Get Your Premium Membership

Is this Beckett’s Message? Godot Arrives Whenever We Help a Fellow Human on the Spot

by Julian Scutts

Is this Beckett’s message? Godot arrives whenever we help a fellow human being on the spot  - without waiting for Godot.

Literary criticism is a highly contentious and bewildering field of intellectual inquiry where proponents of various schools jostle for preeminence. Neo-Marxists, deconstructionists, objectivists, defenders of structuralism and postmodernism claim our undivided attention in furtherance of their version of the gospel truth. Why not simply pay attention to the actual words in the titles and bodies of great literary works including Samuel Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT especially now when some regard for the relevance of literature to the human condition might not be amiss?

  Did Godot Show up after All? It might be questioned whether En attendant Godot was suitable material for the study of symbols in view of the common contention that Samuel Beckett’s dramas negate the very axioms on which the categories of subject, object, coherence and symbolic meaning are based. A symbol may be defined as a recognizable or familiar object that represents something general or abstract. Received symbols of the kind often found in religious or literary traditions are not entirely absent in En Attendant Godot, a notable case being the tree at which Didi and Gogo expect to meet Godot, but in general mundane things with no conventional symbolic significance, hats, boots, rope or a folding chair, acquire the function of metaphors by implications drawn from their context and the progression of events as the drama unravels. The play’s essentially symbolic nature is pointed out explicitly in Act II when Vladimir and Estragon debate whether they should answer Pozzo’s call for help. Vladimir argues that Pozzo’s call is addressed to all humanity, and that in the given situation it is all humanity that Vladimir and Estragon represent. 

“L’appel que nous venons d’entendre, c’est plutôt à l’humanité tout entière qu’il s’adresse. Mais à cet endroit, en ce moment, l’humanité c’est nous, que ça nous plaise ou non. (“The call for help which we have just heard is chiefly addressed to the whole of humanity. But at this place and at this moment, humanity is us, whether we like it or not.”) 

 It is significant that Vladimir emphasizes the “here and now” in the words “à cet endroit, en ce moment," for the sense of immediacy they inculcate runs counter to the implications of the play’s title announcing the theme of waiting interminably for somebody to turn up at some future time. Indeed, in the same scene Estragon uses words that echo the title of the play when asking: 

”Well, then, let’s help him. What are we waiting for?” 

(“Eh bien, aidons-le. Qu’est-ce qu’on attend?”).

This question combines two planes of reality. One concerns the immediate dramatic context, according to which Vladimir and Estragon debate the arguments for and against helping Pozzo. In such terms Vladimir and Estragon have an ulterior motive in helping Pozzo since they wish to secure his support for their plan to make an assault on Lucky while he is asleep. Vladimir, however, argues in favor of helping Pozzo for reasons of a more philosophical nature. As the words: ”We are waiting for Godot” have occurred only eight lines before, it becomes clear that the question “What are we waiting for?” concerns more than the particular reference to Pozzo but to the philosophical and possibly theological questions raised by the play’s very title. It is often the case in Beckett’s writings if not in literature as a whole that the meanings of words are to be ascertained in the light of the words’ immediate context and in a general or absolute sense. If we make a cross-connection between Pozzo and Godot, in what sense can such an identification be made? Pozzo, no less than Vladimir, Estragon and even Lucky, is identified as a representative of all humanity, for just after Vladimir and Estragon teasingly call Pozzo “Cain and Abel," Estragon exclaims “All this is humanity” (“C’est tout l’humanité”). The juncture at which Estragon says that Pozzo and Lucky represent humanity is one at which the latter is shown to be suffering pain and humiliation. Here it is enlightening to compare how the French and English versions of the play apparently diverge in the following lines. 

“Comment osez-vous? C’est honteux! Un si bon maître! Le faire souffrir ainsi.”  

“How dare you! It’s abominable! Such a good master! Crucify him like that!." 

The choice of the word “crucify” has an obvious connection with the execution of Jesus, for Christians the chief symbol of human suffering and reconciliation with God. A further close association between man and God, Pozzo, takes a look at Vladimir and Estragon and mockingly declares that they are “made in God’s image.” 

Few will doubt that the name of “Godot” poses a verbal allusion to “God." As no figure named Godot appears on the stage, many assume that the play reflects the widely held philosophical tenet that the modern secular world no longer finds God or the idea of God relevant to today’s needs. Orthodox religions are commonly regarded as discredited or of peripheral importance. Others have asked what credence can be placed in the notion of Providence or a loving Heavenly Father after the disasters of global war, the Holocaust, impending nuclear destruction and now terrorism. Modern intellectuals typically discern no overruling moral order but only manifestations of absurdity in what they perceive as arbitrary and meaningless sequences of events. Man, according to this analysis, still hankers after the old certainties expressed in the words “God’s in His Heaven and all’s well with the world”; the hope of sustaining this faith in the face of Man’s present dilemmas have also been dashed according to the same outlook. 

There is another way to interpret the play. While the Beckett’s theatre of the absurd undoubtedly reflects the major currents of agnosticism and disillusionment in modern thought. its very ironies might also belie its ostensible negation of certain traditional views of God. We might speak here of a double twist. I have already suggested how a close look at Beckett’s use of words suggests that Godot did turn up in the form of Pozzo, as a symbol of human suffering. By the same token, by not waiting to help another suffering human being, the helper implies that God(ot) is still present in this world as an invisible force. Men and women, according to this analysis should not idly stand by waiting for God to intervene as a deus ex machina but work out the power of God indwelling the best in human nature.