Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down:
Ropes, Belts, and Cords in Waiting for Godot

By Roger C. Schonfeld

Interpersonal relationships in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot are extremely important, because the interaction of the dynamic characters, as they try to satiate one another's boredom, is the basis for the play. Vladimir's and Estragon's interactions with Godot, which should also be seen as an interpersonal relationship among dynamic characters, forms the basis for the tale's major themes. Interpersonal relationships, including those involving Godot, are generally couched in rope images, specifically as nooses and leashes. These metaphors at times are visible and invisible, involve people as well as inanimate objects, and connect the dead with the living. Only an appreciation of these complicated rope images will provide a truly complete reading of Beckett's Godot and his God, because they punctuate Beckett's voice in this play better than do any of the individual characters.

The only rope that appears literally is the leash around Lucky's neck that Pozzo holds. This pair of characters appears separated by a rope that is half the width of the stage. In terms of the rope, the relationship between these characters is one of consistent domination. The stage directions say that "Pozzo drives Lucky by means of a rope passed round his neck." [p15] Lucky is whipped often. He is essentially the horse pulling Pozzo's carriage in a relationship that seems cruel, domineering, and undesirable, and yet Lucky is strangely sycophantic. In explaining Lucky's behavior, Pozzo says,
Why he doesn't make himself comfortable? Let's try and get this clear. Has he not the right to? Certainly he has. It follows that he doesn't want to...He imagines that when I see how well he carries I'll be tempted to keep him on in that capacity...As though I were short of slaves. [p21]
Despite his miserable condition, Lucky does not seem to desire change. Perhaps he is happy. Or perhaps he is not miserable enough. Or perhaps he has no sense of the world beyond his present situation; perhaps, as Vladimir and Estragon, he cannot envision himself any differently.

The relationship between Pozzo and Lucky does not, however, stagnate at this juncture. The very next day, when the two next appear, the rope between them is significantly shorter so that the now-blind Pozzo may find his way. In this new situation, it is less clear which character leads the other, or if either one is truly in control. As the stage directions read,
Pozzo is blind...Rope as before, but much shorter, so that Pozzo may follow more easily. [p49.5]
For the first time in the text, Pozzo is dependent on Lucky for direction; Lucky is dependent on Pozzo for the same reason, though this relationship is one of emotional, rather than physical, dependence. The shortness of the rope, necessary because of Pozzo's blindness, affects their relationship; their new-found closeness makes it difficult for Pozzo to dominate and for Lucky to be truly servile and completely pathetic. As the stage directions indicate, after bumping into Estragon, Lucky falls, drops everything and brings down Pozzo with him. They lie helpless among the scattered baggage. [p49.5]

The two men, one disabled with blindness and the other on the verge of death, are unable to rise off the ground, from which Pozzo hopes to ascend but cannot without assistance. He calls pathetically for help rising from the ground, which apparently represents despair in a manner similar to that of the forest floor in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter's forest sequence of chapters.

Pozzo tries to end the despair by telling Estragon to jolt the rope that is still around Lucky's neck. But Pozzo forgets that Lucky will react differently because, ignoring the vast differences between his own roped-in sadomasochistic relationship with Lucky and Estragon's blunt hatred of Lucky. So Estragon kicks Lucky in revenge, and the anger endemic in this action fails to achieve an upward result. Estragon's and Lucky's collective pathetic impotence soon ends, however, as Pozzo decides to once again dominate Lucky in the familiar manner. The loving belligerence resumes as Pozzo screams "Enough! Up pig!" Lucky soon gets up, since his normal condition (of being dominated by Pozzo) has been restored and he no longer must feel somehow equal to his master. Although the length of the rope is not literally changed, there is clearly an equilibrium length which must separate Pozzo from Lucky figuratively in order for their relationship to proceed naturally; any longer or shorter and there would not be the proper amount of domination and submission.

But is the despair found on the ground any different from the surrounding misery that is omnipresent in the lives of Vladimir and Estragon? In a way, it is, for there is a terminus to the despair of the ground: Pozzo and Lucky eventually get back on their feet. But, back on their feet, they reenter the surrounding, omnipresent misery. In being upright once again, there thus is a concurrent pleasure (in being away from the despair of the ground) and misery (in their omnipresent surroundings), further underscoring Pozzo's and Lucky's sadomasochistic desires.

Vladimir and Estragon have a similar relationship in many ways, for there is a certain amount of submission and domination in their interactions with one another. The submission and domination, however, is less consistent and less rigidly defined than it is for Pozzo and Lucky. But when the two principal characters seek to play a game, Vladimir suggests they "play at Pozzo and Lucky" [p47], a game that requires them to abuse one another for amusement. But Vladimir asks Estragon to play Pozzo and dominate him, a situation that diverges from Vladimir's seemingly normal assertiveness in their relationship. Overall, their relationship is one of misplaced dominance, where Vladimir is generally the stronger of the two, but he clearly wishes he were not.

As yet another way to pass the time, Vladimir and Estragon also consider suicide, by hanging with a rope. The rope that they would hang themselves with, however, is not the rope that ties their relationship together; their binding rope is figuratively present throughout the entire play and yet they cannot find a rope suitable for hanging themselves. The topic of suicide first arises in a fit of boredom, as the two friends search for ways to speed up the passage of time while they wait for Godot:
The erection, the ejaculation, and even the death itself would be something at variance from the monotony of their everyday waiting and would therefore help speed up the passage of time. But never do Vladimir and Estragon contemplate suicide in a realistic context, where they can see it as an act that would inevitably prevent them from meeting Godot (at least in the literal interpretation that he is human). Suicide for them, therefore, is just another diversion, perhaps a titillating autoerotic fantasy, but a diversion nonetheless, whose consequences they do not bother to or cannot fathom.

It impossible, however, for the two to kill themselves. They first realize that the only tree in their world, a weeping willow, will not support Vladimir's weight on the noose and therefore will not break his neck. The second day, Vladimir and Estragon cannot hang themselves because they do not have the requisite piece of rope. By the second day, however, they have forgotten that they cannot hang themselves from the only available tree, and therefore their complaints about the lack of a suitable piece of rope (and their attempts to substitute it with a belt of cord) are unnecessary. Thus, it seems that Vladimir and Estragon are merely using suicide as a topic for conversation, using the mere thought of an autoerotic death - one in which there is pleasure in sadness or pain, again, in a masochistic outlook - as an inherently pleasing ponder. Estragon says explicitly on the subject, "Don't let's do anything. It's safer." [p12.5]

How would suicide for Vladimir and Estragon be at all unsafe? If they are living a virtual death, then dying will be nothing but more of the same. But, if they are merely living an extraordinarily mundane and pathetic life, then death, particularly pleasant death, will be the exclamation point that relieves them of their boredom with life. And are these two possibilities all that different? It seems that Estragon gives credence to the former when he says "everything's dead but the tree" [p59.5], but, regardless, it makes no difference; for, since neither possibility can be any more unpleasant than life and one is far preferable to life's incessant boredom, it follows that the rope should be used; suicide should be attempted as the logical conclusion. Perhaps this is why the willow grows five new leaves and starts to weep - because its weak boughs prevent it from fulfilling the cries of the audience to allow the characters to kill themselves. And so, from one perspective, Vladimir and Estragon are roped to the willow and its potential for suicide while they are also being kept at rope's length from the potential for this achievement.

Vladimir and Estragon's sad situation of waiting endlessly for the mysterious Godot is another form of inescapable frustration. Vladimir, typically certain of his words while questioning their veracity upon the slightest prodding, denies Estragon's suggestion that they are tied to Godot. "To Godot? Tied to Godot! What an idea! No question of it. (Pause.) For the moment." [p14.5] There is, of course, a figurative rope that ties them to Godot, though Vladimir refuses to admit this. Even Pozzo recognizes that Godot "has your future in his hands . . . (pause) . . . at least your immediate future." [p19.5] Interestingly, both Pozzo and Vladimir seems to believe that their view on Godot is only temporal; from characters who have no memory and at least an uncertain understanding of time, a vague foresight of changes to come illustrates their confusion with the character of Godot. Because the nature of Godot is at best unclear, it is impossible to determine the exact arrangement of Vladimir's and Estragon's relationship to him. Nonetheless, it is clear that this interaction in many ways follows the model already established: By waiting interminably for this most mysterious character without trying to escape the situation, there is a degree of masochism present in Vladimir and Estragon. Though it is not clear that Godot specifically enjoys their boredom and pain, their conversations with the boy make this most likely.

While Vladimir and Estragon are tied to Godot in the typical manner, Godot's rope to them is tied uniquely. Estragon questions what would happen if they left Godot, asking, "And if we dropped him? (Pause.) If we dropped him?" [p59.5] Godot, who the reader has assumed to be in control of his own actions, is apparently hanging, most likely from a noose. And Vladimir and Estragon, the inexorably bored and miserable sadomasochists who are virtually dead, somehow know that they have the power to drop Godot from his noose. It follows from the text that Godot - is he nothing more than Beckett's characterization of God? The similarities become harder and harder to ignore - is dead; as Vladimir says virtually immediately after Estragon's questions, "Everything's dead but the tree." [p59.5] But even though Godot is dead, "he'd punish us" if Vladimir and Estragon cut him free from his noose. Death for Godot, then, is perhaps less literal and more a figurative state in which he cannot or will not attend to Vladimir and Estragon though they wait for him. But if Godot is literally dead, as hanging from a noose should indicate, then he cannot directly cause the punishment. Rather, the punishment will come indirectly as a result of Vladimir and Estragon dropping him. With everything dead but the willow, what other punishment could there be but the death or defacement of the one glimmer of life and hope in an otherwise bleak existence - the tree. Here the tree perhaps represents Godot, Vladimir's and Estragon's only hope. Since Vladimir and Estragon are fundamentally hopeful individuals who would not want to see this last glimmer of hope destroyed, Vladimir's message is that they should not drop Godot. Instead, they should allow him to hang, and they should ignore his death; as humans should ignore Nietzsche's decision that the belief in "God is dead." And this, it seems Beckett hopes, must be the strongest rope of all in Waiting for Godot - the noose surrounding Godot's neck that is held aloft, and out of sight, by hope.

From http://pantheon.cis.yale.edu/~rschon/acad/godot.html

© 1995-6 Roger C Schonfeld

to Samuel Beckett Resources