meaning, regardless of whether or not they were able to discover what that meaning was. Their belief was typically based on faith in God, and many people began losing religious faith with the combined enlightenment and disillusionment of modern science.

Accordinig to the Introduction to Waiting for Godot in the eNotes Study Guide (see reference link below):

"Absurdist Theatre" discards traditional plot, characters, and action to assault its audience with a disorienting experience. Characters often engage in seemingly meaningless dialogue or activities, and, as a result, the audience senses what it is like to live in a universe that doesn't "make sense." Beckett and others who adopted this style felt that this disoriented feeling was a more honest response to the post World War II world than the traditional belief in a rationally ordered universe. Waiting for Godot remains the most famous example of this form of drama.

Some playwrights, novelists, and short story writers have declined to accept responsibility for explaining the "meaning of life" to viewers and readers, since these writers are intrigued with the possibilities of depicting human life without any purpose or meaning. Beckett is showing the members of his audience themselves. Like his two tramps, they are all waiting for something. At least Estragon and Vladimir know what they are waiting for. They are waiting for Godot. Beckett seems to be asking: "Who, or what, are you waiting for?"

Alexander Pope expressed a similar notion in An Essay on Man [1733-1734]:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest.

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How does "Waiting for Godot" portray time as meaningless?

The mere fact that the characters and therefore the audience aren't sure about how much time passes from scene to scene or act to act contributes to the theme of the meaninglessness of the passages of time.  The most obvious example of the questioning of time is the fact that the tree in Act 1 doesn't have leaves, but there are leaves visible at the start of Act 2.  Even at the height of growing season, leaves don't literally appear overnight, so that leaves us wondering how much time as passed, and why are the two men so unaware of it?  It is actually kind of frustrating that they don't even comment on the leaves -- we only learn of it through observation or the stage directions.  Obviously nothing of note happened in the days or weeks that have passed, thus time is meaningless if there is nothing of importance to fill the time -- no obligations, no job, no change.

Another example of the meaningless of time comes in Act 2 when Pozzo and Lucky return.  Their circumstances have completely changed (seemingly overnight) in that Pozzo is now blind and Lucky is now actively leading Pozzo, rather than being commanded along like we see in Act 1.  It isn't likely that their circumstances changed so dramatically overnight and they have come to such an easy/nonchalant reversal of roles overnight, but that is how is appears.  The passage of time though is meaningless in that it doesn't change the end result.  Even though something HAPPENED to these two characters, it ultimately doesn't matter as they adapted to the new situation and trudged on through their lives.

Vladimir and Estragon clearly don't care that are seemingly wasting time waiting for Godot to give them guidance.  They see little other option to make MORE of their time on earth and don't pursue even any other thoughts about what else to do with their lives.  They are existentially dead. This point of the play shows the ultimate meaninglessness of time.

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