Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 616

Beckett was a serious student of seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophy, which put a heavy emphasis on epistemology—that wing of philosophy which concerned itself with theories of knowledge, with how things are known. It was legitimate for him to be interested in not only the theories of Descartes but also the minutiae of his life. The interest in philosophic ideas about humankind’s relation to the universe and to God pervades Beckett’s texts, although the position he espouses in his work is generally so pessimistic and negative that he became the finest representative of the “absurd” in the literary arts. He explored, over and over again, in his plays and novels, the simple proposition that life is meaningless in any spiritual sense. That idea is not quite clearly formed in his early work, and it must be remembered that Whoroscope is his first published work.

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In the first place, the poem can be seen as a repudiation of the idea implicit in Eliot’s use of the dramatic monologue that sense can be made out of life in the process of the making of the poem itself. Nothing is, in fact, solved in Whoroscope, if indeed there was anything of serious moment to be concerned about. Descartes has an eccentric attitude toward breakfast omelettes, which it was his practice to eat every morning. Getting the eggs sufficiently mature for his consumption is the obvious problem in the poem, and it might be argued that the problem is eventually solved, and Descartes is then free to go on to his fate in Sweden, dying of a chill. It has, it might be argued, a kind of mildly comic biographical structure. That might be misleading, however, because there are forms of the dramatic monologue which do not necessarily require the movement from inertia to action. If the tradition is traced back to Browning in the nineteenth century, it can be seen that the “problem” structure which Eliot uses in his poems is only one of the kinds of dramatic monologue. There is another kind, represented by Browning’s “My Last Duchess” and “Fra Lippo Lippi,” in which the main character does not have any particular problem, but in the telling of the tale reveals hidden aspects of character.

Observers of the Descartes of Whoroscope may come to their own conclusions as to who he is and what he knows by the end of the poem, and they may not be much impressed by his vulgarity, self-praise, and derisive attitude toward his enemies. If the poem is seen as tonally comic, however, Descartes may get off lightly as a somewhat foulmouthed but charmingly witty manipulator of his life and his conflicts therein. In the widest sense, the poem is a kind of mocking of the usually portentous exposure of character that is a mark of the dramatic monologue, and the piling on of recondite allusions—quantitatively excessive, qualitatively clever, and sly beyond measure—may be seen as “meaning” in itself, as a good-natured, stunningly confident jeu d’esprit, using an imploded version of Descartes’s life and a respected literary form to prove how well Beckett could play his instrument.

If meaning of somewhat more substantial weight is needed, it is possible to argue that it is quite sneakily an attack on Descartes and the presumption of thinking that human beings can know anything—or, indeed, that there is anything to know. If that is how the poem is read, it can be seen as clearly presaging the things to come, the works that would make Beckett one of the great writers and one of the most influential thinkers of the last half of the twentieth century.

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