Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Watt is Samuel Beckett’s last work of fiction to be written first in English rather than in French. It succeeds a collection of ten short stories, More Pricks than Kicks (1934), and the novel Murphy (1938). Beckett wrote it between 1942 and 1944, when he and his wife lived in the unoccupied zone of France, in the Rhone valley, after the Parisian resistance group to which they belonged was betrayed to the Gestapo. He wrote Watt in the evenings after working during the days as a farmer and woodcutter, passing himself off as a French peasant.

Watt is Beckett’s most Kafkaesque text, with significant parallels to Das Schloss (1926; The Castle, 1930), which he read in the original German. Like Franz Kafka, Beckett renders humanity’s most negative moods: impotence, impossibility, cruelty, destructiveness, emptiness, futility. Both The Castle and Watt are novels of cosmic irony and absurdity, stressing the protagonist’s vain efforts to lay successful siege to impenetrable, indifferent, ineffable, and authoritarian forces. The tone of Watt, however, is calmer and more resigned than The Castle’s self-tortured writhings: Watt does not feel guilty, and unlike Kafka’s K., he does not undergo any punishment; nor is Mr. Knott the oppressive source of terror that Klamm represents in The Castle. Moreover, Watt has many humorous episodes, such as the elaborate investigation of the Lynches’ genealogy, which connect the book with such skillful satires as Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767). Essentially, however, the comparison of Watt to Kafka’s The Castle holds: both are hauntingly powerful, absurdist, and myth-laden works that testify to their creators’ belief in a universe of agonizing chance and disorder, where the individual is hopelessly isolated and unable to understand or communicate his most crucial experiences.