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Essay on Waiting for Godot (by Michael Sinclair)

The purpose of human life is an unanswerable question. It seems impossible to find an answer because we don't know where to begin looking or whom to ask. Existence, to us, seems to be something imposed upon us by an unknown force. There is no apparent meaning to it, and yet we suffer as a result of it. The world seems utterly chaotic. We therefore try to impose meaning on it through pattern and fabricated purposes to distract ourselves from the fact that our situation is hopelessly unfathomable. "Waiting for Godot" is a play that captures this feeling and view of the world, and characterizes it with archetypes that symbolize humanity and its behaviour when faced with this knowledge. According to the play, a human being's life is totally dependant on chance, and, by extension, time is meaningless; therefore, a human's life is also meaningless, and the realization of this drives humans to rely on nebulous, outside forces, which may be real or not, for order and direction.

The basic premise of the play is that chance is the underlying factor behind existence. Therefore human life is determined by chance. This is established very early on, when Vladimir mentions the parable of the two thieves from the Bible. "One of the thieves was saved. It's a reasonable percentage" (Beckett, 8). The idea of "percentage" is important because this represents how the fate of humanity is determined; it is random, and there is a percentage chance that a person will be saved or damned. Vladimir continues by citing the disconcordance of the Gospels on the story of the two thieves. "And is it - this is not boring you I hope - how is it that of the four Evangelists only one speaks of a thief being saved. The four of them were there - or thereabouts - and only one speaks of a thief being saved" (Beckett, 9). Beckett makes an important point with this example of how chance is woven into even the most sacred of texts that is supposed to hold ultimate truth for humanity. All four disciples of Chirst are supposed to have been present during his crucifixion and witnessed the two thieves, crucified with Jesus, being saved or damned depending on their treatment of him in these final hours. Of the four, only two report anything peculiar happening with the thieves. Of the two that report it, only one says that a thief was saved while the other says that both were damned. Thus, the percentages go from 100%, to 50%, to a 25% chance for salvation. This whole matter of percentages symbolizes how chance is the determining factor of existence, and Beckett used the Bible to prove this because that is the text that humanity has looked to for meaning for millenia. Even the Bible reduces human life to a matter of chance. On any given day there is a certain percent chance that one will be saved as opposed to damned, and that person is powerless to affect the decision. "The fate of the thieves, one of whom was saved and the other damned according to the one of the four accounts that everybody believes, becomes as the play progresses a symbol of the condition of man in an unpredictable and arbitrary universe" (Webb, 32).

God, if he exists, contributes to the chaos by his silence. The very fact that God allows such an arbitrary system to continue makes him an accomplice. The French philosopher Pascal noted the arbitrariness of life and that the universe worked on the basis of percentages. He advocated using such arbitrariness to one's advantage, including believing in God because, if he doesn't exist, nobody would care in the end, but if he does, one was on the safe side all along, so one can't lose. It is the same reasoning that Vladimir uses in his remark quoted above, "It's a reasonable percentage." But it is God's silence throughout all this that causes the real hopelessness, and this is what makes "Waiting for Godot" a tragedy amidst all the comical actions of its characters: the silent plea to God for meaning, for answers, which symbolizes the plea of all humanity, and God's silence in response. "The recourse to bookkeeping by the philosopher [Pascal] no less than the clownish tramp shows how helpless we are with respect to God's silence" (Astro, 121). Either God does not exist, or he does not care. Whichever is the case, chance and arbitrariness determine human life in the absence of divine involvement.

The world of "Waiting for Godot" is one without any meaningful pattern, which symbolizes chaos as the dominating force in the world. There is no orderly sequence of events. A tree which was barren one day is covered with leaves the next. The two tramps return to the same place every day to wait for Godot. No one can remember exactly what happened the day before. Night falls instantly, and Godot never comes. The entire setting of the play is meant to demonstrate that time is based on chance, and therefore human life is based on chance.

Time is meaningless as a direct result of chance being the underlying factor of existence. Hence there is a cyclic, albeit indefinite, pattern to events in "Waiting for Godot." Vladimir and Estragon return to the same place each day to wait for Godot and experience the same general events with variations each time. It is not known for how long in the past they have been doing this, or for how long they will continue to do it, but since time is meaningless in this play, it is assumed that past, present, and future mean nothing. Time, essentially is a mess. "One of the seemingly most stable of the patterns that give shape to experience, and one of the most disturbing to see crumble, is that of time" (Webb, 34-35). The ramifications of this on human existence are symbolized by the difference between Pozzo and Lucky in Act I and in Act II. Because time is based on chance and is therefore meaningless, human life is treated arbitrarily and in an almost ruthless manner, and is also meaningless. In Act I Pozzo is travelling to the market to sell Lucky, his slave. Pozzo is healthy as can be, and there seems to be nothing wrong. Lucky used to be such a pleasant slave to have around, but he has become quite annoying, and so Pozzo is going to get rid of him. This is their situation the first time they meet Vladimir and Estragon. The next day, everything has changed. Pozzo is now blind, and Lucky is mute. Pozzo has absolutely no recollection of the previous meeting, and even claims that Lucky has always been mute even though just the day before he gave a long philosophical discourse when commanded to "think." When asked by Vladimir when he became blind, Pozzo responds "I woke up one fine day as blind as Fortune" (Beckett, 55). Vladimir, incredulous, continues asking him for details. Pozzo responds to this (violently), "Don't question me! The blind have no notion of time. The things of time are hidden from them too" (Beckett, 55). Pozzo's situation symbolizes the effects of time on humans. The inherent meaninglessness of a world based on chance degenerates human life into something that is worthless and can be toyed with by Fortune. Beckett uses this change in the situation of Pozzo and Lucky to show that human life is meaningless because time is meaningless. "Although a 'stream of time' doesn't exist any longer, the 'time material' is not petrified yet,...instead of a moving stream, time here has become something like a stagnant mush" (Andres, 143).

Humans try to remain oblivious of their condition. Throughout the play, Vladimir and Estragon remain stupidly cheerful, and seek distraction in pointless activities. In doing so, they act rather comical, which gives the play its humorous element. "The positive attitude of the two tramps thus amounts to a double negation: their inability to recognize the senselessness of their position" (Andres, 143-144). Vladimir and Estragon try to distract themselves from the endless wait by arguing over mundane topics, sleeping, chatting with Pozzo and Lucky (again over mundane topics), and even contemplating suicide. All of this is an attempt to remain oblivious of the fact that they are waiting for a vague figure, partly of their own invention, that will never come. They do not want to realize that their lives are meaningless. This behavior symbolizes humanity's petty distractions. Humans have nothing else to do but try to distract themselves from their situation. "...while, in the case of Vladimir and Estragon, it is just the incessant attempt to make time pass which is so characteristic, and which reflects the specific misery and absurdity of their life" (Andres, 147-148). Vladimir and Estragon's attempts at distraction are attempts to make time pass, to draw them closer to the time when Godot will arrive and solve all their problems. This is pure wishful thinking, but this is all that they have to look forward to, even if the action is meaningless. The only alternative to this is death, which the two contemplate but lack the courage and initiative to carry through. In the end, the only recourse left to humans is to persist in meaningless action or perish. "Pozzo, after his vision of the emptiness and futility of human life, revives his Lucky and cries, 'On!' though they have nowhere to go and nothing to carry but sand" (Webb, 41).

To impose pattern and meaning on their world, humans will rely on nebulous outside forces for relief and distraction from their predicament. This is the only thing that can keep them going. Thus, in the play, Godot is symbolic of such an outside force, which seems to be silent and uncaring. Even so, he is still a pattern, and he infuses the two desperate tramps with a purpose to their absurd lives. By imposing pattern on chaos, Vladimir and Estragon achieve some degree of meaning. In this case, the pattern is waiting. Vladimir, in his philosophical soliloquy while contemplating whether or not to help Pozzo in Act II, declares, "What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come-" (Beckett, 51). An illusion of salvation is needed to cope with a meaningless life. Godot is that illusion. Therefore we see that because of all the aforementioned factors, that life is based on chance, that time is meaningless, that human life is meaningless, humans are driven to invent or rely on such "Godots," otherwise they would perish. In essence, "'Waiting for Godot' is the story of two vagabonds who impose on their slovenly wilderness an illusory, but desperately defended, pattern: waiting" (Webb, 26).

It is never clear whether Godot is real or not, which is why he is referred to as an example of a "nebulous force". In both acts, Vladimir and Estragon mistake or suspect Pozzo of being Godot. They have never actually seen Godot, and would not be able to tell him apart from a street passerby. Their only contact with him is his messenger boy that comes at the end of each day to inform them that Godot will again not be coming, but will surely come tomorrow. The boy never remembers one day from the next, another indication of the absence of a meaningful time sequence. At the end of the second act, Vladimir, the more philosophical of the two, gets a glimpse of the truth: that they will forever be waiting for Godot, that he is merely a distraction from their useless lives, and that he can even predict, ironically, when the boy comes again, everything that the boy will say. It is at this point that a great depression overcomes Vladimir at the realisation of the truth. It is the climax of the play and its most tragic part. But Vladimir realizes that he is trapped, that he must persist in the illusion, that he has no choice. This is the definition of "going on" for humanity. There is no point. But it is the only option. "All of these characters go on, but in the old ruts, and only by retreating into patterns of thought that have already been thoroughly discredited. In the universe of this play, 'on' leads nowhere" (Webb, 41).

"Waiting for Godot" is all about how the world is based on chance. A world based on chance can have no orderly time sequence, and thus time has no meaning. The extension, then, is that human life has no meaning. Realizing this, humans will create distractions and diversions, in the form of patterns and reliance on nebulous forces, to provide the purpose and meaning that is inherently lacking in their lives. "Waiting for Godot" is the classical, archetypical presentation of this facet of human existence.


Works Cited

Andres, Gunther. Being without Time: On Beckett's Play Waiting for Godot. Ed. Martin Esslin. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1965. 140-152.

Astro, Alan. Understanding Samuel Beckett. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1954.

Mercier, Vivian. Beckett / Beckett. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

States, Bernard. The Shape of Paradox: An Essay on Waiting for Godot. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Webb, Eugene. The Plays of Samuel Beckett. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1972.



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