Existentialism in Waiting for Godot
Existentialism focuses on concrete human being or “existence”. An important feature of atheistic existentialism is the argument that existence precedes essence (the reverse of many traditional forms of philosophy) for it is held that man fashions his own existence and only exists by so doing, and, in that process, and by the choice of what he does or does not do, gives essence to that existence.
It is generally agreed that existentialism derives from the thinking of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55), and especially in his books Fear and Trembling (1843), The Concept of Dread (1844) and Sickness Unto Death (1848).
Jean-Paul Sartre is the hierophant of modern existentialism and his version, expressed through his novels, plays and philosophical writings, is the one that has caught on and been the most widely influential. In Sartre’s vision man is born into a kind of void (le néant), a mud (le visqueux). He has the liberty to remain in this mud and thus lead a passive, supine, acquiescent existence (like Oblomov and Samuel Beckett’s sad tatterdemalions) in a “semi-conscious state” and in which he is scarcely aware of himself. In L’ Existentialisme est un humanisme (1946) Sartre expressed the belief that man can emerge from his passive and indeterminate condition and, by an act of will.
Apart from Sartre, some of the main exponents of existentialism have been Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir. Merleau-Ponty and Jean Wahl.
The play, Waiting For Godot, is centred around two men, Estragon and Vladimir, who are waiting for a Mr. Godot, of whom they know little. Estragon admits himself that he may never recognize Mr. Godot, “Personally I wouldn’t know him if I ever saw him.” (p.23). Estragon also remarks, “… we hardly know him.” (p.23), which illustrates to an audience that the identity of Mr. Godot is irrelevant.
ESTRAGON… Let’s go.
VLADIMIR. We can’t.
ESTRAGON. Why not?
VLADIMIR. We’re waiting for Godot. (p.14).
Estragon and Vladimir have made the choice of waiting, without instruction or guidance, as Vladimir says, “He didn’t say for sure he’d come” (p.14), but decides to “wait till we know exactly how we stand” (p.18).
Albert Camus, an existentialist writer, believed that boredom or waiting, which is essentially the breakdown of routine or habit, caused people to think seriously about their identity, as Estragon and Vladimir do. The tramps continually attempt to prove that they exist, in order to keep their sanity:
“We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression that we exist?” (P.69).
Waiting in the play induces boredom as a theme. Ironically, Beckett attempts to create a similar nuance of boredom within the audience by the mundane repetition of dialogue and actions. Vladimir and Estragon constantly ponder and ask questions, many of which are rhetorical or are left unanswered. The German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger expressed clearly that human beings can never hope to understand why they are here. The tramps repetitive inspection of their empty hats perhaps symbolizes mankind’s vain search for answers within the vacuum of a universe.
- Waiting for Godot Analysis
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- Waiting for Godot as an Absurd Play
- Post-War Disillusionment in Waiting for Godot
- Pozzo and Lucky Relationship
Estragon and Vladimir attempt to put order into their lives by waiting for a Godot who never arrives. They continually subside into the futility of their situation, reiterating the phrase “Nothing to be done.” Vladimir also resolves with the notion that life is futile, or nothing is to be done.
ESTRAGON: (anxious). And we? … Where do we come in? (p. 19).
Estragon’s question is left unanswered by Vladimir. Beckett conveys a universal message that pondering the impossible questions, that arise from waiting, cause pain, anxiety, inactivity and destroy people from within. Both Vladimir and Estragon ponder suicide by hanging themselves from the tree, but are unable to act through to anxiety, as Estragon states,
“Don’t let’s do anything. It’s safer.” (p. 18).
Both characters decide to leave but are immobile.
ESTRAGON: Well, shall we go?
VLADIMIR: Yes, let’s go.
They do not move.” (p.54).
Estragon and Vladimir constantly pass the time throughout the entire play to escape the pain of waiting and to possibly to stop themselves from thinking or contemplating too deeply. Vladimir expresses this idea at the end of the play, ‘Habit is a great deadener’, suggesting that habit is like an analgesic – numbing the individual.
Beckett deliberately employs the repetition of themes, speech and action to highlight the futility and habit of life. Gogo and Didi frequently repeat phrases, such as, “Nothing to be done”. Their actions consist of ritually inspecting their hats. Nothingness is what the two tramps are essentially fighting against and reason why they talk. Beckett suggests that activity and inactivity oppose one another: thought arising from inactivity and activity terminating thought. In the second Act they admit that habit suppresses their thoughts and keeps their minimal sanity:
ESTRAGON: … we are incapable of keeping silent.
VLADIMIR: You’re right we’re inexhaustible.
ESTRAGON: It’s so we won’t think. (p.62).
Estragon and Vladimir symbolize the human condition as a period of waiting. Most of society spend their lives searching for goals, such as exam or jobs, in the hope of attaining a higher level or advancing. Beckett suggests that no-one advances through the inexorable passage of time. Vladimir states this, “One is what one is. … The essential doesn’t change.” (p.21).
Beckett expresses in the play that time is an illusion or a ‘cancer’, as he referred to it, that feeds the individual the lie that they progress, while destroying them. Estragon and Vladimir through the play end as they begin, have made no progression: waiting for Godot. The few leaves that have grown on the tree by the second act may symbolize hope but more feasibly represent the illusive passage of time. Beckett wrote in his Proust essay that time is the ‘poisonous’ condition we are born to, constantly changing us without our knowing, finally killing us without our assent.
Time also erodes Estragon’s memory. Time causes their energies and appetites to ebb. Time destroys Pozzo’s sight. Existentialist theories propose that the choices of the present are important and that time causes perceptional confusion.
The play consists of two acts which represent two cycles of time or two mirrors reflecting endlessly. The pattern of time appears to be circular or cyclic, as opposed to linear. Linear time seems to have broken down, as events do not develop with inevitable climaxes historically. The boy returns with the same message, Godot never comes and tomorrow never seems to arrive.
Estragon and Vladimir are moving relentlessly towards a presumably unobtainable event, the coming of Godot. Estragon portrays the horror of their uneventful repetitive existence:
“Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!” (p.41).
The play is deliberately unnatural and abstract because it is intended to have universal meaning. The world of Estragon and Vladimir is fragmented of time and place and is submerged with vague recollections of culture and the past. For example Estragon remembers the Bible with uncertainty:
“I remember the maps with of the Holy Land. Coloured they were” (p.12).
The lack of knowledge of the tramps’ culture and past symbolize the breakdown of culture and tradition in the twentieth century. Estragon and Vladimir’s uncertainty symbolizes the uncertainty of living in the twentieth century and more generally the uncertainty of existence. Estragon is uncertain about their location and timing inquiring,
“You’re sure it was here?… You’re sure it was this evening?” (p. 15).
Beckett displays the sheer randomness of life through the events of the play. Life is portrayed as unfair, risky and arbitrary. Estragon shows the chance involved in the health of his lungs stating, “My left lung is very weak! … But my right lung is as sound as a bell!” Estragon and Vladimir ponder why one out of the three thieves was saved, which displays the luck or misfortune involved in life. The chaos of this world portrays the absurdity of the characters within the play.
Despite Beckett’s denial of Godot’s symbolism to God, Godot does have a strong connection towards a god of some kind. Godot could be a hero, a religious symbol, a role model but most importantly a symbol of hope. Absurdity in the play is a by-product of their metaphysically absurd condition, it is the best they can hope for, the worst they always expect.
Beckett distrusted language because it falsified he believed, the deepest self. His bleak vision of human ignorance, impotence and loneliness made communication an absurd endeavour. Estragon and Vladimir talk to each other and share ideas, but it is clear that both characters are self-absorbed and incapable of truly comprehending each other. Estragon and Vladimir regularly interrupt one another with their own thoughts. Conversation occurs but the arrangement of words, poor starved strings do not bridge the gulf that exists between them.
The silences seem to punctuate conversations that represent the void, emptiness and loneliness between people. Lucky’s breakdown of speech and final collapse into silence could portray Beckett’s ultimate response to the chaos, randomness and meaninglessness of the universe: silence.
Beckett uses of bathos, staccato-like speech or actions and vulgarity flavoured with black or tragicomic humour to present a reductive view on human nature. Vladimir’s perpetual need to urinate illustrates one of those vulgarities. Beckett’s pessimism is understandable. He lived through world wars, fighting the Second World War for the French resistance against the Nazis. He would have witnessed the atrocities of human nature, chaos, the pointlessness of violence and the breakdown of communication, He would inevitably spent time during the war helplessly waiting for something to happen.
Estragon injects bathos into the serious debate about the thief who was saved by Christ by declaring with bluntness a reductive statement, “People are bloody ignorant apes.”
The Seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal viewed human life in terms of paradoxes: The human self is itself a paradox and · contradiction. Estragon and Vladimir are full of contradictions, as their emotions often change erratically from violence to sympathy, from the philosophical to the banal. Pozzo’s cruelty towards Lucky emphasizes the contradictions in human nature. They share a master-slave relationship in which Pozzo can be the worst of all tyrants, shouting authoritarian instructions at Lucky, such as, “Up pig!” (p.23
To conclude we say that the whole picture in Waiting for Godot shows a pretty hopelessness. Neither time nor existence, neither reality nor memory or the past have any meaning or significance. Acts are meaningless, time does not flow consecutively, memory seems deceptive, existence is an impression or perhaps a dream and happiness is extremely and affliction is crystal clear through the situation of two tramps. They are on the point of becoming hollow philosophies of existence but demand no other equipment in an audience than the bond of common perception.
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