The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The critic Raymond Federman has classified the novel’s characters into three groups. The first comprises those who are “human,” that is, ordinary, appearing only in the opening and closing episodes, concerned only with physical existence in the material world, and presented as stereotypes; they include railway and tram employees, a policeman, a porter, a journalist, and a gardener. The second group is made up of the “heroic” personages, who try to make sense of the Knott-world as they replace one another in Mr. Knott’s service: Arsene, Erskine, Arthur, the Lynches, the Galls, and Watt himself—“subheroes of the absurd,” says Federman. Finally, in the third group are found the “lunatics”; they have Sam as their sole spokesman. In none of these categories is Mr. Knott, who is unapproachable, unknowable, the master of his universe.

Watt’s character is shadowy and never sharply edged: the novel presents him as incongruous, indistinct, uncertain, unsuccessful, unfulfilled, and often ridiculous. His mind speculates fruitlessly as he sets out on his Quixotic enterprise to elucidate the nature of Mr. Knott’s establishment. He traverses the three worlds of Watt, going from the human to the heroic to the lunatic condition, thereby unifying the book’s fable as he creates an illusion of order in a tale doomed to disorder, since it is told by a mentally unstable narrator. Watt is unable to establish a relationship, however fragmentary, with Mr. Knott. He speaks only three or four times in the book, is confused about most of the events that befall him, listens continually to voices which usually bedevil him, and is reduced by the novel’s end to deranged passivity, with his mind evidently in a state of disintegration. As Watt enters Mr. Knott’s domain, he becomes a mental machine investigating the dark zone of the Knott-world, trying to understand logically a cosmos that repels all rational understanding. By the end of his service, however, Watt has given up any attempt to extract coherent sense from the chaos surrounding him. He resigns himself to his failure and sinks into insanity.

As for Mr. Knott—his appearance is invariably variable, his clothes unpredictable, his shape unmeasurable, his character unknowable, his essence unattainable, his reality unseizable, and his nature unutterable.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Watt “Christian name forgotten”), a servant in the Irish country house of Mr. Knott and subsequently an inmate of a mental institution. He is a “big bony shabby seedy knockkneed” man with a big red nose, rotten teeth, and red hair streaked with gray. The more conspicuous parts of his wardrobe include a hat found by his grandfather at the races, a coat bought by his father from a widow, a brown shoe found at the seashore, and a brown boot bought from a one-legged man with borrowed money. He walks with a swinging gait without bending his knees, his smile seems artificially composed, and he drinks only milk. Before coming to Mr. Knott’s, he had no fixed address, though he is described as probably a university man and as an experienced traveler. He mechanically obeyed whatever mysterious message summoned him to Mr. Knott’s house and obeys when his successor arrives and signals his departure. He is mostly uncommunicative and inarticulate, but he has had male friends and has even enjoyed some romances, at least one of them consummated. It is Watt’s mental life that takes up the greater part of the book. He seeks “semantic succour” in naming accurately the objects around him, though even as commonplace an object as a pot gives him trouble. He seeks within his own mind explanations for the events that take place around him; he apparently solves the mysteries surrounding Mr. Knott’s meals but fails to account for the visit of two piano tuners. Even when Watt settles on a hypothesis that satisfies him, he must first consider all the alternatives, however...

(The entire section is 650 words.)