Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot
Man's Battle With Himself

By Margaret Gumley

Waiting for Godot is man waiting for life to unravel its mysteries. It is man and his conscience. It is man's inhumanity towards man. It is the question of meaning. Is there a meaning? Are we right to look for answers or should we go blindly forward while we can, pausing only to give our feet an airing, because the answers, like Godot, will never come and nothing we think or do will make any difference.

Although it appears on the surface that Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is a tragicomedy about two rather pitiful vagrants and their brief encounter with another pair of sad and confused men, I believe Beckett was writing about man's battle with himself.

Estragon, whose main concern is releasing his sore feet from the constraints of their smelly, tight boots, takes life on the chin. He seems to believe that all one needs to do is go passively along with whatever life happens to put in our way and it will all sort itself out eventually. Why waste our time trying to mould life to the way we would like it to be? Why fight the inevitable? If 'they' are intent on giving us a beating, we might as well let them. It will come to an end and we may get away with less of a beating if we don't fight back: we can then relax again - until the next time. If, while allowing life to do its worst we die, that's okay too.

Vladimir, on the other hand, wants more. He keeps hoping something will happen to make his life more agreeable. He hopes Godot will provide an answer; any answer. Vladimir can't understand why Estragon is so blasé about allowing himself to be beaten and humiliated.

Vladimir is the side of us that expects life to provide our answers. The side that looks to others for help in recognising the treasures we are sure are there just waiting for us to embrace them.

Neither Vladimir nor Estragon is too fond of life to dismiss the idea of ending it by hanging from a nearby tree - but they both know it won't really happen. It's simply a way of passing the time: a sort of 'I Spy' - I spy with my little eye, a tree for hanging ourselves on - the way we sometimes dwell on our problems because, paradoxically, we enjoy feeling sorry for ourselves.

Vladimir needs Estragon but the feeling isn't reciprocated, though Estragon is happy enough to spend time with Vladimir. We need to convince ourselves that we are worthwhile. We search our conscience for affirmations of our reason for being. If we don't care what happens to us, we have no need for a close association with our conscience. Vladimir and Estragon were each other's consciences.

When Pozzo and Lucky appear on the scene, Vladimir sees another chance for a way out of the doldrums. Could Pozzo be Godot? No? Ah well, he still may be a welcome diversion while they continue to wait.

Pozzo uses Lucky while he has something to offer but as soon as he has run out of whatever Pozzo needed from him, Lucky loses his appeal and is allowed to slip backwards into abject misery; good only as a beast of burden to be sold to the highest bidder.

Vladimir and Estragon feel sorry for Lucky but do nothing to help him, especially when it seems being helped is something Lucky no longer believes in nor wants. It's easier to believe Lucky is simply someone who has lost his sense of reason and might as well be left alone. Lucky's plight is put in the Too Hard basket.

Often we see only what we can use in a person rather than seeing the person himself. When we grow weary of someone who no longer appeals to us or can no longer provide us with what we need, they become a burden. We become blind to the things that once attracted us to them and can no longer hear their pleas to be loved and needed.

On a larger scale, once we stop caring about our fellow man, we become blind to the problems of the world and the oppressed can lose the ability to speak to us.

Time, as Dylan Thomas said, passes. Was it yesterday? Was it last year? When did Vladimir and Estragon last wait here for Godot? When did they last see Pozzo and Lucky? Does it matter? In the scheme of things, what is a day; or a year, or a lifetime?
Man lives his life waiting. He waits to be born, he waits to become a man, he waits to become successful, he waits to find true love, he waits to find peace; he waits to die.
While he waits, he considers. Faced with many decisions, man argues with himself about which path to take. Should he, like Vladimir, keep hoping tomorrow will bring the answers? Should he, like Estragon, forget about looking for answers? Forget the questions. Should he let life unfold around him and simply 'go with the flow'?

If those around him are suffering, if they are under threat, should he try to help? If he does and he receives a kick in the shins for his trouble, should he give up and let someone else deal with it or should he pick up the handkerchief and try again to wipe the brow of the oppressed?

Waiting for Godot is man waiting for life to unravel its mysteries. It is man and his conscience. It is man's inhumanity towards man. It is the question of meaning. Is there a meaning? Are we right to look for answers or should we go blindly forward while we can, pausing only to give our feet an airing, because the answers, like Godot, will never come and nothing we think or do will make any difference.


© Margaret Gumley, January 2007


See also: British and Irish drama on film >
Samuel Beckett Books > Samuel Beckett Web Sites >

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