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

Waiting for Godot

by Samuel Beckett

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Waiting for Godot Themes

The main themes in Waiting for Godot are inequalities and dependencies, the failure of memory, and the lost governance of time.

  • Inequalities and dependencies: The relationships between Vladimir and Estragon, and Pozzo and Lucky, are defined by marked inequality and desperate dependence.
  • The failure of memory: Most of the characters in the play have defective memories, a condition that seems to trap them in a cycle of suffering and forgetting.
  • The lost governance of time: The play is set in an indefinite time and place, reducing the characters to existing only in the present.

Themes

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Inequalities and Dependencies

Several things in the play appear or are mentioned in pairs: laughter and tears, Estragon and Vladimir, Lucky and Pozzo, the two thieves, and the two messenger boys. This arrangement serves many functions within the play. Firstly, it allows characters to be sharply contrasted: Vladimir, for example, is more intellectual, which is symbolized by his fixation on his bowler hat. Meanwhile, Estragon is more simple and down-to-earth, which in turn is symbolized by his fixation on his boots and how often he lies on the ground.

Secondly, the pairs tend to be marked by a particular inequality. Lucky seems straightforwardly more unfortunate than his master, Pozzo, while Estragon seems to attract a great deal more violence than Vladimir; there are supposedly two boys, one of which receives beatings from Mr. Godot, while the other does not; Estragon mentions that his left lung is weak but the right one is sound; and in the biblical story related by Vladimir, only one of the two thieves is said to be saved. Waiting for Godot thus gestures at a mystery: why do some people seem to suffer more than others? Why are some people saved and not others? The play offers no answers, merely underlining suffering’s uncertain nature. Lucky’s speech even alludes to this:

a personal God . . . who . . . loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown.

Finally, the main pairs are both defined by a desperate level of human dependence. In the first act, Lucky is reduced to tears after Pozzo relates his plans to sell the slave, showing the extent of Lucky’s psychological dependence. In the second act, however, when Pozzo returns afflicted with physical blindness, the power dynamic in their relationship becomes muddled—it becomes less clear who is dependent on whom. With Vladimir and Estragon, both profess belief that they would be better off apart, often threatening to leave but nevertheless clinging to each other. When they contemplate hanging themselves from the tree, they reluct when they realize the possibility that the second suicide might fail, leaving one of them alone. From their point of view, the threat of being alone is greater than the threat of dying.

The Failure of Memory

Aside from Vladimir, the characters in Waiting for Godot have thoroughly defective memories, forgetting even things that just recently occurred. Names, faces, and even previous lives are forgotten. Simple questions have to be repeated with dogged persistence before they elicit a direct answer. Vladimir and Estragon repeatedly doubt if they are at the right time and place for meeting Godot. And this trouble with memory is a big part of what lends the air of uncertainty to the play.

By extension, the characters’ nonfunctioning memory also breaks their capacity for recognition. Recognition is vital because it is what allows a person to place an object within a certain context and understand one’s particular relationship with it. It is also a condition for assigning a thing its value. This prevents Vladimir and Estragon’s encounters from accumulating any history, context, and value. This failure may even be the very thing that prevents Godot from arriving, as near the end of act 2, Vladimir threatens the boy when he fears that the boy will continue to forget him. There is a suggestion that the cyclical nature of the play and their suffering could be broken by the sustained application of remembering and recognition.

The Lost Governance of Time

Because the world of Waiting for Godot is set in an indefinite time and place, everyone who appears in it is forcefully stripped of pretension. This is because human beings naturally orient their self-understanding through the concept of time: the past is the store of our achievements and our accumulations, often a source of comfort or pride; the future tends to be understood as a point of leverage—that is, it allows us to direct our actions toward the aim we desire. In the play, however, where the past and the future seem to be completely uncertain, all characters are reduced to the present moment, where they cannot elevate themselves either by summoning forth their acquisitions or by orienting themselves to a definite future improvement. Additionally, since the play is set in an indefinite place, there is no clear place to escape to and nowhere to go in hope of something better.

VLADIMIR: Where do you go from here?

POZZO: On.

It is no coincidence that the character Pozzo, who is defined by pretentiousness, responds negatively to Vladimir’s claim that time has stopped. “Whatever you like, but not that,” he says. The total cessation of time would imply that he can no longer gain in importance. Indeed, in the first act, portending the fall of his character, Pozzo loses several of his possessions, the worst loss of which is his watch. When he returns in the second act, he has become blind, helplessly bumbling, and hostile to questions about time. This might be because he has lost the ability to order and manage his time, which was symbolized by his watch.

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