Karen Mills: The Beckett Trilogy [UU ENG507C2/2001]

The Trilogy, comprising of Molloy, Malone Dies and the Unnamable, is the completion and elaboration of earlier work. Beckett’s 1931 study of Proust, named Proust brought to bear a degree of influence on his thinking which manifested itself in the The Trilogy. One of the most important elements of this 1931 discussion showed Beckett’s concern over the disintegrating relationship between subject and object. [1]

Significant that Proustian philosophy is, it is not the sole influence on Beckett’s Trilogy . In 1930, Beckett suffered a depressive episode which was to dominate his life and colour his work. In seeking treatment for this condition, Beckett encountered another who was to exercise some power over his work. A lecture given by C. J. Jung in London in the early 1930’s gave credence to Beckett’s own unease in himself. [2] The lecture posited the notion that the human is never really born; this idea proved to captivate Beckett and resolve the crisis he felt.

The death of his parents, particularly his mother rocked Beckett’s world to its foundations. In life they had experienced a troubled relationship, but with her passing any confidence Beckett had in his knowledge of the world was shattered. The first of The Trilogy, Molloy is (among other things) a working out of this difficult relation between mother and son.

Plagued by a depressive condition, left on the unsteady ground of his own uncertainties, Beckett came to believe in an utterly black, utterly futile existence. Disturbing that such a belief is to countenance, it was the sole thought that he had any confidence in. This deeply prejudiced view is manifest in varying degrees in the triumvirate that is The Trilogy. Plagued by his own personal demons, The Trilogy is an exercise in withdrawal. The author seeks to reduce expression to communicate his bleak view of the world. The art of nothingness that he mastered successfully draws the reader into seeing that what we do, what we say is ultimately ineffectual. His work is at times scathing, at times absurd but strives to illuminate the illusions that we - the human race - hide under, rather than face what Beckett sees as the awful truth.

"In Beckett’s world the cardinal sin is hope" writes one commentator, and reading The Trilogy, the conclusion drawn is strange and unsettling. [3] The language, the syntax and the ideas conveyed by them occupies an alien place where most of us have never visited (nor would want to). In his efforts to escape the illusions that we live under, the need to think, the need to communicate, the need to comprehend everything around us, Beckett came to frightening conviction that this was beyond our faculties.

The import of writing Molloy, Malone Meurt and L’Innommable in French first is part of Beckett’s strategy to evade the domestic reality he was familiar with and the stock phrasing of his mother tongue. With nothing to express and finding words inadequate to convey this nothingness, Beckett embarked upon a conflict to expose the "silence that underlines" words. [4] This resulted in the increasingly reductive execution of The Trilogy.

Dylan Thomas said of Murphy that, (Murphy is) "a complex and oddly tragic figure who cannot reconcile the unreality of the seen world with the reality of the unseen [...] (his) successors, Watt, Molloy, Moran, Malone share his unassimilability but not his bliss," which is about as accurate a description of The Trilogy as anyone other than the author can obtain. [5] The initial incarnation of Molloy moves from an isolated character, unsure of everything to being overpowered by a disconnected voice in The Unnamable. Despite Beckett’s conviction that he had never really come into existence, he uses the foetal position in The Unnamable, in an effort to recapture that silent realm of ante-natal memory.

The successive reincarnations of The Trilogy are distilled into an increasingly intense entity either unsure of or without a physical presence. It would be erroneous to substitute Beckett for the ‘I’ narrator of the The Trilogy since it "moves in a dimension which is not that of any living mortal." [6] Despite this assessment, the fictional narrators are caught in a spiral of meaningless that the author was undoubtedly familiar with.

The narrator of Molloy is versed in uncertainties, possibilities and half-remembered, half-conjured memories. The opening lines of the novel are uncharacteristically positive assertions, but are swiftly followed by "[…] I don’t know how I got here […]" (7). The ensuing thoughts are riven with doubt and what few facts the narrator lists are unreliable. The assurance that the reader has when reading a novel, evaporates leaving reader and narrator in the same position of doubt.

In Richard Kearney’s essay on Beckett his suggestion is that "(Beckett’s) aim…is less a nihilistic deconstruction of sense into non-sense than a playful wish to expose the inexhaustible comedy of existence [...] " and as such has credence in application to Molloy and indeed the remainder of The Trilogy. [7] The comedy of The Trilogy is at times inaccessible, even incomprehensible if Beckett’s black humour is not appreciated or shared. "For I always say too much or too little, which is a terrible thing for a man with a passion for truth like mine" (34) is comic in its peculiar phrasing, comic in the report that it makes. The fact that it is probably brutally honest heightens the ridiculous nature of the speech. The narrator, Molloy, is voluble in his reminisces, but never conveys his personality. It is an odd combination, that text using words, eventually yields little of that character. This is precisely the expression which Beckett sought, conveying nothing, since there was nothing to convey. The absurdity of this exercise is comic in itself, if it were not borne out of such a bleak view of the world.

The narrator, who now spends his time recounting somewhat dubious memories, has exceptional difficulty in expression. Yet while he encounters this difficulty, he can at times produce utterances of startling clarity,

There I am then, informed as to certain things [...] things I had never thought of [...] There I am then [...] free [...] I don’t know what that means [...] free to do what [...] to fill in the holes of words till all is blank and flat and whole ghastly business looks like what it is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery. (13)

This speech is crucial to the understanding of The Trilogy; knowledge counts for nothing; freedom, whatever it is, is meaningless; and the mechanisms and tools used in expression are as empty as the silence they are used to fill.

Molloy is unsettled to the core of his being by inadequacy to express, to feel, to remember, to comprehend. He holds the conviction that he is unnatural, freakish even, but the unreliable nature of perception and memory "[…] are things we must not take seriously [...] ". (14)

The bizarre delivery of the birthing experience for Molloy, is as disturbing to the reader as it is for him. The degrading references to the mother are imbued with an anger at introducing him, Molloy, to the misery of existence. The mother, in his world, ceases to be accorded with the reverence and affection of conventional literature. The sense of her being is as foreign to Molloy as his own sense of being.

The one reality that Molloy is grounded in, is the ceasing to be. His tale is not one of life but of slowly dying. The remainder of this trilogy is a gradual account of a being in existence passing into a state of un-being. Conventionally, the bourgeois novel is a celebration of life and living, but Beckett and his Trilogy deconstruct this genre inventing a radical departure from any precedent set before.

The certainty of living is not as forcefully communicated, as the certainty of dying, "[…] I am full of fear, I have gone in fear all my life […] on my way to my mother, whose charity kept me dying […]" (22). The sincerity of Molloy’s grim views impart a selfish assessment. Molloy’s fate is not of his making, circumstance has made him what he is; he has abdicated all responsibility for himself and unscrupously laid blame at the feet of all those whom he has encountered.

The wealth of material presented in The Trilogy cannot be justly addressed, in a study as brief as this. The novels can only be dipped into and tentatively sampled. Molloy’s story merges into Moran’s, the shadowy detective whose mission it is to find Molloy. What happens to Moran is correlative to Molloy’s experience; the boundaries of his character blur and absorb Molloy’s in an equally bleak parallel sphere. The fruitless search for Molloy leads to Moran losing his tenuous grip on reality and assuming the morbid introspection of his prey.

Toward the end of Moran’s instalment, he states, "[…] to tell the truth, I not only knew who I was, but had a sharper clearer sense of my identity than ever before […]" (170). This statement cannot render any substantial ratification for the reader since it relies on too many subjective quantities. Sharing Moran’s descent into that dark province of his, the reader cannot believe that his truth could illuminate his identity or hone his senses to any extent, other than that which only has meaning for him alone.

The end of the novel gives credence to the unreal of Moran’s world, and is an extension of Molloy as well as being a prelude to Malone Dies and The Unnamable. in the end I understood this language …] all wrong perhaps. This is not what matters […]" (176) conveys that Moran’s’ comprehension of the tools of communication are not relevant to anyone but himself. If he can comprehend the parameters of his being, his feeling and his thinking then he has no obligation to communicate these to any other, except in his own idiosyncratic manner. Their understanding is not what counts, it is only Moran’s that matters.

Malone Dies provides grounds for the theory that this character is a reincarnation of Molloy. The common features of both accounts can bear close scrutiny and still remain valid. The monologue begins, "[…] I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all […]" (179); the glee of this statement is underscored with an intimation of having cheated the system. The waiting will soon be over and the character will escape this ‘vale of tears’. In the meantime he amuses himself by setting tasks that he will never complete, being constantly waylaid by tangential ponderings or losing essential items such as his pencil.

The narrator of this novel moves to embrace dying as a means to vacate his body, which somehow has become an even greater hindrance than Molloy’s paralysed carcass of the previous novel. "[…] It is there I die, unbeknown to my stupid flesh…my witless remains […]" (187) is marked by an antagonistic view of his own body. The physical form, it would seem, is superfluous, opening up the argument that the being need not rely on a body to exist. Equally it could be seen as an obstructive measure to nullify feeling - relocating that sense in a disconnected consciousness. This is exactly what Malone Dies prepares for in The Unnamable.

In the novel, the narrator in between making up non-sensical stories, sometime espouses something very close to Beckett’s own philosophy. One such instance is where he abruptly deserts Sapo to say, "[…] The forms are many in which the unchanging seeks relief from its formlessness […]" (198). This stance taken by Malone is the firmest expression of what The Trilogy and Beckett seek to do. It is an echo of an element of the earlier essay, Proust (1931) where it states, "[…] Habit is a compromise effected between the individual and his environment…Breathing is habit. Life is habit […]". The habitual and the unchanging are focused on for the tedium that is generated by them. Beckett and his creations desire an escape from the contrivances that attempt to contain the formlessness, emptiness, nothingness.

Surely it is a constant source of irritation to the narrator, in his limited comprehension of things, to forget what little he does know? "[…] It’s vague, life and death. I must have had my little private idea on the subject…But it is gone clean out of my head, my little private idea […]" (225) conveys an almost comic lapse of memory, but fused to this comedy is something deeply tragic. The story has ceased to be of any importance (not that the story was ever important) over the narrator’s ineffectual attempts to convey it while battling all the time with his own amnesia, inadequacies, misapprehensions within the constraints of a defective language. [8]

The end of the novel is effected by Malone dying, mid-way through another of his meanderings. The last three lines are part of the fiction he was creating but serve equally well as the man’s dying words. They express the end of life as succinctly as Malone or Beckett can, "[…] never anything/there/any more." (289) The brevity of the end together with the barrenness of the words haunt the reader in its simple acceptance of the finality of death. In Beckett’s writings there is no comfortable lie to lessen what he saw as the stark reality of death.

The death of Malone, conveniently makes room for The Unnamable. The opening is riven with questions directed at the self, requiring no answer, merely an avenue to pursue meaningless. The central dilemma of the voice is couched in terms of , "[…] What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed? […]" (293).

The argument that the voice is a more essential being than previously is confirmed by the voice’s statement,

All these Murphys, Molloys and Malones do not fool me. They have made me waste my time, suffer for nothing, speak of them when, in order to stop speaking, I should have spoken of me and me alone (305)

The previous incarnations are viewed with contempt, being blamed by the voice for consuming time and effort, draining energy from the voice which should instead have been used to attain the bliss of silence.

The goal of achieving a state without communication is revisited again, "[…] It’s of me now I must speak, even if I have to do it with their language, it will be a start, a step towards silence and the end of madness […]" (326). The voice expands on this theme, constantly referring to they or their, implying that the voice is dissociated from conventional language. More importantly the voice says "[…] they have crammed me full…to prevent me from saying who I am […]" (327) constituting a direct link back to the first of The Trilogy, Molloy who said,

if I have always behaved like a pig, the fault lies not with me but with my superiors, who corrected me only on points of detail instead of showing me the essence of the system (25)

It appears that the voice and Molloy as well as Malone confuse the system with their own dissatisfactory experience. The introspection that all three indulge in, does not result in any greater enlightenment except a mounting desire to vanquish words.

Not only does The Trilogy comprise of an exercise in withdrawal, it is also a sickly effort at self-destruction, but none of the characters are sufficiently potent to effect this. The last line of the novel serve to highlight how the voice has become lost in words, where they cease to mean anything, where even the pronouns used indicate the voice’s disintegration,

I can’t go on, you must go on, I’ll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any…it will be the silence, where I am…you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. (418)

The success of The Trilogy, despite its alienating effect, strikes a chord with the reader because it seeks to expose the difference between what we are conventionally supposed to feel, what literature tells us we are supposed to feel and what we actually do feel. The feelings of inadequacy roused in us because of this disparity is the experience of Molloy, Malone and The Unnamable who cannot reconcile their disappointments with reality.

The successive incarnations of The Trilogy have already come to the realisation that what they seek, that something which is real for them, is the incomplete capacity of words and language to express effectually their experience. They discover that without reliable meaning, their bleak outlook is without value in a hollow existence. Their musings become increasingly disconnected to anything that the reader can identify. In their attempt to determine a reality beyond the use of words, Beckett’s narrators lose themselves in a frightening world of nonsense where even their own identity ceases to have a grounding. The exploration of The Trilogy results in an appreciation, if not an understanding of how the conscious being, ignorant and impotent, can be drown in an increasingly vague semiosis.

1. The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature, ed. Robert Welch, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p.38.
2. ‘An Outsider in his Own Life’, Morris Dickstein, New York Times Archive (New York Times, 3 Aug. 1997, p 3) at
3. ‘Beckett’s Brightness on Dark Days’, Askold Melnyczuk, June 30, 1996 in
4. Samuel (Barclay) Beckett (1906-1089) from
5. Dylan Thomas, quoted in
6. Richard N. Coe, quoted in idem.
7. ‘Beckett: The Demythologising Intellect’ in the Irish Mind ed. Richard Kearney, quoted in idem.
8. Beckett & the Voice of the Species: A Study of the Prose Fiction, (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1980) cited in idem.

Beckett, Samuel, The Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable ( London: Calder Publications 1994)
Cohen, M. J. ed., The Penguin Thematic Dictionary of Quotations (London: Penguin 1999)
Cronin, Anthony, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist (London: Harper Collins 1996)
Drabble, Margaret & Stringer, Jenny, eds. The Oxford Concise Companion to English Literature [Rev. Edn.] (OUP 1996)
Eagleton, Terry, Literary Theory: An Introduction [Second Edition] (Oxford: Blackwell 1996)
Kenner, Hugh, A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers, London: Allen Lane 1983)
Pearsall, Judy, ed. The New Oxford Dictionary of English (OUP 1998)
Todd, Loreto, ed. The Language of Irish Literature, London: Macmillan 1989)
Welch, Robert, ed. The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature (OUP 1996)


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Princess Grace Irish Library (Monaco): 2001

From http://www.pgil-eirdata.org/html/pgil_archive/scholarly_papers/KarenMills.htm