An Essay on Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett - The Godot Land

Mr. Beckett never fails to keep an appointment with us on the Godot Land, where two tramps are still waiting, on a country road, beneath a tree of crucifixion. Or, nothing happens there. It would be a conventional land, were it not for the fact that it has a cyclical shape of ambiguity and paradox, in all dimensions, spiritual and existential, which renders its landscapes limitless, transcending the specificity imposed by time and space. Where is the Godot Land? Time never tells. Nothing is certain except that it’s Beckett’s legacy to us.

To begin with, this land is illuminated, throughout it, by ambiguity. Vladimir and Estragon, standing or sitting motionlessly, with bowed heads, bitterly comment “Nothing is certain”, while waiting for Godot to save them. Godot never arrives. They lapse into physical or verbal routines: clowning or sleeping, quarrelling and making up, gazing into the distance, or contemplating suicide. Vladimir fiddles with his hat, and Estragon with his boot, their purpose being obscure, if not self-contradictory. Still worse, the reason why they are waiting is ambiguous: they want to ask Godot for “nothing very definite”. What a metaphor for existence! Are they in the right place, on the right day, and doing the meaningful thing? The answer is “perhaps”. The pointlessness is the very point. The ambiguity in need is the ambiguity indeed, dramatizing not a situation, but a state of mind. Coupled with their anxiety is the expectation to be saved from helplessness, bewilderment and emptiness of the existence. From this standpoint, waiting for something to explain the meaning of existence is not only what the play is concerned with, but also what life is about. However, waiting itself is the extreme of psychological torture.

In addition, the role of Godot as savior, and his preference of goatherd to the shepherd invite the audience to associate him with Christian idea of God, with benevolence and desirability: “if he comes, we’ll be saved.” Just as man cannot do without God, Vladimir and Estragon cannot do without Godot. However, how can Christian God fail to keep an appointment? So, the above association is too easy. Then, a messenger comes instead, who, when asked about Mr. Godot’s occupation, replies, “He does nothing.” So Godot’s identity is a puzzle. Then, enter Pozzo and Lucky. Lucky is haltered by a rope, the end of which is held by Pozzo. Curiously, Pozzo is said to be “made in God’s image”, and Vladimir and Estragon make a fuss over whether Pozzo is Godot. If he is, the appointment made by Godot is kept. The messenger was telling the truth when saying, “Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won’t come this evening, but surely tomorrow.” Godot, disguised as Pozzo, has already been, so he won’t come that evening. And he indeed comes again “tomorrow” in Act II. Then why doesn’t he save the tramps? Perhaps, he is waiting to be saved himself. Or he is just doing the routine work by coming to meet the tramps everyday at the same time, at the same spot, for no particular purpose. Or is he? Who is Godot? Beckett himself may not know. Hence, the ambiguity.

More curiously, Pozzo who falls down and is picked up and supported between Vladimir and Estragon, arms around their necks, resembles the image of Christ, crucified between two thieves. The crucifixion image lingers over the land. Lucky also experiences the same “crucifixion” after his stumbling and falling. Does the suffering of Pozzo and his slave represent that of mankind after the world war, or in the Easter Uprising of 1916 that long remained with Beckett? Just as Swift, in “A Modest Proposal”, is making fun of sickness in human nature, so Beckett is making fun of sickness of society. Does man suffer because of his original sin since the Fall? The divorce between cause and effect gives rise to ambiguity. Perhaps, Beckett is more interested in imitating the enigma of Godot, than in conceiving of his arrival, or in suspending his coming, or in questioning his existence. Whether Godot is named after God or not, it exists just like Estragon’s boot, or scissors in Act Without Words, by virtue of its function to produce frustration on the Godot Land. The decline and decay in the land are not an end-product of the original sin, but a by-product of the contemporary sickness, whose trace and traits is only based on guesswork.

Secondly, the Godot Land is established upon paradox. In structure, it’s a paradox that the play is both cyclical and static. On the one hand, the same pattern is repeated twice in two acts. On the other, the situation of the two tramps is in movement without development. The Cyclical vs. Static tension reflects the bemused acceptance of the impotence in waiting and expectation.

In pattern, this land contains more than one pair, in which one is preferred and the other is punished. For example, two thieves are crucified with Christ, one saved, the other damned. The goatherd is loved, while the shepherd beaten. One of Estragon’s lungs is healthy, the other sick. One of his boots fit, the other doesn’t. However, Vladimir and Estragon, as a pair, don’t have any unbalance or obvious difference. Neither of them is saved. They don’t change between the two acts. By contrast, Pozzo and Lucky change radically.

In style, boring events are sometimes described in high elaborate language. For instance, “May one enquire where His Highness spent the night?” asked Vladimir. “In a ditch”, replied Estragon. The graceful “His Highness” contrasted by the pitiful “in a ditch” pinpoints man’s ridiculous and absurd perception made in the empty existence. Besides, comic elements, such as Estragon’s pose with pants down, counterbalance the pessimism: he wants to hang himself with his waist belt.

In characterization, the land exhibits opposition of two pairs of characters, with a further opposition and interdependence within each pair. Both tramps suffer from pains, one from a swollen foot, the other from enlarged prostate gland. However, Vladimir, the more wakeful, is kind of optimistic, who believes that “Everything will be better tomorrow”, while Estragon is pessimistic, considering “I’m in hell.” Vladimir is the one who gives (carrot and turnips), while Estragon is the one who accepts. They also show an alternation between care and cruelty: Vladimir sings a lullaby to Estragon and covers him with his own coat, but coldly refuses to listen to his nightmare when he awakens. Moreover, In Act I, Pozzo proudly holds the rope like a dog-lash, knotted around Lucky’s neck. By contrast, in Act II, he has to depend on Lucky because he has lost his sight. They illustrate man’s universal need for human companionship and for self-expression, as well as their unsuccessful attempt to communicate through language.
What’s more, other paradoxical situations are self-evident: the messenger’s arrival brings hope and disappointment; the two tramps say “Let’s go”, but “do not move”; the tree, which sprouts four or five leaves, appears to be a tree of life, but the tramps plan to themselves from it, and thus turn it into a gibbet; the two men waiting for salvation may plan suicide for more than once; last but no least, Godot, who constantly fail to meet expectation, always arouse constant expectation.

In short, the Godot Land, both open and resistant to interpretation, is a paradoxical land, where laughing and crying are both out of place. But the audiences do laugh and cry.

Thirdly, the Godot Land, the undefined and indefinable, is not set in a specific history. Many examples show that this land does away with the normal concept of time and space. Memory fails the two tramps. So they only have fragments of memory: they have gone up to the Eiffel tower. Besides, the tree refuses to abide by the normal laws of botanical growth: sprouting four or five leaves in a night. Moreover, time is so confusing that Estragon asks why Lucky doesn’t put the bags down, but by the time Pozzo answers the question, Lucky has already put them down. And Vladimir argues, “Since he has put down his bags, it is impossible we should have asked why he does not do so”. Neither can they make sure what day it is. The place is not named either, because it does not matter. Thus, the Godot Land transcends the limits of a locale, and become a universal realm. At this point, Vladimir and Estragon represent all humanity, waiting on a land, where fear, pain, and uncertainty are endemic. Their outcry is out of all mankind, and to all mankind it is addressed, “Godot, get us out of this.”

In sum, experience on the Godot Land is an enlarging one, different for different audience, who can interpret it in the light of his own experience. Though it gives off local flavor through such Dublin slang as “to cod me”, “banjax” and “dudeen”, the Godot Land is not a legacy left exclusively to the Ireland, but to the whole world.

Fourthly, the Godot Land is subject to whims of Fate. Pozzo and Lucky change dramatically, from a powerful bully and a slave, to the blind and the dumb. If Pozzo suffers because of his pride and ill treatment to Lucky, then, luckless Lucky’s disaster is mere wanton whims of Fate. They feel they have suffered enough, yet cannot keep themselves from suffering. No sooner have they left the stage than they are heard to fall down again. Man is a slave of Fate, like Lucky, who is sagging continually until his bag and basket touch the ground. Fate, with her full potential to bring man to “waste and pine”, demonstrates that nothing is exempt on the Godot Land, and thus provokes the audience to worry about Vladimir and Estragon, who also find themselves on the same land. They plan suicide as a protest against Fate, as if life is imposed on them. It’s our fate: in endless waiting, time wastes man, and vice versa.

Fifthly, the Godot Land is a simple land, with no beginning, no middle, and no end, not to mention the climax. Yet, its meaning is multi-layered and allusive. Beckett is good at making the complex simple, and the simple complex. Act II repeats Act I, and the same will be true of Act III, if there is one. Actually, the uneventful events cannot help but go endlessly in precise repetition on a land, where there is no substance and significance, but only despair and alienation. How hopeless is man’s dilemma! The Vladimir/Estragon play may go in circles forever, as a remarkable scene on the Godot Land. They are waiting for everyone’s Godot, or for no one’s.

In conclusion, Godot Land is a land of undersigned design. Beckett has discovered, or rather, built it, out of a purposeful yet persuasive selection of bizarre experience drawn form down-to-earth possibilities. We turn out to be aborigines there. The Godot Land, dominating and dominated, is a land of ambiguity, paradox, and circularity. It is Mr. Beckett’s legacy to us. How much value it has depends on nothing more than our capacity to look, with the mind’s eye, through the land, and then beyond it.

Works Cited:
Beckett Samuel. Waiting for Godot: tragicomedy in 2 acts. New York: Grove Press, 1954. All references in this paper to the text of Waiting for Godot refer to this edition.