Symbolism in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot
Written by Samuel Beckett originally in French in 1948, the translated English version was first enacted on stage in 1953. One of the masterpieces of the absurdist tradition, the play is infused with psychological, political and philosophical symbolism. The plot is outwardly quite simple, involving interactions between two friends Estragon and Vladimir as they both wait for another friend named Godot to arrive. Although Godot does not arrive during the course of the play, his anticipation sets up the context for the musings and conversations of Estragon and Vladimir. Author Samuel Beckett creatively exploits this open ended plot structure to ponder over important questions about the human condition. Given that it was published in the aftermath of the Holocaust, it asks deep and compelling questions of the state of human civilization and the nature of our species.
Such utterances from the two lead characters as “to hold the terrible silence at bay”, “Nothing to be done”, “We are saved!”, etc offer profound interpretive scope for the reflective reader. (Beckett, 1956) The most ostensible symbolisms in the play pertain to the existentialist philosophical framework. The first quote alludes to the acute existential crisis shadowing the period after the Second World War. Written as it was in the aftermath of the most devastating war in history, Beckett’s preoccupations with the purpose of human life and how best to go about fulfilling it are in tune with the concerns and sentiments of the time. In this, the play is full of symbolisms of existence and its opposite state death – a pattern found in the works of other post-war intellectuals such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Waiting for Godot is a product of the author’s affectations during the war and hence contains in it psychological and philosophical questions treated in the existentialist framework. It is for this reason that notions such as ‘death’, ‘nothingness’ and momentary crises of human existence are all symbolically expressed.
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The play can also be read with theological symbolisms in mind, especially that of the Christian doctrine. The choice of the name Godot (that contains ‘God’ in it) is perceived by critics to have religious connotations. This claim is vindicated by dialogues in the play that resonate with Christian concepts of salvation, rising from the dead, etc. For example, “We are saved!”, which is frequently uttered by Vladimir or Estragon can be taken as a reference to the notion of salvation. These two characters can also be seen as the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus Christ. Out of their boredom, every now and then Estragon and Vladimir contemplate committing suicide by hanging themselves from the only prominent tree in the setting. This is again a reference to the crucifixion, but albeit in a sense of parody. Vladimir’s casual remark to Estragon in Act I, “Hope deferred maketh the something sick, who said that?” is again a parody of a Christian proverb of the same rhyme – “Hope deferred makes the heart sick; but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” (Beckett, 1956) Hence, the religious symbolism is quite strong, but the tone is one of mockery and not reverence.
Ontological questions are focused upon in the play, with the author giving special treatment to the concept of time, which links this work to another path-breaking existentialist thesis, namely that of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. For example, the deliberate similarity between the first and second acts in the play and elements of repetition seen in them is symbolic of the rhythmic and periodic nature of human existence, with each passing day a mirror of the day gone by and so forth.
Because the play is essentially devoid of a describable plot and narrative, it operates at a very high level of abstraction. At this level, it lends itself to a variety of religious, social and political interpretation and understanding. At the political level, there is a striking allegorical reference to the emergence of the Cold War, with the United States and the Soviet Union being the epicenters of the two opposing domains. The characters of Lucky and Pozzo bring out this implied conflict, as they express historical strains between Britain and Ireland, France and Germany (during the war), etc. For the discerning reader/viewer of the play, Marxist symbolisms open out too, with the two characters representing the capitalists and the workers respectively. Seen from the psychoanalytical framework, one can see expressions of The Ego and The Id as conceived by Freud.
The most profound symbolism seen in the play is that of dualism, which manifests in several forms. The two thieves, the two brothers and the two acts of the play all showcase this dualism. At a broader level, the content of the play reflects universal opposites such as the Yin and Yang, positive and negative charge, matter and anti-matter, life and death, etc. The universal dichotomies of Good and Evil as well as the divide between selfishness and altruism are also given treatment in the play. The other commonly referred to religious symbolism pertains to the hill-top setting of the acts, which is perceived as the equivalent of heaven. And this brings us to another universal dichotomy – namely that of Heaven and Hell.
It is for these multiple layers of meaning and interpretation that Waiting for Godot is considered to be a vital literary contribution in the twentieth century. As the examples pointed above prove, it is a work of high and rich symbolism with broad interpretive scope. By alluding to the most universal and most pressing concerns of the human condition, Waiting for Godot does indeed justify its inclusion in the twentieth century literary canon.
Beckett, S., Waiting for Godot, First published by Faber and Faber (London) in 1988 (original publication in 1956).
Knowlson, J., Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), p. 610.