Waiting for Godot Themes
The main themes in Waiting for Godot include the human condition, absurdism and nihilism, and friendship.
- The human condition: The hopelessness in Vladimir and Estragon’s lives demonstrates the extent to which humans rely on illusions—such as religion, according to Beckett—to give hope to a meaningless existence.
- Absurdism and nihilism: Faith seems meaningless to Beckett and his characters, who pin their hopes on a God-like figure called Godot who ultimately does not come.
- Friendship: Vladimir and Estragon care deeply for each other, and their relationship highlights the importance of support from friends in life.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1274
In this richly evocative "story" about two men who wait for another who never comes there are so many possible themes it is difficult to enumerate them. Those that are readily apparent include the issues of absurdity, alienation and loneliness, appearance and reality, death, doubt and ambiguity, time, the meaning of life, language and meaning, and the search for self. But one theme that encompasses many of these at once is the question of the human condition—who are we as humans and what is our short life on this planet really like?
We appear to be born without much awareness of our selves or our environment and as we mature to gradually acquire from the world around us a sense of identity and a concept of the universe. However, the concept of human life that we generally acquire may be fraught with illusions. Early in his life Beckett dismissed the Christian concept of God and based his concept of the human condition on the assumption that human existence ends in the grave, that our most monumental achievements are insignificant measured by the cosmic scales of time and space, and that human life without illusions is generally difficult and sad. Vladimir and Estragon live in a world without comforting illusions about human dignity, the importance of work and achievement, the inevitability of justice, or the promise of an afterlife of eternal bliss. They live in a world where almost nothing is certain, where simply getting your boots off or sleeping through the night without having to urinate is a pretty significant achievement. They live in a world where violence and brutality can appear at any time, often victimizing them directly. They live without amenities, find joy in the smallest of victories, and are ultimately quite serious about their vague responsibility to wait for this mysterious figure who may or may not come and who may or may not reward them for their loyalty. It is a life lived on the razor's edge of hope and sadness.
Strangely enough, Pozzo often voices most clearly what Beckett might have called the reality of this world. In Act I, for example, Estragon feels pity for the abused and weeping Lucky, who is sobbing because Pozzo has said aloud that he wants to "get rid of him." As Lucky sobs, Pozzo brutally says, "old dogs have more dignity." But when Estragon goes with a handkerchief to wipe his tears, Lucky kicks him violently in the shins and it is now Estragon in pain. Pozzo then offers this observation: "he's stopped crying. [To Estragon.] You have replaced him as it were. [Lyrically.] The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep, somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh. [He laughs.] Let us not then speak ill of our generation, it is not any unhappier than its predecessors. [Pause.] Let us not speak well of it either. [Pause.] Let us not speak of it at all."
As Beckett dismissed what most of us take for granted, he eventually dismissed language itself as a reliable source of security. Ironically, this man of words ultimately mistrusted them. He knew that the word could never be counted on to convey meaning precisely and that linguistic meaning was always an approximation. Thus he shows Vladimir and Estragon spending most of their time dancing around words, attempting vainly to pin them down, to use them as guiding stars as best they can. At the end of the play, for example, Vladimir is struck by Estragon's suggestion that much of what Vladimir "knows" might be as unreliable as Estragon's dreams, and Vladimir launches into a poetic monologue that begins, "Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now?" But when he ends this lyrical moment of introspection he simply says, "what have I said?" This is a world where even words fail to wrestle our lives into consistently coherent patterns of meaning, a world where the human condition is radically insecure but where the struggle to find meaning is perhaps the only nobility left for us.
It is tempting to see Beckett as a "nihilist,'' as someone who believed that there was nothing of value or meaning in human life, but the friendship of Estragon and Vladimir clearly offers us something positive and even uplifting in the difficult world of Beckett's play. In the unconventional banter of these two men it is sometimes easy to miss the intensity of their symbiotic relationship, but close attention to the theatrical qualities in their exchanges will show that they care deeply for one another and in many ways need one another to survive in their inhospitable world. Beckett, of course, is not sentimental about friendship—he is stubbornly realistic about everything he sees—but on the whole the relationship between Estragon and Vladimir is an important focus for understanding Beckett's most famous play.
In many places in the action Vladimir and Estragon bicker, misunderstand, and even ignore one another, but in other places their relationship is clearly tender, such as in the moment of Actll when Vladimir covers the sleeping Estragon with his coat. But if one were to focus on one moment in detail the most logical place to start might be the entrances of the two men at the beginning of the play. As the play begins, Estragon is sitting on a mound trying to take off his boot. Estragon and Vladimir have been separated overnight, but Beckett doesn't expect us to worry about why they have separated, any more than he expects us to give a moment's thought as to how they first met or how long they have known one another. It is enough to know that they are friends and that as the play begins Estragon is alone on this country road struggling to get his boots off. He finally gives up, saying "Nothing to be done," and at that moment Vladimir enters and responds to his friend's words as if he had been there from the start of Estragon's struggle—"I'm beginning to come round to that opinion," says Vladimir. The ease with which they are together again, as if they never were parted, is indicated deftly in the seamlessness of that second line of the play. Vladimir then says, more directly, "I'm glad to see you back. I thought you were gone forever," and though the line is spoken casually the clear implication is that losing Estragon forever would have created a very considerable hole in Vladimir's life. Vladimir expresses concern over Estragon's beating, then quickly shifts into one of his annoyingly condescending roles as Estragon's protector. Vladimir talks, almost as if he simply enjoys hearing the sound of his own voice, while Estragon resumes the struggle with the boot. Eventually, Estragon succeeds in removing his boot and it could easily be suggested that he does so in part because of the mere presence of his friend. It is certainly no accident that just as Vladimir echoes Estragon's opening phrase, "Nothing to be done," Estragon "with a supreme effort succeeds in pulling off his boot." The removal of the boot, of course, is mundane. As Vladimir says, "Boots must be taken off every day." But in Beckett's careful art, the removal of the boot with the indirect emotional support of a friend is a metaphor for anything we attempt to do in our lives. In this life we face difficulties in the simple execution of daily affairs and ultimately we must face them alone or in the company of others who struggle as we do.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431
Although Beckett claimed he was not a Christian, the quest for salvation is the cornerstone of the play and frequent Christian allusions serve as its subtext. However, in Waiting for Godot, these allusions serve not to assert belief, but to dramatize its decadence. Once Christianity provided Western civilization with a construct of meaning and hope, but now, decimated by the horrors of two world wars and the deconstruction of reality and meaning in modern philosophy, it is no longer credible. Because the characters no longer believe in Christianity or in anything, they are helpless and alone in a meaningless universe. Yet because the language and values of Christianity are the only ones they know, it serves them as a point of reference for their urgent need to find meaning and purpose. Thus, Estragon compares himself to Christ as the model for his own suffering. Waiting for the mysterious Godot can be understood as humankind waiting for redemption from an otherwise unbearable life. Although Beckett strenuously denied that Godot was God, in Waiting for Godot, as the object of the characters’ ultimate longings and their hope for salvation, he serves a similar function as God. In act 1, Vladimir and Estragon speak of addressing Godot with a kind of prayer. At the end of act 2, the boy-messenger—a possible allusion to Christ—describes him as an old man with a white beard. This description evokes from Vladimir the plaintive cry, “Christ have mercy on us!” an echo of one made by Estragon in act 1 when he and Vladimir ask God and Christ to have mercy on them.
Other references to the Gospels abound. Early in the play, Vladimir speaks of the Gospel of John in which one of the thieves crucified with Jesus was saved, one damned. Although Vladimir does not say so, this Gospel represents the possibility that he and Estragon might also be saved. The tree is the most prominent Christian symbol. Much of the action centers around the tramps’ desire to hang themselves from it, an allusion to crucifixion. Another Christian reference occurs in act 1, when Vladimir alludes to Proverbs 13:12. He tries to recall the lines that speak of hope as a “tree of life,” an allusion that relates directly to the play’s tree. In another example, Vladimir asks Estragon whether he has ever read the Bible. In act 2, frustrated by the inability to identify Pozzo and Lucky, Estragon calls Pozzo “Abel,” and Lucky “Cain.” Taken together, these and many more similar references tell us that Beckett’s characters struggle to find meaning through the only language they know.
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