Turning to Post-Modernism While Waiting for Godot

Yes, cheesy title. I just had to.

The Classics Club’s July event is related to Postmodernist literature (link), and incidentally this is my first participation in anything hosted by the Club, apart from the general rules of course.

I happened to have bought Waiting for Godot at the beginning of the month and, finding Beckett among postmodernist authors, decided why not — let’s make sense of the absurd! (Note: this is NOT what he wants you to do! 🙂 )

Samuel Beckett

Delving into Google to get some context on postmodernism as a literary movement, I uncovered enough to make me interested in it, as well as capable of recognizing works belonging to it. Although I still don’t know whether to hyphenate the term.

Postmodernism started as a movement after the Second World War, coming in as a reaction to post-war changes and the “stylistic and ideological limitations of Modernism”. (Info from here) Postmodernist narratives are often characterized by fragmentation, paradox, unreliable narrators, unrealistic plots, games and parodies, paranoia and dark humour. Common stylistic techniques include metafiction, temporal distortion (non-linear timelines), minimalism or maximalism, and magical realism. As opposed to its predecessor modernism which seeks meaning in a chaotic world, postmodernism seeks to reject and mock the principles of modernist literature. As such, postmodernist authors often reject outright meaning in their works, sometimes in favour of multiple meanings or none at all. This way, postmodernism can be described as a parody of modernism.

Waiting for Godot adheres to some of the principles mentioned above. Estragon, known as “Gogo”, and Vladimir, known as “Didi”, seem to be two homeless people who meet up by a barren tree on an equally lackluster landscape. In a way, the play opens with its theme and main message — giving it away from the first stage direction to the first line.

A country road. A tree.
Evening.

Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting. He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again. As before.
Enter Vladimir.
ESTRAGON. [giving up again] Nothing to be done.

This image of Gogo trying to take off his boot without result, trying again and failing, sets up one of the cycles in the play (for it is very cyclical) — repetitive action without fruition. It also serves as a big red warning sign to any reader looking to read his play analytically, searching for meaning and purpose. There may not be any.

Gogo and Didi don’t know what they are doing, except that they are waiting for a man, a creature, a something named Godot, as Didi continually reminds his friend. A lost sense of space and time pervades the play, hinting at its postmodernist roots. Gogo and Didi are confused about their meeting place, they question the tree, assuring themselves they came to the place yesterday but do not recognize it today. Their time-keeping is off too, as Gogo struggles to place the day of the week and is uncertain whether meeting Godot is supposed to take place this evening, last evening or next evening. Then night falls almost too suddenly, even for a fictional piece.

Then there is the abscense of any decisive action. Gogo and Didi (and later the other character Pozzo with his slave Lucky) make constant declarations to move, but no movement follows.

ESTRAGON: Well, shall we go?
VLADIMIR: Yes, let’s go.
[They do not move.]

Apparently that is a key element of the theatre of the absurd. I also think it is a statement on life. All our attempts are futile.

They wait for Godot but they also fear his arrival. The idea of struggle and result keeps popping up within the characters’ relatively simple lines that are laden with meaning.

“Nothing to be done.”

“And I resumed the struggle.”

“No use struggling.”

“The essential doesn’t change.”

That’s just it — Waiting for Godot is challenging in its simplicity. As I sat down to it, with my pen and paper on the ready for some serious quoting and analysing, I was mindboggled by the play’s simplicity! What am I supposed to make of this? It’s too … pointless. Inconsequential.

VLADIMIR: There’s man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet.

AH-HA! That’s the catch. I dropped my pens, my papers, my brains and simply read. Yes, half the time it was nonsense, but it led me to think that Beckett may be telling us just that. Words, words, empty words: life is dilly-dally, nothing comes out of it. (I actually wrote that down as a message of the play, verbatim.)

Summing up the human condition in such a manner, I got really existential. Why are they forgetting everything all the time?

If memory is our only grasp on reality and meaning in a chaotic world, then losing it would mean losing purpose. Gogo and Didi having distorted memory, or none at all, changes the passing of time.

VLADIMIR: That passed the time.
ESTRAGON: It would have passed in any case.
VLADIMIR: Yes, but not so rapidly.

That snappy exhange hints at the fluidity of time in the play, the characters’ interaction with it, but also their inability to record it, make sense of it or use it. This is where, in style of postmodernism, a paradox creeps in. Gogo and Didi are submitting themselves to meaningless activities to pass the time while waiting for Godot, however as they have no means and memory to record the passing of time, all of this business is redundant, and the men are only passing the time so that they can wait more (since, spoiler! Godot will never come).

The play is confusing in Act I, but it gets more so in Act II. By the end, the reader is as lost as the two homeless folks. I was also convinced that Act I was not really the beginning of their story, and Act II by no means the end. They have been, are, and will be waiting for Godot forever.

ESTRAGON: We also find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?

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2 responses to “Turning to Post-Modernism While Waiting for Godot

  1. Great in-depth review of Waiting for Godot. I was lucky enough to see this performed a couple of years ago and it is stunning in its simplicity. There is meaning as long as you want it to be, or there is none.

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