Showing posts with label Samuel Beckett. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Samuel Beckett. Show all posts

Monday, April 19, 2021

Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot: Major Themes

Waiting for Godot is a complex and puzzling play. It offers a variety of meanings and interpretations. Its essential is not quite clear, with the result that different critics have approached it differently and interpreted it in various ways. But the play has a widespread appeal, and each set of audiences interpreted it in its own manner. It found favour not only with intellectuals but also with average theatre-goers. There is something in the play for almost everybody.

As a Picture of Humanity at Large

The two tramps in the play, according one interpretation, are wo parts of a person or of a community seen subjectively, with Vladimir representing the more spiritual part and Estragon the animal. Similarly, Pozzo and Lucky make up a person or a community viewed objectively, Pozzo being the exploiter and the user of ideas, Lucky the exploited and the creator of ideas. In other words, we suffer with Estragon and Vladimir, their fears, their hopes, their hatreds, and their loves; but we view Pozzo and Lucky through the eyes of the amps and therefore see in them only the social surface of life. Thus, the four characters add up to a picture of humanity at large, and the play is more than anything else, about the attempts of human beings to fiddle their way through life, setting up a wall of hopes and pretenses between themselves and despair. Godot symbolizes the greatest of these hopes, namely, that there is some point to existence, that we are keeping some mysterious appointment on earth, and are therefore no random scraps of life. It does not matter much who Godot is because the play is not about Godot but, as its title states, about the waiting for him. The play is about life on earth, not hereafter. Thus, the play may be regarded as a picture of human attempts to fiddle through life.

As a Picture of the Pointlessness of Human Life

Different from this somewhat positive approach is another which is entirely negative. According to this other interpretation, the play i fable about a kind of life that has no longer any point. The playwright wishes to convey to us that life is devoid of action and that human beings have been pulled out of the world and have no longer anything to do with it. The two heroes or antiheroes, are merely alive, but no longer living in the world. The world has become empty for them Where a world no longer exists, there can no longer be a possibility of a collision with the world. In our world today many people have begun increasingly to feel that they live in a world in which they do not or cannot act but are simply acted upon. The play seeks to capture the mood of such people and has therefore a more or less general application. The two tramps are dimly aware of the want of action in their lives and of the pointlessness of their existence. It is another matter that they still want to go on living. The majority of people in today's world do not after all give up living despite life's meaninglessness and pointlessness. The people actually do not wait for anything. So, Godot is nothing but a name for the fact that the life which goes on pointlessly is wrongly interpreted to mean waiting for something. According to this interpretation, the play is a picture of the pointlessness of human life.

The Ordeal of Waiting, Ignorance and Impotence, Boredom

A third interpretation regards the play as a presentation of the ordeal of waiting. ignorance, impotence, boredom. It is more convincing than the other interpretations given above. People in the world go on waiting for something or the other. They wait for a job, or promotion, or the return of a long-lost child or friend, or a love-letter or a reunion with a divorced wife, or the birth of a child, or for the riches, and so on. Vladimir and Estragon by their waiting indefinitely and without any tangible result thus symbolize the millions of human beings who wait for something or the other without attaining it. In this sense too the play has a general validity. But the ordeal of waiting is not the only subject of the play. The two tramps do not know who or what Godot is; nor are they sure that they are waiting at the right place or on the right day or what could happen if they stopped waiting In other words, the two tramps are lacking in the essential knowledge they are ignorant. Being ignorant they cannot act and so they are impotent also. Thus, the tramps produce in us a sense of baffled situation which we do not understand and over which we have no control. All that they do is to seek ways to pass the time in a situation which they find themselves in. They tell stories, sing songs, play verbal games, pretend to be Pozzo and Lucky, do physical exercises. But all these activities are mere stop-gaps serving only to pass the time. Here then we have the very essence of boredom. Thus, the play represents not just waiting but also ignorance, impotence, and boredom. Vladimír and Estragon have travelled far towards total nihilism, though they have not fully achieved it. They are in a place in a mental state in which nothing happens and time stands still. If Godot comes, a new fact may be introduced into their existence, whereas if they leave, they will certainly miss him. Their waiting therefore, contains an element of vague hope.

The Problem of Getting through Life

Yet another interpretation says that the problem in Beckett's plays is how do you get through life? Waiting for Godot also deals with the problem of how to get through life. The answer which Beckett gives is that we get through life by force of habit. By going on in spite of boredom and pain, by talking, by not listening to the "silence", absurdity and without hope. The two tramps in this play, with their boredom, their fear of pain, their shreds of love and hate, are a surprisingly effective version of the whole human condition- a condition for which action is no answer, chiefly because there is no obvious action to be taken: "Nothing to be done". In other words, the play is about nothing, and the playwright comes to nihilistic conclusion. The play also conveys the idea that our everyday existence is nothing but playing of games, clown-like, without real consequence, springing solely from the vain hope that it will make time pass. Our daily activities are similar to Estragon's meaningless action in taking off his shoes and putting them on.

The Meaninglessness of Life

The play, according to some scholars, is about the meaninglessness of life. The way the two tramps pass time is indicative of the boredom and triviality of human activities, the lack of significance of life and the constant suffering which existence is. It also brings out the hollowness and insincerity of most social intercourse. Estragon and Vladimir question each other, contradict each other, abuse each other, become reconciled to each other without any serious meaning of intention. All these devices are employed to one end-to the end of making their waiting for Godot less unbearable. Estragon takes off his boots. gropes inside them, and shakes them out expecting something to fall out of them but nothing happens. Vladimir does the same with his hat, with the same result. The very essence of boredom and triviality is concentrated in the scene in which Estragon and Vladimir repeatedly put on and take off the three hats, their own and Lucky's. It is this utter lack of meaning which drives Estragon and Vladimir to thoughts of suicide, but the world of this play is one which no significant action is permitted therefore even suicide is n within their reach. In addition to trivial actions, the only others that are permitted are cruel ones, like that of beating Pozzo and Lucky. 

The Theme of Suffering

One of the themes of Waiting for Godot is that suffering is an inseparable part of the human condition. Vladimir and Estragon suffer intensely and incessantly. Vladimir cannot even laugh without suffering excruciating pain. Estragon's feet make life a long torture for him They have nowhere to rest their head. On top of this, Estragon is beaten daily by some gang of ruffians, without his providing them any sort of provocation. They have nothing to cat either, except carrots. turnips and radishes. Vladimir pretends to like this much as he eats it, but Estragon is frank enough to confess that it becomes more and more unbearable as he takes it. They have nothing to look back on except the days when they did not look so shabby that they could go up Eiffel Tower and jump to their deaths from there. Even those days an were far from happy otherwise, for Estragon even then tried putting end to his life by jumping into the Rhine but Vladimir fished him out. Estragon wistfully recollects that he once planned to go to the Holy Land for his honeymoon because he was enchanted by the colour of the Dead Sea as shown in maps of the Holy Land in an edition of the Bible. The ordeal of waiting for Godot, and the desperate devices which must be employed to make time pass, are now nerve-racking. Even the lives of Pozzo and Lucky are full of suffering. The one gets blind the other dumb. Otherwise too both are tied to each other. Lucky and Pozzo also illustrate the theme of exploitation.

The Religious Theme

Some critics have found a religious meaning in the play and it is not difficult to see why. Vladimir raises, and seriously too, the issue of human salvation early in the play. He feels worried at the thought that one of the two thieves was damned. Estragon has all his life compared himself to Christ and says rather enviously that "they crucified (him) quick." The tramps wait for Godot who may represent God, and their persistence in waiting for Godot shows their faith in God. The mutual attachment of the two tramps and Vladimir's protective attitude towards his friend have been interpreted as Christian virtues. Pozzo's being mistaken for Godot to begin with, may also be linked with this religious interpretation. However, it is difficult to read in the play a consistent and elaborate religious allegory.

The Theme of Disintegration and Regression

Among the depressing interpretations of the play is yet another. According to this interpretation, the play represents a disintegrating of human beings, the climax in the play occurring when all the four characters fall to the ground upon one another, creating a formless mass from which Vladimir's voice emerges, saying: "We are men !" Nothing escapes the destructive force of this regression: neither speech-torn to pieces in the rhetoric of Pozzo's monologue on twilight-nor thought, which is undermined and destroyed by a whole series of absurd reasonings as well as by such passages as the incoherent speech delivered by Lucky. Lucky's speech effectively represents the regression of man's thinking intelligence.

The Theme of the German Occupation of France

According to yet another view, the world represented in this play resembles France occupied by the Germans during World War II when Beckett lived first in the occupied zone and then escaped to the unoccupied region. Thus viewed, the play reminds us of the French Resistance organized by underground workers. How much waiting must have gone on in that bleak world! How many times must Resistance organizers have kept appointments with many who did not turn up and who may have had good reasons for not turning up! We can imagine why the arrival of Pozzo would have an unnerving effect on those who waited. Pozzo could be a Gestapo official clumsily disguised. The German occupation of France should not of course be regarded as the "key" to the play the play simply suggests the German occupation and thus acquires a certain historical value.


Thus the play is very rich in meanings and themes. Besides the above themes, the playwright has also incorporated some minor themes as the inadequacy of human language as a means of communication and the illusory nature of such concepts as past and future. Beckett himself does not want to solve the mystery of the meaning. He has left it to his readers and critics. When asked what his play meant, Beckett replied, "If I could tell you in a sentence, I wouldn't have written the play." Waiting for Godot means different things for different people. The play exposes man's tragic condition, at the same time it has a timeless validity and universality; furthermore, it is an existentialist play; at the same time, it also mocks at the attitudes of Existentialism. It seems to have some religious implications even though it seems to question profoundly the Christian conception of salvation and grace. Not only are Estragon and Vladimir the representatives of common humanity but even Pozzo and Lucky are so. If nature has progressed from winter to spring (the bare tree of the First Act has some fresh leaves in the Second Act), Pozzo and Lucky seem to have suffered a decline which is just the opposite of it.