Samuel Beckett (1906–1989) was a renowned Irish author and playwright who gifted humanity with exceptional literary works. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969 for his innovative writing style, which reflected the struggles of modern humans. Among his most notable works are Murphy, Molly, Proust, Waiting for Godot, How It Is, and so on. Waiting for Godot, in particular, stands out for its unique nature, surpassing the expectations of readers who seek clear plots and defined themes in novels and plays.
Viewers are likely to remain perplexed throughout the play, and their confusion will likely persist until the very end. Waiting for Godot features five characters: Estragon, Vladimir, Pozzo, Lucky, and a Boy. At first glance, Vladimir and Estragon appear to be the protagonists of the play. They are the only characters on stage for the majority of the time, and they are the ones who are waiting for Godot. However, Beckett intentionally conceals the identity of Godot, leaving it open for readers to interpret. Some possible interpretations of Godot include God, death, or hope. Regardless of how it is interpreted, Waiting for Godot is a powerful and thought-provoking play that has had a lasting impact on modern literature.
Beckett seems to have intended for his readers to contemplate their own existence rather than strictly follow the storyline. He skillfully portrays the human condition in a world devoid of clear answers. When asked about the play, Beckett humorously remarked that he was certain of only one thing—the two men (Vladimir and Estragon) were wearing bowler hats. Although Beckett explored existentialist themes in Waiting for Godot and other plays, he declined to be labelled as an existentialist, drawing comparisons to the French philosopher Albert Camus of the twentieth century. Camus, a notable author who introduced the concept of philosophical absurdism within existentialism, also rejected being called an existentialist.
Both Beckett and Camus were interested in the human condition and the search for meaning in a world that often seems meaningless. However, they differed in their approaches to these questions. Beckett’s work is often characterized by its bleakness and despair, while Camus’s work is more hopeful, suggesting that even in the face of absurdity, it is possible to find meaning in life. The fact that both Beckett and Camus rejected the label of “existentialist” suggests that existentialism is not a single, monolithic philosophy. Rather, it is a broad term that encompasses a variety of different approaches to the human condition.
Camus believed the Absurdity of human existence stems from our desire for meaning in a meaningless world. He argued that Sisyphus, the mythological figure condemned to push a boulder up a hill for eternity, is a symbol of our endless struggle to find meaning. As per Camus, we may overcome the Absurd by embracing our fate and living authentically, even in the face of meaninglessness.
Beckett’s Waiting for Godot has clear parallels to Camus’ philosophy of Absurdism. The unknown identity of Godot hangs over the play as the old men anxiously await his arrival. Godot can be interpreted in many ways—as a representation of the chaos and hopelessness in a godless world, or as a symbol of the love, success, or even death that humans yearn for. The wait itself gives meaning to their lives. Without hope for Godot’s arrival, the existence of the old men, Vladimir and Estragon, would be meaningless. However, the wait becomes unbearable at times, leading them to contemplate escape by hanging themselves.
The meaning of life is assigned by the individual who exists. This notion is further underscored in “Waiting for Godot” through the character of Pozzo, who appears twice in the play. Pozzo treats his slave, Lucky, like a beast of burden, thereby imbuing his life with meaning. Surprisingly, Lucky seems content with his state. Thinking for Lucky is not autonomous but rather verbal, done only when prompted by his master, Pozzo. His thoughts are incomprehensible and incoherent, mirroring the perplexing nature of human existence. Despite the misery, Lucky’s contentment hints at him also being an Absurd hero, similar to Camus’ Sisyphus.
While the play may evoke occasional despondency in the audience, those familiar with Beckett’s humour will find plenty to chuckle about. With no logical progression of events, it seems, the characters in the play engage in random acts and dialogues merely to pass the time. Estragon’s line, “We always find something to give us the impression that we exist,” resonates with the play’s theme and reflects the state of human affairs. Other notable remarks, such as Pozzo’s response to the old men, “Yes, gentlemen. I cannot go for long without the society of my likes, even if the likeness is an imperfect one,” emphasize that one amount to nothing without the companionship of fellow beings—underscoring the basis of our existence.
Vladimir’s inquiry in the first half of the play, “Was I sleeping while others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow when I wake or think I do, what shall I say of today?”, is thought-provoking. This remark represents the anxiety of inaction that we frequently experience in life. The inability to produce significant work creates guilt, which is the source of our anxiety. We are always looking for meaning in a life that, according to existentialism, is inherently meaningless.
Waiting for Godot makes several profound observations. Despite their contrasting personalities, Vladimir and Estragon remain together, unable to part. Perhaps this need for companionship stems from the suffocating loneliness that is inherent to existence. It is impossible to bear existence alone, and the audience can easily sympathize with the pain felt by the two men, as it resonates with the ordinary emotions that we all experience. Existence can become intolerable at times, not only for Vladimir and Estragon but for all of humanity. Such emotions are not unusual given the absurdity of our existence. We were not warned about existence before we arrived, nor were we given a manual for meaningful survival afterwards. No one asked for our permission to be born—the beginning of existence—and no one will ask for it before we die—the permanent departure. These strange boundary conditions make life even more absurd.
The appearance of a boy near the end of the play adds intrigue. He brings a message from Godot, stating that Godot will not arrive that day but promises to come the next. However, when the next day arrives, the boy returns with the same message. It becomes evident that Godot will not come, yet the men persist in their waiting. This wait represents the paralysed human soul, relying solely on faith. The wait alone confers meaning to the lives of the old men. As Vladimir exclaims, “Yes, in this immense confusion, one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come.” Despite having the option to leave, they choose not to. Their misguided faith, born out of mental delusions, leads them to futile survival.
The play has been interpreted in a variety of ways, but some of the most common interpretations include:
- A commentary on the absurdity of life, as the characters wait endlessly for someone who never arrives.
- A metaphor for the human condition, as the characters struggle with the meaninglessness of life.
- A religious allegory, as the characters wait for Godot, who may represent salvation or redemption.
- A meditation on the nature of time, as the characters wait for an uncertain future.
Beckett’s Waiting for Godot conveys a profound message to the present age. It is inevitable that we will be confronted with a plethora of existential questions for as long as we live. Without a clear understanding of these questions, we may easily fall into existential delusions, which can lead to anxiety. We must gather the strength to confront the meaninglessness of existence and liberate ourselves from empty promises if we are to live authentically.
[Amrit Sharma is a student of Agriculture Sciences with a profound passion for history and philosophy. Fascinated by Western literature, he has spent years immersing in the profound works of French existentialists such as Sartre, Camus, and Beauvoir. Additionally, he finds immense joy in exploring the literary masterpieces of Aldous Huxley and Bertrand Russell. Mr. Sharma’s literary works have found their way into various digital portals, including magazines and newspapers.]