One of the great ironies with respect to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is that one of the world’s greatest plays is so poorly understood. There are, to be sure, many conflicting interpretations. Precise themes or intentions have been difficult to discern from the play’s text. These interpretive difficulties have been complicated by the fact that Beckett was often evasive when asked about the exact purpose of certain characters in the play or the meaning of the text.
This is not meant to suggest that certain themes and intentions cannot be determined, for there certainly appear to be certain thematic patterns, but instead to suggest that the play does appear in certain ways to be open to different types of interpretations. A review of the scholarly texts and articles, for instance, reveals academic arguments to the effect that the play is about God, salvation, the French resistance to German occupation in the historical period in which the play was written, the purpose of human existence, and the meaningless of time.
With such a variety of interpretations, supported by specific references to the play’s text and other historical circumstances, it would seem nearly impossible to identify an overarching or unifying theme. A careful examination of the play’s text, however, suggests that such a dominant thematic element can be found. The thesis of this paper, therefore, is that the dominant theme in Waiting for Godot is the human being’s search for purpose and meaning in a world that human beings either do not understand or cannot understand.
In support of this thesis, this paper will attempt to harmonize the different critical interpretations and demonstrate that the main characters through their dialogue on a number of different subjects consistently illustrate the human quest for purpose and meaning in a world that seems hopelessly beyond their comprehension. Critical Confusion and Multiple Interpretations: Harmonizing Different Perspectives As an initial matter, before proceeding to an examination of the play’s text, it is useful to present the critical confusion that has arisen from multiple interpretations of the play.
This is useful because even these different interpretations can be harmonized to some extant if the truly dominant theme of the play is said to be the human search for purpose and meaning in a complicated or complex world. It is well-established, for example, that the play presents a series of universal questions; specifically, as one academic has observed, “Waiting for Godot, in many ways, simply extends those uncertainties: Why are we here? Are we alone in an uncaring universe, or not?
What are we to do while we are here? How can we know? And, ultimately, what does it matter? “(Hutchings x) These types of questions, to a large extant, transcend many of the conflicting interpretations. If Godot is God, as some have argued, then Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for God. They freely admit that they are not particularly familiar with Godot and this admission reflects and reinforces the fact that these two human beings do not have a perfect knowledge of the creator of their world.
If Godot is not God, as some have argued, then Vladimir and Estragon are perhaps waiting for some type of intellectual spark in order to tell them why they are waiting, whether they should leave, or whether it might be better to leave their spot by the tree and take affirmative steps to go and find the mysterious Godot. In either event, whether Godot represents God or a figurative type of intellectual illumination, the core theme is one of two human beings who seem consistently unable to determine what to do.
They engage in a series of superficial conversations, they consider suicide as a way of ending their confusion, and in the end they remain firmly planted on the country road much as the tree where they wait is firmly planted in the ground. Even if one is to assume, as some scholars have, that the play is really an artistic allusion to the French resistance or the onset of the Cold War, this does not necessarily undermine the notion that human beings are somehow trapped within a world or social circumstances in which they have little control or little understanding.
The important point, for purposes of this paper’s thesis, is that the conflicting interpretations can be transcended if one assumes that the transcendental theme is one most specifically related to the human being’s search for purpose and meaning in a confusing physical world. Whether Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for God, a real person, intellectual knowledge of social circumstances, or the laws of the universe is fundamentally tangential to the fact that they are helpless in the circumstances that Beckett has created. They are petty, feeble, and passive.
The rest of this paper therefore proceeds from the assumption that the conflicting interpretations can be unified by treating the fundamental theme as the search for purpose and meaning in life. This fundamental theme will be discussed in the following sections by referring to specific features of the play. Significance of Human Companionship: Pairs, Dependence, and Shared Searches One of the most important structural features of the play is the fact that human beings are portrayed as being extraordinarily dependent and unable to exist in isolation or individually.
This is most evident in the fact that the play’s characters come in pairs and seem in many ways to be inseparable. The main characters, for instance, are Vladimir and Estragon. It would appear that they have arrived as a pair, they continue to wait as a pair, and although they never leave they do talk about leaving as a pair. They have different personalities, they would appear to have different backgrounds given the different stories that they tell, and yet they seem unwilling or unable to separate and go their own ways.
This notion of human inseparability, a common fear or ignorance about the meaning of human existence, is particularly clear when Vladimir and Estragon are discussing the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the two thieves on the cross next to Jesus. Specifically, the fear of being alone and the emphasis of human companionship is provided in the following passage VLADIMIR: Ah yes, the two thieves. Do you remember the story? ESTRAGON: No. VLADIMIR: Shall I tell it to you? ESTRAGON: No. VLADIMIR: It’ll pass the time. (Pause. ) Two thieves, crucified at the same time as our Saviour. One— ESTRAGON: Our what?
VLADIMIR: Our Saviour. Two thieves. One is supposed to have been saved and the other . . . (he searches for the contrary of saved) . . . damned (Becket n. p. ) This passage illustrates the need for human companionship and also the need for human beings to depend on each other. This companionship is necessary because human beings must face the uncertainties of the world and human existence together. The dependence is thus caused by a fear that individuals will be unable to cope with these uncertainties whereas humans sharing these fears can at least confront these uncertainties together.
This common bond, in short, helps human beings to deal with their confusion about the meaning of human existence better than if they pondered these questions alone. An examination of the entire play consistently reinforces these notions of companionship and dependence. Later on in the play, for example, Vladimir and Estragon are considering suicide and the pair again grow concerned that one will successfully commit suicide and the other will fail. The prospect that one of them will die and one will live is a frightening thought for both men because one will be unattended in death and the other will be unattended in life.
Again, because the purpose and the meaning of human existence is unknown both in life and in death, the pair refuse to split up or pursue any action that might destroy their emotional and physical bonds. At another point in the play, Estragon states that “There are times when I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for us to part” to which Vladimir responds rather matter-of-factly “You wouldn’t go far. ” (Beckett n. p. ). The play could not exist as it was intended if the pair ever did separate.
The quest for purpose and the meaning of human existence is therefore a common human quest rather than an individual’s personal burden. These notions of human companionship and a shared quest are even more powerfully presented with the human pairing of Pozzo and Lucky. In their first appearance, Lucky is a slave and yet he prefers being a slave and being dependent to being set free. Lucky is ridiculed, he is called a pig, and yet he reacts angrily when someone other than Pozzo attempts to help him; more particularly, he kicks Estragon in the shins.
A telling scene in this respect is when Lucky appears to faint after dancing and giving his rather incoherent speech; more particularly, Pozzo is deeply fearful at the prospect of losing his slave when he says Don’t let him go! (Vladimir and Estragon totter. ) Don’t move! (Pozzo fetches bag and basket and brings them towards Lucky. ) Hold him tight! (He puts the bag in Lucky’s hand. Lucky drops it immediately. ) Don’t let him go! (He puts back the bag in Lucky’s hand. Gradually, at the feel of the bag, Lucky recovers his senses and his fingers finally close round the handle.
) Hold him tight! (Beckett n. p. ) Even a human master is dependent on his slave, the companionship of master and slave is intimate because both fear facing the uncertainties of life alone, and like the bond that exists between Vladimir and Estragon, so too does a very real bond exist between Pozzo and Lucky. This bond is reinforced in the second act when Pozzo returns blind and his neck is tied to a rope being held by Lucky. Pozzo could not sell his slave and the slave is now leading the master.
As if these two clues were not enough, Beckett included yet one more human pair to emphasize the common fears that human beings have about the purpose of their lives and the meaning of human existence. This final human pairing is the boy sent as Godot’s messenger. The boy and Godot constitute a final human pairing and the boy recounts to Vladimir and Estragon that Godot is real and that Godot “beats my brother. ” (Beckett, n. p. ) Despite the beatings, the boy and his brother remain with Godot as is established at the end of the second act.
This scene is also notable because it establishes that Godot exists and that the most essential human relationships are about the aforementioned human pairings rather than about Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot. The waiting, as it were, may simply be the context within which Beckett sought to establish the shared human bonds with respect to their confusion about the meaning of life. The question thus becomes how these dependent and mutually burdened companions ought to approach their lives.
Function of Idleness: Fear of Action and Aversion to Failure In addition to their unwillingness to separate, Vladimir and Estragon seem also quite unwilling to commit to any action despite a great deal of conversation. To be sure, the play is marked almost exclusively by dialogue rather than action. The pair carry on a series of seemingly endless conversations, most of them rather childish and inane, and these conversations in the end seem to represent a rather firm commitment to making no commitments at all.
Vladimir, for example, recognizes this fear of action or commitment when he says to Estragon Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we are personally needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! (Beckett qtd. in Brater 147)
Vladimir and Estragon, for all of their apparent desire to actually meet Godot, are wholly unprepared to take any affirmative steps to actually go and locate him on their own initiative. They admit that time is passing, that they represent “all mankind”, and that it will be “too late” if they do not do something. It is this very inability to do something, an inability which they represent figuratively as all human beings, that characterizes their function in the play. There are several clues to the effect that they can find Godot if they were not inhibited or afraid in some way.
First, Vladimir and Estragon have obviously followed a country road to the tree where they are waiting for Godot. The fact that they have walked this particular country road, and selected this particular tree, suggests that they know in which direction the mysterious Godot resides. Presumably, if their actions were not somehow constrained, they would simply continue walking along the same country road until they found Godot. They could ask for directions or assistance along the way and they could become more active in pursuit of their ultimate destination.
The problem, however, is that both Vladimir and Estragon perhaps do not know their precise destination. The second clue to the effect that the waiting of Vladimir and Estragon is a product of their own doing rather than Godot’s apparent tardiness is the fact that a boy appears twice in the play as a messenger. The boy admits quite literally that he and his brother know Godot, that they are employed or otherwise beholden to him in certain respects, and that he will return to Godot as soon as his message has been provided to Vladimir and Estragon.
Why, then, could they not have simply followed the boy home to Godot? Indeed, this is a curious question that can only be resolved if one assumes that Godot is irrelevant to the waiting. Some interpretations, it must be acknowledged, have suggested that Beckett intended Godot as God and that they boy messenger was intended as a type of angel ( Mercier 27); such an interpretation, whether accurate or not, does not undermine a thesis to the effect that the predominant theme remained man’s tentative quest to understand himself and the universe in which he lived.
This is true for a couple of reasons. First, when asked whether he intended Godot as God, Beckett repeatedly stated that there was never intended to be any relationship between Godot and God. Presumably, the play’s author knows what was intended. That many interpretations have focused on Godot as God, however, is not surprising. The names are almost the same and the quest to understand the nature and the meaning of human existence necessarily implicates some questions related to God and how the universe was created.
Thus, although these interpretations are somewhat rational, the evidence that can be derived from Beckett’s own statements and the play’s text taken as a whole counsel against such an interpretation. God is relevant, as one possible explanation for the meaning of human life, but Godot is no more God than Vladimir and Estragon are hoping for salvation. Godot is Godot and the human pair waiting by the tree are seeking understanding and illumination rather than salvation. Second, the play’s theme is more about the waiting and the rational underlying the waiting than it is about Godot.
The entire play, to be sure, takes place in one setting. Other settings, including Godot’s, are tangential and not central features of the play’s structure. The waiting, in this respect, transcends the distant character vaguely known as Godot. One leading scholar of the play has noted how the waiting is more important than Godot by arguing that The play’s minimal plot and action are accurately described in its title: throughout the duration of the play, and throughout an undeterminable amount of time that elapses in their lives, the two central characters await an event that does not happen and may never happen.
Meanwhile, necessarily, they pass away their time in some- times abrasive conversation, in chance encounters with a pair of odd passersby, and in expressions of mutual if sometimes exasperated compassion and the long-standing concern that can develop only between inseparable friends. (Hutchings 23) Taken together, the best argument that one can derive from the play’s text is that there is a dominant theme; that dominant theme, in turn, is that human beings are collectively and inseparably bound together by the fact that they do not know the purpose of the human race or the meaning of their own existence.
Such a lack of knowledge encourages closer types of human dependence and simultaneously inspires caution, uncertainty, and fear. All the while, amidst this uncertainty and fear, time passes by and all human beings are faced with dying without ever having understood why they existed in the first place. Life is a tree to which we are all tethered much in the same way that Vladimir and Estragon were figuratively tethered. Conclusion In conclusion, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is best read as an artistic rendition of the greatest human dilemma of all time.
Human beings, in this respect, are born with an imperfect knowledge of themselves and of the universe in which they exist and are expected to function. This imperfect knowledge lends itself to much speculation of the purpose and meaning of human existence, as the many religions around the world forcefully attest to, but in the end it is nothing more than idle and meaningless speculation. Godot, whether he is God or not, is irrelevant in the play. It is the waiting, the search and the confusion that all human beings share, that is the play’s common lamentation.
That all of the critics tend to characterize the play as tragedy or comedy somewhat misses the play’s essential nature as a lamentation for a quest for knowledge that can never be fulfilled. We are better advised to forget Godot and get on with living rather than waiting for divine inspiration that will probably never arrive.
Beckett, Samuel. “Waiting for Godot. ” Samuel Beckett. net <http://samuel-beckett. net/Waiting_for_Godot_Part1. html and http://samuel-beckett.net/Waiting_for_Godot_Part2. html> Brater, Enoch. “The Globalization of Beckett’s Godot. ” Comparative Drama 37. 2 (2003): 145+. Questia. Web. 10 Dec. 2009. Hutchings, William. Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: A Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005. Questia. Web. 10 Dec. 2009. Mercier, Vivian. “The Uneventful Event. ” The Critical Response to Samuel Beckett. Ed. Cathleen Culotta Andonian. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. 95-96. Questia. Web. 10 Dec. 2009.