Themes in Waiting for Godot
Table of Contents
In addition to the themes implicit in the title itself, that is, the theme of waiting, with all its ramifications, and that of a mysterious and dreaded saviour, there are several other themes in Waiting for Godot which have captured critical attention. Some of these are-
- the theme of the triviality and boredom of human life,
- the theme of the prevalence of suffering,
- the theme of ignorance,
- the theme of economic and intellectual exploitation and
- the theme of the meaninglessness of space, time and identity.
For a proper understanding of the meaning of this play, it is necessary to know the working out of all these themes.
The Theme of Waiting
Many critics say that waiting is itself the theme of the play. Some even go to the extent of saying that this is not a play about waiting, but is in itself waiting. There is a lot in this view, for not only does the reader wait, with Estragon and Vladimir, for the arrival of the mysterious Godot, he also waits breathlessly and futilely for something to happen. Waiting conditions everything in this play. It is to lighten the tedium of endless waiting that the tramps resort to various devices to pass the time. This waiting is compulsive Estragon suggests more than once that they might leave, but Vladimir reminds him that they dare not- they are waiting for Godot. Estragon agrees, although reluctantly, every time.
The various attitudes of the tramps enhance this theme, for example going to one edge and then to the other of the stage and looking into the distance, with the eyes shielded by the hand. They also tell worn-out jokes and anecdotes to each other. They indulge in repetitive, pointless activities. Each act ends with a respite in waiting, but it is made clear that waiting must go on the next day and then the next, until Godot comes, of which they do not seem to harbour any real hope.
- Existentialism in Waiting for Godot
- Waiting for Godot as a Religious Play
- Post-War Disillusionment in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot
- Who is Godot in Waiting for Godot?
- Waiting for Godot as an Absurd Play
- Analysis of Waiting for Godot
The Theme of Godot
The theme of waiting, in the abstract, combines with that of waiting mysterious stranger, which has obvious symbolic dimensions and implications. Godot may be a representative in Beckett’s contemporary terms of some authority who has promised protection to the tramps who may be regarded as symbolic of the ordinary French citizen in France under the German occupation. Or he may be considered a link in the Resistance movement, with Estragon and Vladimir two Resistance workers who have been told to contact him.
Waiting for the ‘Godot’ may be a symbol of man’s waiting for a Divine Saviour, a wait that, obviously, must go on and on. This view is strengthened by the fact that the tramps admit that they did not request Godot to do anything definite for them- all that they did was to make a sort of vague prayer or supplication to him. Vladimir says more than once that if Godot comes they would be saved. The resemblance between ‘God’ and ‘Godot’ is too clear to be missed. Moreover, the tramps are also afraid of Godot. When Estragon suggests that they might drop Godot, Vladimir reminds him that he would punish them if they do that. Thus, the action of waiting for Godot becomes applicable to all Christianity
Theme of the Meaninglessness of Life
The way the two tramps pass time is indicative of the boredom and triviality of human activities, the lack of significance in life and the constant suffering which existence is. It also brings out the hollowness and insincerity of most social intercourse. Estragon and Vladimir question each other, contradict each other, abuse each other, become reconciled to each other without any serious meaning or intention. All these devices are employed to one end to the end of making their waiting for Godot less unbearable. Estragon takes off his boots, gropes inside them, and shakes them out expecting something to fall out of them, but nothing happens. Vladimir does the same with his hat, with the same result. The very essence of boredom and triviality is concentrated in the scene in which Estragon and Vladimir repeatedly put on and take off the three hats, their own and Lucky’s. It is this utter lack of meaning which drives Estragon and Vladimir to thoughts of suicide, but the world of this play is one in which no significant action is permitted; therefore even suicide is not within their reach. In addition to trivial actions, the only other that are permitted are cruel ones, like that of beating Pozzo and Lucky.
The Theme of Suffering
One of the themes of Waiting for Godot is that suffering is an inseparable part of the human condition. Vladimir and Estragon suffer intensely and incessantly. Vladimir cannot even laugh without suffering excruciating pain. Estragon’s feet make life a long torture for him. They have nowhere to rest their head. On top of this, Estragon is beaten daily by some gang of ruffians, without his providing them any sort of provocation. They have nothing to eat either, except carrots, turnips and radishes. Vladimir pretends to like this muck as he eats it, but Estragon is frank enough to confess that it becomes more and more unbearable as he takes it. They have nothing to look back on except the days when they did not look so shabby that they could go up Eiffel Tower and jump to their deaths from there. Even those days were far from happy otherwise, for Estragon even then tried putting an end to his life by jumping into the Rhone but Vladimir fished him out. Estragon wistfully recollects that he once planned to go to the Holy Land for his honeymoon because he was enchanted by the colour of the Dead Sea as shown in maps of the Holy Land in an edition of the Bible. The hopeless ordeal of waiting for Godot, and the desperate devices which must be employed to make time pass, are nerve-racking. Each day appears to end like its predecessor, with a message that Godot won’t be able to visit them that evening but would surely do so the next day.
This suffering pervades the episode of Lucky and Pozzo also. Lucky gives expression to the human condition by dancing what he styles the Dance of the Net. In Act II, both Lucky and Pozzo have suffered great physical affliction. The enslaved and chained Lucky has now been rendered dumb also. Pozzo, who led him on a rope in Act I can no longer be regarded as master. Although he still abuses Lucky and calls him ‘pig’ and orders him about, in reality, being blind, he is absolutely at Lucky’s mercy. It is Pozzo who expresses the misery of the human lot in the striking metaphor of the birth astride a grave. And the worst of it is that the suffering is both purposeless and without the consolation of a hoped-for end. A theme related to that of suffering is the one of ignorance and the untrustworthiness of memory Estragon is asleep while the second boy tells Vladimir that Godot would not come that evening, Vladimir wonders whether he would be able to tell himself convincingly the next day that what is happening right now is a reality:
“Was I sleeping, while the others suffered ? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be ?… He’ll know nothing. He’ll tell me about the blows he received and I’ll give him a carrot.”
In Act l, Estragon is unable to recognize the place as one they have already visited. He says so again in Act II. He is unable to recall Lucky and Pozzo, or insists that the meeting with them took place in the remote past and not yesterday, as Vladimir claims. Pozzo does not remember that he has met Estragon and Vladimir already. He shows frank incredulity when Vladimir states that he and Lucky met them the previous day, that he gave chicken bones to Estragon and that Lucky danced and thought for them.
On the other hand, he says that he became blind all of a sudden one day and that Lucky became dumb in the same manner. Vladimir thinks that the second boy is the same as the first. He seems satisfied by the thought that it might be the brother of the boy of the First Act, but his suspicions are greatly aroused. He asks the boy sternly whether he would claim the next day that he did not meet them or talked to them the previous day. In some profounder, non-rational sense, everyone is ignorant to some extent. He believes that someone who has a better view of things may know that Vladimir also is asleep when he claims to be awake and conscious:
“At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, he is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.”
The Theme of Existentialism
Existentialism emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free. In Waiting for Godot the very existence of human life is questioned. The portrait of daily life painted by Waiting for Godot is a dismal one. It is repetitive and stagnant. It lacks meaning and purpose and entails perpetual suffering. As one character says, “habit is a great deadener”—our actions should stem from conscious choice rather than apathy.
The Theme of Time
Time presents a slew of problems in Waiting for Godot. The very title of the play reveals its central action: waiting. The two main characters are forced to whittle away their days while anticipating the arrival of a man who never comes. Because they have nothing to do in the meantime, time is a dreaded barrier, a test of their ability to endure. Because they repeat the same actions every day, time is cyclical. That every character seems to have a faulty memory further complicates matters; time loses meaning when the actions of one day have no relevance or certainty on the next.
The Theme of Nothingness
Waiting for nothing, talking about nothing, and doing nothing contributes to a pervasive atmosphere of nihilism in the play. Deriving from the Latin word for “nothing” (nihil), it is a worldview centered around negation. Both Vladimir and Estragon repeat throughout the play that there is “nothing to be done” and “nothing to do.” They struggle to find ways to pass the time, so they end up conversing back and forth about nothing at all—including talking about how they don’t know what to talk about—simply to occupy themselves while waiting. The boredom of the characters on-stage mirrors the boredom of the audience. Beckett has deliberately constructed a play where not only his characters, but also his audience wait for something that never happens.
The Theme of Exploitation
The theme of exploitation is only implicit in the main story but it is explicit in the episode of Pozzo and Lucky. All the fine words Pozzo now speaks are derived, he confesses, from Lucky. Yet, he holds Lucky on a rope and treats him worse than an animal. Lucky has been so debased by the cruel treatment that he gives a vicious kick to Estragon whose only fault is that he sympathizes with him and tries to wipe away his tears. Now, having derived from Lucky all that he had to give, Pozzo is planning to sell him at a fair, though it is his belief that a much better thing would be to kill him outright. It is characteristic of the haves that they employ the have nots even to do their thinking for them. The ‘Net’ in which Lucky believes himself to be caught is an economic one. The exploited become so demoralized that they are unable to offer any resistance to the exploiters. Pozzo states that it was just once that Lucky failed to obey a command of his. Even when Pozzo has become blinded, Lucky does not have the guts to free himself from his enslavement.
The Theme of Relationship
It is another important theme of Waiting for Godot. Samuel Becket portrays different types of human relationships. There are four kinds of individuals in the play. Every character is a separate entity. Individually, they refer something but in a relationship they indicate something else. Vladimir’s problems are mental; Estragon’s physical. Pozzo and Lucky are presented to show the two races of men. But when these individuals are put into relations, they perform an important role. Nevertheless, three types of relationships are there in the play:
1. Relationship between Estragon and Vladimir
2. Relationship between Pozzo and Lucky
3. Relationship of Estragon and Vladimir with Godot.
Waiting for Godot is a many-faceted play. Its meaning and implications are complex. It is possible to look upon it as a clever farce, or view it as a tragic exposition of the human predicament. Its themes have a certain topicality, at the same time as they possess a timeless validity and universality. It is an Existentialist play, at the same time it also mocks at the attitudes of Existentialism. It seems to have some religious implications even though it seems to question profoundly the Christian conception of salvation and grace. Not only are Estragon and Vladimir the representatives of common humanity but even Pozzo and Lucky are so.
The passage from Act I to Act II gives a threefold treatment of the movement of time. To the tramps, it appears that everything has changed except they themselves. The only real change is in the tree, on which a few leaves have now sprouted in the interval, if we are to believe the dramatist, of only twenty four hours. Estragon and Vladimir are the same as they were in Act I. Quite mysteriously, Estragon’s boots and Lucky’s bat have undergone a transformation. If nature has progressed from winter to spring, Pozzo and Lucky seem to have suffered a decline which is just the reverse of it. Thus, the themes in Waiting for Godot possess an inexhaustible richness of meaning and implication. The play ends on a strange note of hope- hope that the tramps would be able to come by a piece of rope with which to hang themselves the next day.