No Symbol Where None Intended:
A Study of Symbolism and Allusion in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot
By Michael Gurnow
As with all great literature, there rarely exists anything extraneous in the text, for something that is unneeded, detracts from the work and distracts the reader unnecessarily, thus causing the work to be less effective than it would otherwise be. As such, most everything in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot serves a purpose, be it for reasons involving the strengthening of a character's profile, thematic support, or audience reaction. Beckett implements symbols in the text whenever he deems it necessary and beneficial to the overall work. It is a play that seems inert but rather, upon closer inspection, charged with electricity (qtd. in Guicharnaud 195). Quoting from the poet of inertia (Fletcher 57), "No symbol where none intended" (qtd. in Alvarez 86), the playwright never uses an image, phrase, word, or action without motive.
Beginning in the middle of the play, as the play begins in medias res, the image of the elderly Lucky symbolizes the euphoric mental plight that a lifetime of experience and learning may render and how exponentially quick physical human decline can consume that same individual. In the first act, Lucky is able to espouse words of wisdom upon most every topic with only the burden of repetition that is debatably due to loss of short-term memory. Even though Pozzo states that Lucky's speech is mere rote reiteration, we are given no evidence that this statement is not made out of envy from an otherwise pompous egoist who is attempting to regain Estragon and Vladimir's attention. In the second act Lucky, as well Pozzo, have undergone drastic declines in their physical, and possibly mental, health. Lucky, though plausibly still capable of heightened thought, is no longer able to speak while the once seemingly omnipotent, but now blind Pozzo -- whom Estragon and Vladimir at one time mistook for Godot -- has become yet another piece of baggage in which Lucky must transport in the pair's wonderings.
The coupling of Pozzo and Lucky form a union similar to the figure of Sophocles's Oedipus. Lucky, being extremely intelligent, resembles the Oedipus whom answered the Sphinx's question while Pozzo, aside from navigating a road reminiscent to that which lead to Thebes, is now without eyes (Roberts 38). Here may lie yet another possible clue as to the meaning behind the contents of Lucky's suitcase containing sand. Most commentators suggest this is reminiscent of the sands of time yet it can also be seen as a souvenir of the travels of humanity throughout the ages and literature, from ancient Greek drama to modern French theater.
There exist other references and allusions to Western literature in the play, namely to Shakespeare. We hear mention of Estragon's awakening in a ditch from his previous night's sleep, which has parallels to Pozzo's proclamation, "They [women] give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more." This is a paraphrase from Macbeth's speech when the title character contemplates his relation to the murder he recently committed:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more (V.V.19-26)
If one is familiar with the Shakespearian text, then the play by Beckett possess more meaning, one having realized the allusion to "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow," which is one of the main motifs of the Beckettian work: waiting. Godot is said to come "surely to-morrow." The evidence that Beckett is making the Shakespearian reference lies in his hyphenation of the word "tomorrow" instead of using its more traditional and colloquial non-hyphenated spelling.
Another Shakespearian allusion is made during the course of Godot. As Helen Baldwin points out, this occurs when Vladimir states, "What are we doing here, that is the question." Beckett is obviously reiterating Hamlet's opening lines, "To be or not to be, that is the question," in his soliloquy in Act III, Scene I, of the play for which he is the title character (119).
Lawrence Graver states that there exist references to Chaucer in the play as well. Estragon, after a brief dialogue with Vladimir, states, "That wasn't such a bad little canter" if, for no other reason, because it succeeded in passing the time. Beckett's selection of the word "canter" is two-fold, argues Graver, for it suggests "an easy gallop," thus indicative of an episodic voyage such as life, and of Canterbury, a reference to Chaucer's tales, which depicts pilgrims telling tales in which to pass the time (63).
Throughout the canon of Western literature, night is symbolic of death. If there does exist hope within the course of Godot, it lies in the knowledge that eternal rest is destined to come, unlike the "guaranteed" appearance of the ambiguous Godot. Pozzo voices this sentiment in the first act, "Night is charging and will burst upon us pop! Like that!" This pronouncement also serves as an omen for Pozzo, who is also making reference to the setting sun and, in turn, the closing of the fair where he intends to sell Lucky. He is thus citing the importance of time. The premonition lies in the fact that by the second act, Pozzo will live in a world where there is no visual change, that of blindness, thus in a world where time has ceased to exist.
Unlike other ideas and images in the play that can easily be defined and supported by analysis, the symbol of Godot -- if he is indeed a symbol -- remains somewhat askew. When Roger Blin, the first to direct Godot, play the role of Pozzo, and perform the role of Hamm in Endgame, asked the playwright "who or what Godot stood for," Beckett replied that it was French slang: "Godillot," for the term "boot." Deirdre Bair, author of the award-winning biography Samuel Beckett: A Biography, states this is the most frequently given explanation from the playwright upon the issue (382). One alternate answer given by Beckett as to the identity of Godot was uttered to Bob Thompson, "...there is a rue Godot, a cycling racer named Godot..." (557).
Many readers of the English translation are quick to jump at the coincidental nature of the title "God" in "Godot." Yet, remembering that the play was originally composed in French, in order for there to exist a theological connection between titles, the French "dieu" ("god") would have to have been used, at least in derivation. Yet the French title is En Attendant Godot. Beckett even attempted to release the title from its theological ties by stating to Harold Dobson, "If Godot were God, I would have called him that" (qtd. in Bair 383). However, even though Beckett had yet to achieve any type of praiseworthy recognition at the international level at the time "Godot" was written, it is not unreasonable to believe the playwright used this term with the intention that it might someday reach a broader (in relation to his French audience) English audience.
Anthony Cronin, the Irish author of Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, cites Friedrich Nietzsche's "Gott ist tod" as being a possible source for the title, further instilling the sense of a deity's absence throughout the play (393) and bringing the title back to a theological interpretation. If this is indeed the case, then it seems quite intentional that Godot is God given the description that the second messenger boy provides of his overseer: Godot has a white beard and "does nothing." Indeed, if Godot is God and we are created in His own image, and the characters on stage represent humanity and its plight, then, as the characters "do nothing" during the play, then it is rational that God "does nothing" as well.
Another frequently cited interpretation as to the identity of Godot is that the title character is seen onstage twice during the course of the play. John Fletcher speculates, as does Vivian Mercier, that Pozzo is Godot and merely fails to recognize whom he has come to meet (56, 76). The latter of the two critics supports her claim by citing Pozzo's remark to Estragon and Vladimir that the two characters are "on my land" (173).
In most cases, scholars have been quite content upon the playwright's comment concerning the identity of Godot. Bair concludes that Beckett's staunch declaration, "I meant what I said" in relation to not knowing the meaning of the title character's name, should be taken seriously (383). Yet Vivian Mercier does make a valid remark as to the necessity of Godot to be God: "Obviously those who wait on stage must wait for something that they and the audience consider extremely important. . . . They [the audience] do not have to identify Godot with God; they do, however, need to see the analogy if the play is not to seem hopelessly trivial" (172).
Unlike Godot, the reader is able to assess various identities for the other characters in the play. The heights of Estragon and Vladimir play a symbolic role as to their character traits during "Godot." "Estragon is on the ground, he belongs to the stone" (qtd. in Cousineau 97). Estragon is short and he oftentimes slowly slumps toward the ground as he falls asleep. "Estragon [ . . . ] does not simply sit on the stone: he actually resembles it in certain ways. His sluggishness and immobility suggest the possibility of comparison, which is confirmed when, adopting the fetal position as he falls asleep, he assumes a shape having definite visual analogies with the stone" (101).
This is in contrast to the image of Vladimir, who "is light, he is oriented towards the sky. He belongs to the tree" (97). He is taller and stands throughout most of play. He also looks up at sky numerous times during the play, thus indicative of heightened thought: "He [Vladimir] is [ . . . ] the intellectual who is concerned with a variety of ideas. . . . Vladimir correlates some of their [Estragon and Vladimir's] actions to the general concerns of mankind, seen in his uttering, 'All mankind is in us'" (Roberts 46). In contrast, Estragon is concerned mainly with more mundane matters; he prefers a carrot to a radish or turnip, his feet hurt, and he blames his boots. . . . He is not concerned with either religious or philosophical matters (47). This is reinforced when, at the open of the second act, Estragon's boots -- the only movable objects upon the stage -- serve as metonyms for their owner (Cousineau 101).
The seemingly interchangeable dialogue, when analyzed, is exacting and precise when one begins to look further into the pair's characterization. When Estragon tells Pozzo, "He [Vladimir] has stinking breath and I have stinking feet," Estragon's statement further supports the image of the mentally astute Vladimir, who suffers halitosis due to open dialectic if with no one else other than himself, to that of the physically-preoccupied Estragon, whose bodily pains consume most of his thoughts and time. This theory is further reinforced by Vladimir's quoting Latin, pausing in order to search for the correct word when speaking, deducing that Estragon should first hang himself being the heavier of the two in order to determine if the bough will support himself, attempting to politely converse with Pozzo and Lucky, and dispensing the food rations during the course of the play. Clearly Vladimir's pain is primarily mental anguish, which would thus account for his voluntary exchange of his hat for Lucky's, thus signifying Vladimir's symbolic desire for another person's thoughts (Robinson 249-50) and plight. It is not surprising either that Vladimir reveals he was once a poet.
Estragon, conversely, views the world through its physical aspects and their immediate ramifications. When he first sees the rope around Lucky's neck he questions Pozzo upon the chafing that may be occurring. Estragon is also the one who speaks of hunger, a physical need, during the course of the play. He inquires to Pozzo whether or not he may have the discarded chicken bones from Pozzo's meal. He even creates similes using the images of food: "Such an old and faithful servant [speaking of Lucky]. . . . After having sucked all the good out of him you chuck him away like a . . . like a banana skin." Estragon is aware of this discrepancy between the two character's worldviews, for he laughs when Vladimir must cut his dialogue short in order to relieve himself during the play (250). This is the aesthetic motive behind Lucky's kicking Estragon during the play: Estragon, being physical, will continue to focus upon the pain more than Vladimir, who would arguably mentally abstract the wound.
The characterizations of Pozzo and Lucky can be interpreted in a similar manner. Pozzo, with his leading Lucky to the fair to be sold, has an obvious agenda. He is concerned with material matters: his Kapp and Peterson, vaporizer, and watch. He espouses knowledge, be it true knowledge or not is not his concern, for he has a role in life -- that of a leader. For Estragon and Vladimir, he serves as a temporary Godot, a god-on-earth, a type of Nietzschian Übermensch.
The characters of Pozzo and Lucky also allow Beckett to depict highly abstract philosophical, sociological, and philological ideas into particular personages on stage. Pozzo is master and Lucky is slave, Beckett allows the audience to view the full implications of such binary roles in life. This dual relationship is further embodied by the whip that Pozzo brandishes, which also suggests sadomasochistic themes (thus abbreviated "S and M," the converse of "M and S," or "master and slave"). By their appearance in the second act, Pozzo follows Lucky instead of leading him (255). In master and slave relations, first outlined by F.W. Hegel in his Phenomenology of Spirit, the role of master is a hollow concept without a subsequent slave that gives meaning to the former role. The latter's existence is the true position of power for it gives significance to both roles, that of the master as well as that of the slave. By the second act, Beckett symbolically displays the true power exchange between the coupling of Pozzo and Lucky. Yet, upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that Lucky always possessed more influence in the relationship, for he danced, and more importantly, thought -- not as a service, but in order to fill a vacant need of Pozzo: he committed all of these acts for Pozzo (Guicharnaud 208). As such, since the first appearance of the duo, the true slave had always been Pozzo.
This idea of Hegelian master and slave duality also coincides with Fletcher and Mercier's earlier cited theory of Pozzo as Godot. If this is the case, then during the course of the play the audience witnesses the true correlation between a deity and its followers. It is not unreasonable to state that the playwright is making the suggestion that the image of God, at least for some, is created in order to give a sense of purpose in a person's life. This is why Pozzo is seen following Lucky in the second act, for Pozzo is (now literally) dependent upon Lucky's image of Pozzo as master in order to -- as Lucky conversely did of Pozzo in the first act -- have a role in which to fulfill. This, once again, has a basis in Nietzschian theory, and further supports the image of the Übermensch, baring witness to the Nietzschian utterance "God is dead." During the second act, the character of Pozzo-Godot-God collapses and, consequently, we see all of humanity, symbolized by all characters on stage, fall as a result. This simultaneous collapse can also be viewed as "the visual expression of their [the characters'] common situation" (qtd. in Graves 67).
From the abstract ideals encompassed by a character that that of an object, Estragon's metonymic boots serve as a metaphor for life's travels, the episodic voyage of life (Cousineau 102). This plebian image of Estragon is contrasted with the image of Vladimir's hat, which is typically associated with the upper class, thus the elite, be it intellectually (as is in the case of the play) or otherwise. Yet, in order to keep the two characters at bay from any hind of hope, Vladimir's elitism is somewhat reduced when his eating of a solitary carrot is cast alongside Pozzo's being served chicken by a slave (102).
This idea of a hierarchy of character value, at least in the characters' minds, is reinforced when another case of metonymy is witnessed. When the seemingly arbitrary act of Vladimir kicking over Pozzo's stool is seen, it is representative of Pozzo's character and what he represents. As such, it only leads one to the conclusion that by Pozzo's stomping on Lucky's hat in order to silence him, that the hat is intended to symbolize the masochistic character of Lucky.
The metaphysical depravity of both character's plights are represented in their poverty stricken appearances. The fact of the Estragon and Vladimir's lifelong poverty is evidenced in the two reflecting back to the time when they were grape pickers, which is not commonly associated as a position of affluence (Mercier 48). The suggestion that Vladimir's knowledge of Latin and the Bible displaying a type of formal education is contrasted with his sporadic, trivial understanding of the latter, which is oftentimes the sign of a person who is self-taught. In Vivian Mercier's words, "...it is hard to put one's finger on anything specific they [Estragon and Vladimir] have read or studied" (48). It is in this sense that, "The tramp [ . . . ] is the modern metaphor for universal man" (Guicharnaud 201). As with the "comedy of the bum" (197) seen in the figure of Charlie Chaplin's cinematic persona and in Federico Fellini's La Strada, the misery is thus escalated because, in Beckett's own words in Endgame: "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that." Comedy's oftentimes two-fold nature, as outlined by Sigmund Freud, focuses upon topics that are otherwise too intense or painful to approach without some type of mental and emotional barricade. By our treatment of such issues in a less-than-serious light, we are thus able to speak of them where we otherwise would be forced to deny the existence of such issues, "...since to laugh at our misery is the only way we have found of coming to terms with it" (Fletcher 58). If we do not act in this manner we are forced to further suppress psychologically painful ideas into our subconscious, creating the groundwork for unnecessary stress, grief, anxiety, all of which may manifest itself into various neuroses and complexes. Such complications may make a person unable to work, thus further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and mental decline.
Freud's theory may account for Estragon's extreme case of amnesia: he has subconsciously blocked out, however ironic, the memory of his life up to the previous day's events due to the mental pain that are associated with such recollections. Estragon's forgetfulness serves yet another purpose in the play. This pausing, hesitation, and reluctance to answer questions directly lend to the image of Godot for it creates an "almost dreamlike haze that clouds the waiting [ . . . ]" (198).
The pairing of Pozzo together with Lucky alongside Estragon and Vladimir allows the metaphor of one person's existential dependence of another to become manifest. As with Ishmael's literal tie and dependence upon Queesqueg to stabilize the monkey-rope that the former is bound while securing a whale in Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Estragon's symbolic connection to Vladimir is that of memory, because for whatever reasons the former has extreme amnesia. "Vladimir [ . . . ] uses memory to enforce whatever bond it is [that] binds them to each other" (Robinson 251). The literal binding that appears between Lucky and Pozzo supports this notion of human reliance. Furthermore, the concept of one's emotional livelihood being dependant upon another is witnessed in Pozzo's reluctance to leave the company of Estragon and Vladimir.
An interesting interpretation argues that Lucky's title is emblematic of the character for he is "lucky" in the context of the play. Since most of the play is spent trying to find things to do in order to pass the time, Lucky becomes his namesake because his actions are determined absolutely by Pozzo, therefore the burden of finding preoccupations have ceased to exist for this particular character. When Beckett was asked why Lucky was so named, he replied, "I suppose he is lucky to have no more expectations" (Duckworth 95). This posits the plight of Pozzo, Lucky's overseer, as being "un-Lucky," thus the antipode of Lucky, for he not only needs to pass his own time but must also find activities for Lucky (Smith). Another reading into Lucky's name is that he is fortunate to have found his own Godot, his own master in the figure of Pozzo, for now he has role to fulfill, that of Pozzo's servant (Guicharnaud 206).
Even the falling of a character's pants during the play contains value in Godot. When Pierre Lautour, playing the role of Estragon permitted the character's pants fall midway to the hips -- due primarily to embarrassment from the giggles in the audience during the previous night's performance when he allowed the pants to descend to the floor, Beckett became enraged. He wrote a letter to Roger Blin, who was directing the Lautour production, explaining the necessity of Estragon's pants to reach the floor:
He [Estragon] really doesn't have the mind for that [to mind his pants] then. He doesn't even realize that they're (sic) fallen. As for the laughter, which could greet their complete fall, there is nothing to object to in the great gift of this touching final tableau.... Nothing is more grotesque than the tragic. One must express it up to the end, and especially at the end. I have a lot of other reasons why this action should not be tampered with but I will spare you them. (qtd. in Bair 428-9)
Though there exists comic banter in the falling of Estragon's trousers, the event is not without symbolic meaning aside from the desperation of the character's scenario. The vaudeville and circus atmosphere that is established during the course of the play: the falling of the pants, Vladimir's duck-waddle, the ringmaster's whip of Pozzo, the hat-switching routine reminiscent of the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, also serves as a synonym for the oftentimes irrational, but nonetheless comedic, portion of everyday existence (Fletcher 64; Graves 64). Such comic absurdities are seen throughout the play but, in most instances, are oftentimes subtler, as in life.
When Pozzo finishes his meal of chicken, having discarded the bones, he says, "Ah! That's better." Then, only a few pages hence, Estragon, having finished the discarded portion of the meal, makes the exact same declaration (Fletcher 65). Similar treatment is given to Vladimir when he returns to the stage shortly after the open of the play, as he is buttoning his trousers after relieving himself. Vladimir utters, "Never neglect the little things of life." Though most audience members would interpret this as the character had intended, in reference to the necessity of urination being a nuance of life itself as well as making sure one's fly is fastened, it was by no means a coincidence on the playwright's behalf that the statement could be interpreted in a less refined manner, imparting sexual overtones. Moreover, when Estragon asks Vladimir, "What's wrong with you?" and the latter replies, "Nothing," he is responding with sardonic accuracy (Graves 73).
The abstract symbol of speech assumes its own character and possesses a very particular meaning throughout the play. In "Godot," Beckett shares similar views with Aleister Crowley's character, Peter Pendragon, in Diary of a Drug Fiend:
People think that talking is a sign of thinking. It isn't, for the most part; on the contrary, it's a mechanical dodge of the body to relieve oneself of the strain of thinking, just as exercising the muscles helps the body to become temporarily unconscious of the weight, its pain, its weariness, and the foreknowledge of its doom. (7)
In this sense, throughout the course of "Godot," conversation becomes a temporary dodge from the thought of life. There is good reason for a desire to evasion thought, seen in the character of Vladimir, "He [Vladimir] is unable to abandon the habit of reason which encourages the expectation of an answer. [. . .] Their [Estragon and Vladimir's] nobility lies in their persistent search for meaning; their tragedy is the impotence of the intelligence to overcome the incommensurable that surround it" (Robinson 249). An example of Robinson's sentiment is witnessed in the following dialogue between the two characters:
Estragon: In the meantime let's try and converse calmly, since we're incapable of keeping silent.
Vladimir: You're right, we're inexhaustible.
Estragon: It's so we won't think.
Vladimir: We have that excuse.
Estragon: It's so we won't hear.
Vladimir: We have our reasons.
Estragon: All the dead voices.
"The sound of their own voices keeps back the swaddling cloud of unknowing and reassures them of their own existence, of which they are not otherwise always certain since the evidence of their senses is so dubious" (Alvarez 79-80). Neither character is speaking with the aspiration to communicate, but merely to be engaged in an activity that momentarily preoccupies the character's thoughts from himself, "They remain unknown and unknowable to one another but prefer to continue a relationship which repeatedly stresses their inviolable isolation, rather than separate and endure the inescapable self-perception of life alone" (Robinson 251). Neither character actually hears what the other is saying but rather waits his turn to speak. This is seen in, "Vladimir's refusal to listen [thus] suggesting his fear and apprehension of all of life and of certain things that are best left unsaid" (Roberts 22).
The impetus for this ineffective mode of communication is not without merit. Several times during the play language fails to serve its purpose of conveying the speaker's intended meaning. Such is the case when the blind Pozzo inquires whether or not Estragon and Vladimir are friends. Estragon remarks to Vladimir, "He wants to know if we are friends!" clearly displaying his interpreted meaning of the question of whether or not Estragon and Vladimir are friends. The latter discovers the error in the dialogue and rectifies his partner's misconception, "No, he means friends of his" (Fletcher 62-3). This accounts for Barry Smith's statistic that questions comprise at least twenty-four percent of the play, of which only twelve percent are answered (qtd. in Fletcher 61).
Lawrence Graves argues that there is a high percentage of communication during the course of the play, especially between the characters of Estragon and Vladimir. He states communication does occur in such cases when questions go seemingly unanswered, at least not audibly answered. He argues that, "The two men have long known the answer to all the old questions" (59). As such, this does not permit a livelier, thriving source of dialogue in contrast to the previous mode of miscommunication, but rather it creates a communicative stagnation.
If conversation is a distraction, then any visual spectacle can easily be viewed as a diversion. This is one of the purposes that the repeated appearances of Pozzo and Lucky serve for Estragon and Vladimir. The reply, "That passed the time" by Vladimir is uttered upon the exit of Pozzo and Lucky in the first act as well as in the second act. This idea can just as easily be interpreted as Beckett's commentary upon the nature of the Arts themselves: even though the play is about the aversion from thought, the audience member is taking a voluntary reprieve from similar activity in watching the play. In this sense, the play itself, aside from having become a major work of meta-theater, is now a symbol of lethargy and humanity's reluctance to confront reality, opting for diversion and distraction at any given moment. Also, using techniques that would later be synonymous with meta-theater, Beckett has Estragon refer to the audience as a "bog," after peering into the suggested void. The playwright is insinuating that the world outside the stage is just as much a barren wasteland as the hopeless world which Estragon and Vladimir inhabit (Fletcher 59).
Another abstract symbol seen in the play is the play's circularity. It is a play in which, "...nothing happens, twice" (Mercier, "Mathematical" 144). We witness the same dialogue, uttered in most cases by the same character and oftentimes quoted verbatim from the previous act. We witness the appearances and exits, as well as similar action (and inaction) and sentiments, by the same characters at approximately the same time as they had occurred in the contrasting act (Roberts 43-45). It is easy to interpret this as representative of the mundane, monotonous, existential nature of existence.
The theme of circularity is perpetually insinuated, if not in the action of the play, then by the bleak setting and background. The locale of the play is, "A county road." We quickly discover, due to the desolation of the environment, that the characters are, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere, a figurative limbo where no type of actions or decisions are made. The image of the road, paralleling and reinforcing the leitmotif of Estragon's boots, symbolizes life's journey (Roberts 19). Thus the characters of the play, having found themselves at the end of life's travels, are now waiting for further instructions as to where to go or what to do. The hopeless routine of life is seen throughout the play for one character will disappear from one side of the stage and quickly reenter on the opposite side of the stage. The characters of the play, in this sense, are literally "going around in circles."
The epitome of this redundancy is seen shortly after the open of the second act in Vladimir's singing of "A Dog Come In." The song is a tale of a dog that stole a crust of bread from a kitchen and is beaten to death by the cook. At the thief's wake, other dogs inscribe as an epitaph on the deceased's tomb the opening line of the tale. The song now becomes infinite for, in order to tell of the tombstone's inscription, one must repeatedly sing the tale ad infinitum. This is not readily apparent for many audience members because Vladimir, either due to loss of memory or confusion of the lines, repeatedly -- to an ironic degree -- begins the song again after having stumbled upon the subsequent line of verse. In this sense, the futility of existence lies not in the fact that life is perpetual circle without change, but that we are unable to make the first lap of this routine without having to backtrack. As a consequence, as Lawrence Graver points out, the dog is made immortal by having his story told and retold (59). The same can be said of "Godot" with its circular, seemingly unending pattern. As a result, the play thus becomes a tale about humanity's universal plight in which nothing is doomed to repeatedly (not) occur.
The abstract notion of time is, arguably, the central figure of the play. The theme of waiting is synonymous with time, for it is a distillation of time. In Godot time "is neither that of the scientist nor that of the watch-wearing spectator" (Guicharnaud 196). This means that time is not something that is by any means a quantitative figure but rather one of quality. Estragon and Vladimir spend most of the play attempting to devise ways in which to entertain themselves in order to "pass the time." The reason time is immeasurable in Godot is because it is universal time, Everyman's time, "...it is the synthesis of the time of the anecdote that is played out and the time of All of Life'" (196). Therefore, the absence of quantity within the play deprives the characters of all qualitative merit which any actions they might enact or any inherit worth they might intrinsically possess. This is due to "[the] gestures or words -- taking place in the flow of normal time -- [and thus] lose their inherent finality when considered in the light of eternity" (196). While it is debatable who the character of Godot may be, there is little doubt that Godot is time, at least in the minds of the characters of Estragon and Vladimir, for time is all that they have to account for when considering the figure of Godot. Though, for all of the play's redundancy, there does exist one particular difference between the two acts.
At the open of the play a single tree, without any hint of growth, is seen in the background, yet upon the open of the second act, the tree has "four or five leaves." This might, at first glance, appear to insinuate growth -- spiritual, emotional, or otherwise -- but in accordance with the play as a whole, it is more probable that the leaves merely represent the passage of time (Graver 58). This would further support the theme of inaction that has henceforth dominated the play by insinuating that little has changed over a considerable period of time. Though it would seem as if the play picks up the following morning, upon further inspection a lapse of several months is indicated by the appearance of the leaves (Smith). This idea is substantiated by Pozzo's decline in health, its apotheosis being the character's blindness. Though it is plausible that an accident could have preceded the character's blindness, his age thus suggests that the handicap appeared as a result of old age. Vladimir notes Pozzo and Lucky's transformation in his declaration, "How they've changed!" Furthermore, Vladimir, only minutes into the open of the second act, upon noticing Lucky's hat for the first time, utters, "I've been here an hour and never saw it." Thus, using traditional dramaturgical techniques, Beckett is suggesting that a greater duration of time has lapsed than what the audience has witnessed (Fletcher 59). It is arguable that if Beckett, who was the preeminent advocator of his own phrase throughout his writing career, "No symbol where none intended" (qtd. in Alvarez 86), would have desired the idea of life or growth using the symbol of the leaves, he would have outlined their color being green. Yet, as it stands, the leaves merely are, possessing not particular hue, as are most of the characters seen during the play.
Mercier claims, due to Racine's strong influence upon Beckett, that the playwright tries to adhere, as closely as the play will allow, to the Aristotelian dictum that a play should span, at best, the course of 24 hours in order to remain aesthetically and cathartically effective (76). Yet this hardly seems the case for Beckett who, by ratio, breaks many of the traditional dramatic maxims during the course of the play than those that he upholds.
It is arguable that the tree, under the guise of Christian interpretations, is to infer a sense of hope, however fleeting. However, Christian symbolism and allusion is not to imply optimism during the course of Godot either, but rather "serve his [Beckett's] dramatic intentions" (Cousineau 25). The tree may be construed as being representative of the Garden of Even. Yet this would be an ironic vision for the characters of the play that seem to be waiting, not for salvation, but for a figure, much like God, of which they have no definitive proof of His existence. This Christian association is further reinforced by Vladimir reporting that Godot stated that he and Estragon where to meet "by the tree." Very early in the play the image of redemption being a possibility for the characters is quickly dismissed in the short dialogue between Estragon and Vladimir concerning the Crucifixion:
Vladimir: But all for [evangelists] were there. And only one speaks of a thief being saved. Why believe him rather than the others?
Estragon: Who believes him?
Vladimir: Everybody. It's the only version they know.
Estragon: People are bloody ignorant apes.
This insinuates that believers of the Christian faith are further, however ironical, evidence of Darwinian theory, thus moving the characters further away from any type of possible salvation, for such people have not evolved mentally, at least beyond the point of adhering to such seemingly nonsensical ideals. The irony lies in Estragon referring to such people as "apes," which are what Darwin claimed humans were derived.
Another interpretative possibility is that Estragon and Vladimir have been expelled from the Garden. If this is so, then the tree, as suggested by Helen Baldwin, is a lasting reminder of their condemnation, for it is symbolic of Christ's cross and in turn crucifixion, which now, literally, perpetually hangs over their heads, "Tradition has it that Christ's cross was made from wood deriving originally from the tree in the Garden" (108). If the single tree can be considered a cross then, as does Jaques Guicharnaud, it can just as easily be interpreted as an empty cross, therefore implying the absence of God and thus the implication that Estragon and Vladimir are waiting in vain (212). Furthermore, the Tree of Knowledge and Life, which brought death to humanity, is now a daily source of speculation for the pair. It serves as a possible outlet in which to commit suicide by hanging. Baldwin states that there can be no doubt as to the tree in the play being a metaphor for the Tree of Knowledge because in his translation of the text, Beckett does not have Vladimir tell Estragon that the pair are to meet by "a tree," but rather "the tree" (110). The image of knowledge leading humanity to its own demise is further strengthened by Gunther Anders statement that the stage of Godot, with its single tree as the center of the world, suggests that the world defines itself as an inherent instrument for suicide (141).
There exist other Christian symbols in the play. The image of the boy messenger who reportedly sleeps in the hayloft in a barn, thus resembling Jesus in his manger, is send by, if not God, nonetheless a Godlike figure. The irony is that there are two brothers who live in the barn. The one who keeps the goats, traditionally a symbol of Satan, is well treated, while the boy who tends the sheep, a symbol of God's followers, is beaten. James Roberts also notices this discrepancy and states, "The reasons for beating the brother is unknown" (30). One possibility for this seemingly unfair treatment may lie in the existential plight of all characters in Godot. The seemingly random selection of why Estragon is repeatedly beaten nightly and left in a ditch, as with the exchange of Estragon's boots with another pair, and the purpose in having the pair wait day after day without apparent cause, as well as the selection of Estragon and Vladimir being those who are to wait, would thus parallel and reinforce the notion of irony and clarify this seemingly nonsensical incongruity in an otherwise sound play.
Another Christian image that is seen is of Estragon's symbolic baptism that occurred when he fell into the Rhone River when fielding grapes over fifty years ago. The image of grapes is also a Biblical symbol of fertility, thus the time of fertility and growth are past and the implication is thus made that only stagnation lies ahead. Also, this suggests that Estragon and Vladimir have been cast out of the Garden of Eden and are being eternally condemned (Roberts 33). The pair's exile is reinforced when Estragon startles awake from a nightmare about falling, presumably from God's grace.
Furthermore, when Vladimir reminds Estragon that it is too cold to go barefoot, the latter reminds Vladimir that Christ had gone without shoes. Vladimir retorts that Christ went barefoot in warm climate. Estragon quickly points out that the warm climate was the reason for Christ's quick crucifixion. Thus, by implication, Estragon has an extended period of time in which he will be punished. This further establishes and supports the idea of waiting for an undetermined period of time.
Using Biblical allusion, the maimed character of Pozzo in the second act becomes a universal Everyman. When Estragon suggests calling Pozzo by various titles in hopes of getting Pozzo's attention and Vladimir demands Pozzo's name is indeed Pozzo, the following exchange occurs.
Estragon: . . . try [calling] him with other names. . . . It'd pass the time. And we'd be bound to hit on the right one sooner or later.
Vladimir: I tell you his name is Pozzo.
Estragon: We'll soon see. (He reflects.) Abel! Abel!
Estragon: Got it in one!
Vladimir: I begin to weary of this motif.
Estragon: Perhaps the other is called Cain. Cain! Cain!
Estragon: He's all humanity.
By Biblical standards, all of humanity carries with it the mark of Cain and that of Abel, thus Beckett has created in the lame and blind figure of Pozzo a symbol enshrouding all of humanity (39). The Biblical naming does not end with Pozzo. Upon researching the origin of the name "Vladimir," one will find an eleventh-century czar who was converted to Christianity and who is also referred to as Saint Vladimir (Baldwin 114). Also, Pozzo when asking Estragon his name, the latter replies "Adam."
As with most interpretations of great literature, there exist no definitive readings, as such:
This is why the many and elaborate interpretations that have been foisted on Godot seem particularly superfluous. Pozzo and Lucky may be Body and intellect, Master and Slave, Capitalist and Proletarian, Colonizer and Colonized, Cain and Abel, Sadist and Masochist, even Joyce and Beckett. But essentially and more simply, they embody one way of getting through life with someone else, just as Vladimir and Estragon more sympathetically embody another. (Alvarez 86)
It is not unreasonable to state that most critics, after the quagmire of Beckettian scholarship has settled, regardless if the focus was upon the characterization, philosophy, or Christian symbolism in the play, would be content with Alvarez's sentiment upon Godot.
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