Existentialism in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot
Jules Irving as Lucky, 1957
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a play that presents conflict between living by religious and spiritual beliefs, and living by an existential philosophy, which asserts that it is up to the individual to discover the meaning of life through personal experience in the earthly world. Support for this assertion regarding the nature of the play is based on first hand interpretation of the dialogue and action within the play itself as well as interpretation of quotes and ideas from Samuel Beckett and his critics.
Günther Ander clearly points out the notion that the protagonists in Beckett’s plays, including Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, reflect humanity in general. He states that “the fabulae personae whom Beckett selects as representative of today’s mankind can only be clochards, creatures excluded from the scheme of the world who have nothing to do any longer, because they do not have anything to do with it” (142). While the argument here holds with the notion of Vladimir and Estragon representing humanity, it is necessary to note that Günther’s statement conflicts with this discussion in that Vladimir and Estragon have everything to do with the world, merely lacking proper perception of it.
Being more specific, it can be shown that Vladimir represents the portion of humanity who trusts in religion and spiritual beliefs to guide them, and that Estragon represents the more ideal existentialist portion of humanity who chooses to stop waiting and construct the meaning of life based on experience in the tangible and physical world around them. The following is an example of dialogue which supports this concept:
Vladimir: Let’s wait and see what he says.
Estragon: Good idea.
Vladimir: Let’s wait till we know exactly how we stand.
Estragon: On the other hand it might be better to strike the iron before it freezes
Here we see that Vladimir is depending on Godot to tell him what he needs to know regarding his existence, while Estragon asserts that they do not have the time to wait and that they should take action on their own before it is too late. The metaphor of the cooling iron suggests that humanity does not have enough time to wait for their spiritual ponderings to offer them enlightenment, that the chance will pass, and their efforts will not take effect once it does. Therefore, it can be concluded from this that Estragon’s suggestion that he and Vladimir make their own way now, before it is too late, is the more ideal course of action advocated by the play. It is Estragon who follows the notion of no longer waiting on religion for answers and going to the philosophy of existentialism.
There is another instance in the dialogue between Estragon and Vladimir that plays on the idea of Vladimir as faithfully religious and Estragon as progressively humanistic:
Estragon: Charming spot. (He turns, advances to front, halts, facing auditorium.) Inspiring prospects. (He turns to Vladimir.) Let’s go:
Vladimir: We can’t.
Estragon: Why not?
Vladimir: We’re waiting for Godot.
Estragon: (despairingly). Ah! (8)
Once again, the existential philosophy of human experience in the physical world is what Estragon seeks in his desire to leave for “inspiring prospects,” and the common human tendency to wait on religion to offer answers is inherent in Vladimir’s suggestion that they should stay and wait so that they can be enlightened by Godot.
Samuel Beckett, 1977
Those who interpret the play often expend too much effort attempting to infer the identity of Godot. Even Beckett himself states that he has no idea who Godot is, and that he would have made it clear in the play if he did (Ben-Zvi 141-142). Beckett makes the misdirection of people who seek to find out who Godot is in his statement that “the great success of Waiting For Godothas arisen from a misunderstanding: critics and public alike were busy in allegorical or symbolic terms a play which strove at all costs to avoid definition” (Ben-Zvi 142). Beckett’s intention to not have the identity of Godot pondered reflects the underlying notion in his play that people should stop pondering the divine realm and focus on the human condition in physical existential terms. In this case, the entire play reflects the situation humans find themselves in. Godot does not have an identity, according to Beckett, and it is therefore erroneous to try to find out who he is. Considering the way in which this play reflects the human condition, one can also say that this means it is erroneous to ponder the spiritual realm which is beyond our ability to comprehend.
H. Porter Abbott also makes note of the idea that it should not be the focus of interpretation of the play to find out who Godot is. He notes that the audience should be most concerned with the fact that the identity and nature of Godot is never revealed, rather than trying to figure out his identity. Abbott states that “concealment, or conversely blindness, is one of the things the play is very much about” (10). His use of the word “blindness” may be taken into consideration as it can be related to the notion of blind faith. When the boy comes at the end of both acts and informs Vladimir that Godot is going to come, Vladimir never questions him about how truthful he is being about his knowledge of Godot. Vladimir only asks the boy superficial things about him, his brother, and his home life. The following section of dialogue in the second act is an example of this:
Vladimir: What does he do, Mr. Godot? (Silence.) Do you hear me?
Boy: Yes Sir.
Boy: He does nothing, Sir.
Vladimir: How is your brother?
Boy: He’s sick, Sir. (106)
Here we have Vladimir questioning the boy about Godot, but he never goes so far as to question the reliability of the information the boy gives him, he just abruptly changes the subject when it would make more sense to push on the subject when he was given the suspicious answer that Godot does nothing. It seems from this that Beckett is making a statement about the case of blind faith in religion. Christians, for example, are taught to never question the will of God, and take what they are told about him for granted. Taking this notion as parallel with the case of Vladimir and the boy, it seems to be suggested here that blind faith in religion is equally as pointless as Vladimir’s blind faith that Godot will come based on what the boy tells him.
Estragon and Vladimir
Near the beginning of the first act, Estragon attempts to tell Vladimir what he had dreamed after waking from a nap. Vladimir forcefully insists that he keep it to himself, and then Estragon, gesturing towards the universe, asks, “This one is good enough for you?” (10). The following silence sets this quote apart from the rest of the line, it makes reference to the idea of looking to the supernatural, the universe, as one way of pondering the meaning of life. Estragon would rather discuss his dream with Vladimir, and maybe through interpretation, become more enlightened about the human condition. It seems as though Beckett makes use of this to say that one should place more emphasis on personal experience as a means of discovering profound truths rather than looking into a realm beyond human comprehension and certainty. In other words, instead of looking into a universe he could never understand, Vladimir should listen to Estragon’s dream, focussing on human experience, which is the only thing humans can really comprehend.
The relationship between Pozzo and Lucky in the first act is an example of the notion that humanity must look away from religion as a source of the meaning of life. The dynamic between Pozzo and Lucky in the first act reflects the relationship some people have with their religion. When Estragon asks why Lucky does not relieve himself of the burden he carries once he and Pozzo have stopped to rest, Pozzo replies that it is because Lucky is trying to impress him so that he will not be sold at the fair. This reflects how a religious person would bear certain discomforts, such as rising early from bed every Sunday to attend church, in order to please higher beings, eternal bliss in the afterlife.
In the second act, it is revealed that at least one of the bags carried by Lucky is filled with sand. A bag of sand most often merely serves the purpose of providing extra weight, such as sandbags often used to stave of flood waters, or to weigh down a hot air balloon. Given this, it can be concluded that the unnecessary nature of the bag filled with sand that Lucky faithfully bears in order to impress his master is symbolic of the unnecessary burden many religious people carry in their various rituals of worship. One can conclude from this that the situation with Pozzo and Lucky is an attempt by Beckett to express the notion that religious practices serve no actual practical purpose, that it is an unnecessary weight keeping them from noticing the enlightenment the physical world has to offer.
It appears as though Beckett misspoke when questioned about Lucky. In response to being asked if Lucky was named so because he does not have to wait for Godot like Vladimir and Estragon do, but that he has his own Godot in Pozzo, Beckett stated, “I suppose he is Lucky to have no more expectations” (Ben-Zvi 144). It is arguable, however, that Lucky actually does have expectations, and that he is equally, if not more, insecure than the two tramps who remain forever waiting for Godot. Lucky faces the uncertainty of whether he will end up remaining with Pozzo, or with a new master, in much the same way that most religious people are always waiting to find out what they have waiting for them in the afterlife.
David Hesla states in The Shape of Chaos that “[Vladimir] and [Estragon] are largely spared the burden of the past, for their memories are so defective that little of earlier time remains to them” (133). The protagonists of the play certainly lack burden from the past as a result of not retaining it, but it is not the purpose of this discussion to suggest that it is more because they do not really have a past to remember, rather than the fact that they can not remember. Vladimir and Estragon spend their present finding ways to simply kill the time and focus their attention on the future, neglecting their present. Without paying attention to the present, one will not have sufficient memory of it when it becomes the past. From a spiritual perspective, this seems to say that people who spend their lives working to ensure bliss in the afterlife and to understand the meaning of life should instead focus on what they have before them so that they can make the most of life and not end up wasting it by building themselves up to spiritual expectations which are far less certain than the pleasures immediately obtainable in the physical world.
It can be concluded that the interpretation of instances from the dialogue, character dynamic, and second party interpretation of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Becket offers much compelling evidence in support of the notion that the play makes reference to existentialist philosophy as a more suitable means of the pursuit for the meaning of life than is following religion or making spiritual inferences.
Abbott, H. Porter. The Fiction of Samuel Beckett: Form and Effect. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973.
Anders, Günther. “Being Without Time: On Beckett’s Play Waiting for Godot.” Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Martin Esslin. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1965. 140-51.
Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. NewYork: Grove Press, 1982.
Ben-Zvi, Linda. Samuel Beckett. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986.
Hesla, David H. The Shape of Chaos: An Interpretation of the Art of Samuel Beckett. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1971.