When it comes to analyzing themes contained in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, it is important to understand that these themes cannot be discussed outside of historical discourse, which defines their actual quintessence.
Play’s absurdist overtones leave every doubt as to the fact that in Waiting for Godot, Beckett was trying to reflect upon the issue of life’s purposelessness in the existentialist sense of this word. Jean-Paul Sartre has formulated the essence of existentialist outlook on the notion of absurd in his book Transcendence of the Ego: “Transcendental consciousness is an impersonal spontaneity. It determines its existence as each moment, without our being able to conceive anything before it. Each instant of our conscious life reveals to us a creation ex nihilo” (1957, 81).
This Sartre’s idea provides us with the insight into the actual meaning of Alain Robbe Grillet’s statement – by indulging in behavioral spontaneity, play’s characters were ‘acting,’ even though the absence of action, in the traditional context of this word, is the most notable feature of Waiting for Godot.
In this paper, we will aim at exploring this thesis to a further extent while exposing the play’s characters’ inability to assume an active stance in life as being simply an extrapolation of their existential decadence.
Storyline, Themes and Motifs
As we have pointed out earlier, the most prominent feature of Waiting for Godot is the fact that Beckett’s play does not contain a clearly defined storyline, which explains the repetitiveness of its themes and motifs. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to refer to play’s structural inconsistencies as such that indicate the absence of dramaturgic talent, on the part of Beckett.
Apparently, instead of trying to make his play serving the purposes of entertainment, the author had consciously decided in favor of turning Waiting for Godot into the instrument of post-industrial enlightenment onto the ‘nature of things.’
In its turn, this explains why, while never ceasing to interact with each other, the characters of Vladimir and Estragon could not help themselves feeling mutually alienated.
The scene, in which Vladimir refuses to listen about Estragon’s dream, substantiates the validity of earlier suggestion perfectly well: “Estragon: Who am I to tell my private nightmares to if I can’t tell them to you? Vladimir: Let them remain private. You know I can’t bear that” (1952, 3).
It appears that the ultimate reason why conventional, religion-based framework for facing life’s challenges, could not provide Vladimir and the Estragon with psychological comfort, is that they are being shown as ‘existential sovereigns’ – that is, individuals who do need to be able to socialize with others, in order to attain self-identity. What it means is that both characters’ posture is being essentially post-industrial – just as many of today’s urban-dwellers, these characters are being preoccupied with purposeless idling on a full-time basis.
Yet, Vladimir and Estragon are clearly incapable of referring to such their preoccupation as having value in itself, which is why they strive to justify the absurd of their existence by making continuous references to the mythical character of Godot: “Estragon: What do we do now?… Vladimir: We’re waiting for Godot” (1952, 16). Apparently, both characters thought of their ‘waiting’ as something that would endow their lives with some sense, as the time of ‘waiting’ usually precedes the time of ‘action.’
Yet, the fact that Vladimir and Estragon were able to operate with highly abstract categories (their high I.Q.), had effectively eliminated the chances for them to genuinely believe in the purposefulness of action, as ‘thing in itself’, simply because it is only people instilled with an irrational hope, which can act.
However, the characters of Vladimir and Estragon are portrayed as too intelligent, in order for them not to be able to recognize the sheer fallaciousness of ‘high expectations,’ when discussed within the context of their own lives.
While referring to the essence of existential dilemma experienced by Vladimir and Estragon, in his article “Waiting for Godot” and Man’s Search for Community, Dan Via states: “Hope is not dead, but there is little reason to suppose that hope will be more fulfilled in the future than it has been in the past” (1962, 36).
In order for an individual to be able to assume an active stance in life, such an individual’s sense of will power must dominate over his or her ability to rationalize.
Yet, the characters of Vladimir and Estragon appear being completely deprived of such a psychological trait because, on a subconscious level, they were fully aware of the fact that the realities of modern-day living imply the out-datedness of classical socio-political, philosophical and cultural notions.
In its turn, this explains why the encounter with the characters of Pozzo and Lucky (an allegory to the realities of pre-industrial living), did not cause Vladimir and Estragon to begin addressing life’s challenges within the framework of good vs. evil.
The reason for this is simple – the emotional intensity, emanated by Pozzo and Lucky’s physical appearance, has been recognized by Vladimir and Estragon as essentially carnivalesque. This is why; Vladimir never ceased referring to Pozzo and Lucky as nothing but a diversion, which was supposed to help him deal with its boredom: “We wait. We are bored.
No, don’t protest, we are bored to death, there’s no denying it. Good. A diversion comes along, and what do we do? We let it go to waste” (1952, 28). Vladimir’s words reveal the fact that his preoccupation with seeking ‘diversion’ was mainly pathological.
In the same manner, during the decline of Roman Empire in 5th century A.D., intellectually and spiritually corrupted Romans were striving to add an emotional intensity to their sensory perceptions by attending gladiator fights – by being exposed to bloody spectacles of these fights, Romans were hoping to regain back the psychological traits of their ancestors: strong will power and courage. Yet, they were not never able to do it – during the course of late antiquity, Romans could only be formally referred to as Romans, while being nothing short of physical and mental degenerates.
The same can be said about the characters of Vladimir and Estragon, form Beckett’s play – their intention to gain an emotional comfort out of indulging in ‘waiting’ could not possibly come in handy, simply because the process of ‘waiting’, on their part, appears being deprived of any rationale-based justification, whatsoever.
Thus, we can say that it is named the application of historical outlook on Beckett’s play, which provides readers with insight into the fact that play characters’ existential stance is being utterly deterministic.
While being formally affiliated with the values of pre-industrial living (reflected in their stoic willingness to wait for Godot for as long as it takes), Vladimir and Estragon never felt themselves being affiliated with these values de facto, simply because they are clearly incapable of acting. As Paul Corcoran had put it in his article Godot Is Waiting Too: Endings in Thought and History: “Di Di and Go Go argue about who should go hang himself first, but neither does, lacking the proper equipment.
Nothing is going to happen. And nothing does. They have learned nothing and drawn no lesson. What they are doing, what they are capable of, is waiting” (1989, 514). As psychologists are well aware of – one’s inability to adopt an active stance in life (reflected in the irrational fear of decision-making), often indicates mental inadequateness, on the part of such an individual.
And, it goes without saying that mentally abnormal people are being deprived of a ‘free will,’ by definition. Therefore, there can be very little doubt as to the fact that the characters are Vladimir and Estragon are indeed trapped in deterministic patterns of thought.
This paper’s conclusion can be formulated as follows: Given the fact that, despite their apparent intellectual sophistication, the characters of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot appear being completely deprived of a sense of will power, it will not be an exaggeration to refer to them as ultimate decadents, whose very existence transgresses the laws of nature.
In its turn, such our suggestion points out to the overall sounding of Beckett’s play as being essentially deterministic – in this world, people can come up with legitimate excuses for just about anything, except for their inability to act when action is required. And, those who cannot act on their own behalf will be eventually turned into the subjects of some other people’s action – thus, losing their place under the sun.
Beckett, Samuel “Waiting for Godot”. 1952 (2001). PrariePride.Org.
Corcoran, Paul “Godot Is Waiting Too: Endings in Thought and History”, Theory and Society 18.4 (1989): 495-529. Print.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Transcendence of the Ego. New York: Farar, Straus & Giroux, 1957. Print.
Via, Dan “Waiting for Godot’ and Man’s Search for Community”, Journal of Bible and Religion 30.1 (1962): 32-37. Print.