The Christian Explanation of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot

The Christian Explanation of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot

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The Christian Explanation of Waiting for Godot

"The human predicament described in Beckett's first play is that of man living on the Saturday after the Friday of the crucifixion, and not really knowing if all hope is dead or if the next day will bring the life which has been promised."   --William R. Mueller               

In the five decades since Waiting for Godot's publication, many of the countless attempts to explain the play have relied on some variation of this religious motif proposed by William Mueller. Though Beckett's open text invites the reader to hunt for an interpretation, statements as decisive as this one overstep the search and leave little room for any other possibility. His idea has a compelling textual basis, but its finality violates the spirit of the play. Kenneth Tynan suggests that "Beckett's Waiting for Godot is a dramatic vacuum...It has no plot, no climax, no denouement; no beginning, no middle, and no end." Such an idea forces any analyst of this enigmatic masterpiece to tread lightly and makes definite criticism nearly impossible. Before examining an explanation as conclusive as Mueller's we must acknowledge that we cannot hope to determine "the meaning" of this play. Neither the text nor its author makes a claim to any intrinsic meaning, yet a new meaning is born each time a reader or viewer partakes of the play.

    With such cautions in mind, we can now approach Mueller's religious hypothesis with a safe detachment. The first utterance of Godot phonetically brings God to mind, and evidence throughout the play assures the reader that this path is a valid one to follow. On the most mundane level, Vladimir supports Mueller's premise with his guess at the timeframe of the play: "He said it was Saturday. I think"(10). We discover, however, that even this statement hides beneath the uncertainty as Estragon challenges, "But what Saturday? And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday? Or Monday? Or Friday?" (11). His questioning reasserts that this work defies explanation and reminds us that we are following only one possible solution to an unsolvable problem.


    If we read this drama with the intention of fitting Mueller's theory to the play (or perhaps the play to his theory), a vast number of previously unnoticed interpretive opportunities arise. Though the nondescript tree can be universally symbolic, when viewed from a religious standpoint it conjures an image of Christ's cross.

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The setting places this tree alongside an unspecified country road of which time, location and destination all are irrelevant. Metaphorically, the undefined beginning could easily be Christ's crucifixion and the end his resurrection, but the road also could represent the journey from his birth to his death or from the beginning of the human struggle to its salvation. Before the first word of dialogue ever is spoken, a key paradox explodes open: crucifixion, a seemingly fatal end, instead marks the beginning of Christian faith and possibly the metaphysical beginning of this play. Of course these suppositions may border on the absurd, but still they show just how easily this play can take on a life of its own.


    The opening conversation between Vladimir and Estragon provides the reader with initial proof that the "Godot=God" hypothesis can be an accurate one. Beckett later will tempt the reader to make such an assumption with the unmistakable correlation between Lucky's conception of God as "with white beard" (28) and the child messenger's identical description of Godot. In the first few pages Vladimir immediately steers the conversation towards religion, ambiguously reminding Estragon, "One of the thieves was saved" (8). As he attempts to enlighten his friend on the message of the Bible, Vladimir provides initial evidence of Beckett's views on religion. He explains that only one of the four Gospels portrays the thief as being saved, and yet "everybody"(9) believes this version. Could this be the author's subtle exposition of the religious logic gap? Estragon explicitly states the thought when he says, "People are bloody ignorant apes" (9). Though we must make our judgements carefully, the early pages of the text suggest a cynicism that seems to parallel the religious metaphor throughout the rest of the work.


    Despite Beckett's apparent wariness of religion (or perhaps because he wishes to make folly of it), the question of faith appears frequently in Waiting for Godot. Most obviously, the metaphor stems from the eternal waiting that the Christian faces in his belief that Christ will return but at an unknown time. The play first addresses this central tenet of faith in an early dialogue between Vladimir and Estragon:


Estragon: And if he doesn't come?

Vladimir: We'll come back to-morrow.

Estragon: And then the day after that. (10)


This "coming back and waiting" is the identifying image of Vladimir and Estragon and is one of the points that Beckett parodies most heavily. The satire continues with the exchange, "[Estragon] Don't let's do anything. It's safer. [Vladimir] Let's wait and see what he says" (12). Through these two characters Beckett portrays an entire race frozen by inaction. Over and over religion's immobilizing effect appears: "To Godot? Tied to Godot? What an idea! No question of it...(he pauses) For the moment" (14).


    Alongside this theme of waiting, other religious institutions enter the debate, as when Estragon describes his supplication to Godot as "a kind of prayer"(13). Vladimir asks, "And what did he reply?" (13), to which Estragon must answer, "That he'd see." (13). Again we see the indeterminacy of faith, the endless waiting, the unanswered appeals and "the normal thing"(13). On a less philosophical level there is commentary on two of the Church's most central practices, those of confession and absolution. Early in the play Estragon attempts to share a dream Vladimir and thus gain relief from it, but his partner adamantly refuses to hear him. The opening pages even parody the idea of holy solemnity and sanctity when Vladimir says, "You'd make me laugh if it wasn't prohibited" (13).


    Examples of the play's mockeries of religion abound, but some of the less satirical religious allusions also deserve notice. The scene in which Vladimir feeds Estragon on only scraps of food and tells him, "Make it last, that's the end of them"(14) is strikingly reminiscent of the moment in each of the four Gospels when Jesus feeds a crowd of five thousand on just five loafs and two fishes. In the debate over the appearance of the tree, Estragon insists, "Looks to me more like a bush" (10), thus invoking Exodus' picture of Moses on Mount Sinai. Several religious references also appear during the first encounter with Pozzo, including the words "crucify" (23), "angel" (23) and "Adam" (25). Though most of these ideas are unrelated, the overall tone that they create compels the reader to apply the rest of the story to a religious mold.


    Turning the consideration towards Pozzo next brings light to the significance of messengers in this play. In his first appearance Pozzo enters with all the embellishments of a false prophet and initially Estragon and Vladimir even believe that it is Godot who has come. With prophetic confidence Pozzo deems himself "made in God's image" (15) and has the company of an ardent follower--more accurately, though, this follower is somewhat of a subjugee. In Lucky's domination by Pozzo we get the idea of entrapment, suggested by Pozzo himself when he says, "The Net. He thinks he's entangled in a net" (27). In one respect this puns on the message in Matthew 4 of "becoming fishers of men," but it also provides a critique of the oppressiveness of religion. Pozzo whips Lucky, burdens him with sandbags, leads him by a rope and tells him when to act. At the extreme, Lucky can speak only when Pozzo gives him his hat and allows him to. When pretending to "play Lucky" Vladimir and Estragon bring this enslavement to greater light, saying, "Curse me!...Tell me to think...Tell me to dance" (47). If Pozzo can be linked with some religious element, could we be looking at Beckett's view of the controlling nature of the church? We must admit that Lucky seems to want or even need the domination, but couldn't this in itself add more strength to such an argument?


    The importance of messengers does not simply end with Pozzo and Lucky. Godot sends the Boy much as Christ arrives as his father's messenger, and both meet similar mistreatment at the hands of the people they come to address. The Boy strengthens the allusion by describing the way his master loves him but treats his brother poorly, a relationship reminiscent of that between Cain, Abel and their Lord. (Ironically, the names Cain and Abel both make explicit appearances later in the text). Furthermore, the messenger bolsters the resolve of Vladimir and Estragon with the promise that Godot will one day just as the promise of Christ's coming gives strength to his followers.


    Several Christ-like images accompany the religious symbols and references scattered throughout the play. When Estragon and Vladimir must lift Lucky, one on each side, we see an image much like that of Christ in his dying moments. The same representation appears again when Pozzo suffers in blindness and must be supported by Vladimir and Estragon. Unbelievably enough, Estragon himself makes appearances that seem to mirror Christ's final earthly days. He talks of spending the night in a ditch, an analogy to the cave that housed the Lord after his death. (Perhaps, this thought makes Vladimir's song and its five references to the word "tomb" more significant that it otherwise seems) After discussing the ditch and learning that Estragon has been beaten, Vladimir takes the persona of Veronica and tenderly reaches out to embrace him. He then plays the unpious Peter and claims to have never left his side. In a moment of tenuous friendship, Estragon shortly after suggests that "the best thing would be to kill me, like the other" (40)-the name of this "other" should by now rest firmly in our minds. The final expression of the image comes when Estragon rises from sleep and Pozzo examines the cut on his leg, thus recalling the Apostle's examination of Christ's wounds after his rising.


    If we are correct in constructing this godly metaphor for Godot, we must also include Beckett's apparent attitude of incredulous disbelief towards the absurd attendees. Shortly after he appears for the first time, Pozzo assures Vladimir and Estragon that their wait is well spent: "If I had an appointment with a Godin...Godet...Godot...I'd wait till it was black night before I gave up" (24). As we see at the end of each act, they do exactly this and intend to do the same at the play's close. Yet though they wait so devotedly, neither has an idea of what they are waiting for. Estragon admits, "Personally I wouldn't even know him if I saw him" (16) and later asks, "Are you sure it wasn't him?" (58). Through this comic pair Beckett seems to be mocking the rationality of humans who dedicate themselves towards such an unknown end.


    The author does not portray the act of waiting as ludicrous in itself, but draws attention to the endless irritation and talks of suicide that fill Vladimir's and Estragon's waiting. We see the author's comment on such frustrations in Pozzo's aphorism, "The tears of the world are a constant quantity" (22). Estragon speaks the pain of such interminable waiting in describing, "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful!" (27). Beckett then makes clear note of their aimlessness with comments like, "This is becoming really insignificant"(44) and "We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression that we exist?" (44). As the true existentialist would agree, Beckett portrays Estragon and Vladimir as passing their time with useless trifles and senseless hope. He comments on the despair caused by such empty longing in the exchange began by Vladimir, "He's thinking of the days when he was happy" (55) and ended by Estragon, "We wouldn't know" (55). Beckett offers endless opinion on this existence, allowing Vladimir to describe it as "indescribable. It's like nothing. There's nothing" (55).


    With this elaborate religious framework now conceived, we must examine the cynicism with which Beckett paints such a picture. If Mueller's likening of this book to the interim between crucifixion and resurrection really is accurately, perhaps Beckett's most biting statement is that Sunday closes without any coming. Vladimir probably offers the best summary of the author's views when he utters, "Hope deferred maketh something sick" (8). Throughout the play Beckett gives a glimpse of the interminable waiting that faith demands, shaded by the view that it is unnatural and unwise. He also makes clear notice of the unnatural significances shown to religion. Perhaps this examination itself demonstrates the extremes to which people will go to extract religious significance. Very early in the play Vladimir first introduces the notion of religion as he asks, "Did you ever read the Bible?"(8). Estragon, with all possible profanation, responds, "the Bible...I must have taken a look at it...I remember the maps of the Holy Land. Coloured they were. Very pretty" (8).


    In the end, is there sufficient evidence to draw so heavily on a religious motif in this play? Though Beckett surely intended some degree of meaning to the religious undertones, in making our case we have fallen into one of Beckett's most wily traps. In a play to which there can simultaneously be assigned no meaning and infinite meaning, we have obstinately found an explanation. As Kenneth Tynan suggests, "Waiting for Godot frankly jettisons everything by which we recognize theater." We have tried to apply our methods of dealing with all other drama and in doing so have violated this masterpiece.


Tynan continues, "A play, it asserts and proves, is basically a means of spending two hours in the dark without getting bored." Dark in this case is much more than a physical condition. Though we can tell ourselves that this explanation is correct, we still wander through this text as blindly as ever, probably having provided the soul of Samuel Beckett with a hearty laugh for even attempting to define the undefinable. Though in this analysis we concur with the majority of literary interpretations, we dare not consider ourselves fulfilled-most of this play's vast psychological landscape has yet to be traversed. We must not assume ourselves masters of this work, for in the game of insults played between Vladimir and Estragon, the most defaming title of all is that of "Crritic!"(48).
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