The omnipresent emptiness in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot"

Bachelor Thesis, 2008
39 Pages, Grade: 1,6



1. Introduction

2. The Philosophical Background of the Term ‘Emptiness’
2.1 Nihilism
2.2 The Absurd
2.3 Sartre’s Existentialism

3. Emptiness in Waiting for Godot

4. Attempts to Escape from the Inner Emptiness
4.1 Plays
4.2 Christianity
4.3 Godot
4.4 Suicide

5. Reasons for the Failure of the Attempts
5.1 No Permanent Escape
5.2 The Meaninglessness of Faith
5.3 The Non-appearance of Godot
5.4 The Ineffectiveness of Suicide

6. Consequences

7. Conclusion

8. References

1. Introduction

Incomprehension and confusion are common reactions to the plays of Samuel Beckett. The effort of the audience to extract an overall meaning from the plot mostly fails. This is due to the fact that on the stage, all concepts on which we usually rely collapse; they lose their meaning. Among them are for instance “the belief in God, in the unity of the world, [and] in the knowability of experience” (Connor, 3). The audience is no longer able to revert to familiar experiences in order to establish an interpretation. The result is inner emptiness.

According to Beckett and the other writers of the so-called Theatre of the Absurd , inner emptiness is a basic experience of everyday life. Against the background of the events of the Second World War, they believe that our world is characterised by dissolution (cf. Esslin 1991, 43). The concepts in which we believe have merely become illusions. We cling to them in order to avoid the truth: we are left alone in an empty world.

Beckett shares this opinion with several philosophical areas. Nevertheless, he is clearly no philosopher. Beckett himself emphasises that “he never understood the distinction between being and existence” (P. J. Murphy quoted in Barfield, 155). However, this does not seem to be entirely true since he includes these terms as well as the philosophical problem of the inner emptiness in his work. Yet, unlike Sartre and Camus, Beckett does not present a solution to this problem (cf. Cormier Pallister, 3f). Nonetheless, Martin Esslin states that philosophical problems are in general better expressed by the plays of the Theatre of the Absurd than by the plays or novels of Sartre and Camus. In contrast to the latter, the Theatre of the Absurd does not only illustrate emptiness in the content of the plot, but also in the form of the play itself, which differs considerably from all theatrical conventions (cf. Esslin 1968, 24).

The aim of this thesis is to demonstrate that emptiness is, indeed, a central theme of Samuel Beckett’s plays. I will exemplarily analyse Waiting for Godot and especially dwell on Vladimir’s and Estragon’s attempts to escape from the inner emptiness. Why do they fail? In order to answer this question, I will first explain the terms ‘inner’ and ‘outer emptiness’ and place them into the context of philosophy. Then, I will briefly illustrate the general emptiness in the play. Afterwards, the attempts of Vladimir and Estragon to escape from it as well as the reasons for their failure will be analysed in chapter 4 and 5. Finally, I will present the consequences of this failure for the characters and for the audience.

2. The Philosophical Background of the Term ‘Emptiness’

Philosophy has already been dealing with the phenomenon of emptiness for a long time. There are two kinds of emptiness: the inner and the outer emptiness. We usually refer to the outer emptiness. It is the emptiness of space and, in the case of the theatre, the emptiness of the stage. Inner emptiness, on the other hand, originates in human beings rather than in their surroundings. Individuals are no longer able to make sense of their own existence and the universe. They are fraught with inner emptiness, that is they realise the meaninglessness of life.

These two forms of emptiness are closely linked to the philosophical terms of ‘existence’ and ‘essence.’ We only care for existence if something is missing or might be missing, in other words if there is non-existence or emptiness (cf. Kuhn, 19f). Thus, only emptiness leads philosophers to the preoccupation with existence and essence. Existence is the concrete being there , which Heidegger calls Dasein (cf. Jaroszewski, 18). Kierkegaard was the first philosopher who used the word existence in this sense (cf. Wahl, 6). Yet, if something does not exist, there is outer emptiness. Therefore, we can record that outer emptiness is the opposite of existence. In accordance to that, inner emptiness is the opposite of essence, which refers to the nature of human beings. There is essence if our lives have a meaning, if we are able to find a reason for our existence. If this is not the case, there is no essence but inner emptiness.

According to Heidegger and the existentialists, we are thrown into the world without any reason. Consequently, we exist without having an essence; our existence is contingent.

Wir sind hineingeworfen in diese Welt, ohne einen Grund dafür zu sehen! Und das ist eine der fundamentalen Behauptungen dieser Existenzphilosophie: wir sind, ohne einen Grund für unsere Existenz zu finden, wir sind Existenz ohne Essenz […]! (Wahl, 22).

Although we are at first in a state of inner emptiness, it is not fully impossible to create essence at all. There are several philosophical areas which deal with this problem and try to find a solution to it.

2.1 Nihilism

Nihilism acts on the assumption that “life is not worth living” (Glicksberg, 96). This is the logical conclusion from the notion that we exist without a reason. However, Nihilism has not always been this pessimistic. It used to centre on the idea that we are totally free, which means that nothing is predetermined (cf. Schmitz, 6). Friedrich Nietzsche, finally, changed the focus by declaring that God was dead and that we were left on our own (cf. Nietzsche, 105). Thus, he established the present understanding of Nihilism, whose origin lies in the negation of faith and of other concepts which try to create meaning.

For Nietzsche, nihilism as a psychological state is attained when we realize that the categories by means of which we had tried to give meaning to the universe are meaningless. This does not at all mean that the universe is meaningless […] (Critchley, 8).

Nietzsche emphasises that it is not the universe itself which is meaningless, but rather our existence in the universe. Categories which are supposed to give meaning to our lives are not able to perform this task.

Yet, there must be a possibility to overcome the inner emptiness. Nietzsche proposes the following: “We […] require new categories and new values that will permit us to endure the world of becoming” (Critchley, 8). His suggestion seems to be logical and at the same time easy to accomplish. There is only one problem: Who is in charge of determining these new values? In practice, the strongest will probably adopt this task. Thus, values are not determined according to the will of the majority of people, but rather according to the will of a few powerful individuals. This is, in fact, a legitimation of fascism, and it has indeed been used as such by the Nazi regime (cf. Arendt, 91). However, Nietzsche by no means suggested this interpretation. His intention was merely to show a way out of the inner emptiness.

2.2 The Absurd

Albert Camus is another famous philosopher who deals with the inner emptiness or, as he calls it, ‘the absurd.’ According to him, the feeling of absurdity is an inner conflict between man and his life. “[L]e divorce entre l’homme et sa vie, l’acteur et son décor, c’est proprement le sentiment de l’absurdité” (Camus, 18). Meursault, the protagonist of his novel The Stranger, discovers this discrepancy:

Time is an illusion. Death marks the end of the human story. The protagonist is unable to derive any meaning form the universe. He has come to the realization that success, courage, sacrifice, devotion to duty are meaningless terms. All men are sentenced to die: therefore life is unutterably absurd (Glicksberg, 201).

The identification of absurdity logically adds up to suicide. If life has no meaning at all, why should we carry on suffering? Camus claims, however, that suicide is a false reaction; instead, he advocates revolt. We are supposed to rebel against absurdity rather than to give in.

Instead of passive renunciation, the first consequence of the meaninglessness of life, in Camus’s view, is revolt or defiance. This spirit of revolt also militates against suicide, meaning that for Camus life is worth living despite its absurdity (Crosby, 34).

In his interpretation of the myth of Sisyphus, Camus explains why he regards life worth living after all. According to the Greek mythology, the gods have condemned Sisyphus to roll a heavy stone up a hill. Every time he reaches the summit, the stone rolls down again (cf. Camus, 163). The reason for this punishment is not entirely clear. Some people say that Sisyphus revealed the secrets of the gods. Others claim that he wanted to test his wife by telling her to throw his dead body on the market place instead of burying him. When she actually followed his demand, he was furious and asked the gods if he could return to earth in order to punish her. Seeing the beautiful world again, Sisyphus, however, was not willing to return to the Hades afterwards. The gods had to force him to come back, and they punished him for his behaviour by letting him endlessly roll a stone up a hill (cf. Camus, 164).

One might say that there is nothing worse than having to do this eternal work. Although there are parallels to our absurd life, we are at least unconscious of our misery most of the time whereas Sisyphus is aware of his fate and also reminded of it every time he walks down the hill again (cf. Camus, 165f). Nevertheless, Camus disagrees with our negative perception of Sisyphus’s work. He states that Sisyphus is not at all unhappy.

Chacun des grains de cette pierre, chaque éclat minéral de cette montagne pleine de nuit, à lui seul, forme un monde. La lutte elle- même vers les sommets suffit à remplir un coeur d’homme. Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux (Camus, 168).

The reason for his happiness lies in his revolt. By repeatedly starting all over again, he proves that he is stronger than absurdity. By means of the revolt, he has a duty and, thus, a meaning in his life.

2.3 Sartre’s Existentialism

Existentialism is a philosophical area which has become popular due to Jean-Paul Sartre. It is based on the existential philosophy, whose most famous representative is Martin Heidegger. He is actually engaged in ontology but in this context, he also deals with the problem of existence (cf. Wahl, 19). In addition to Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre is also largely influenced by Husserl (cf. Wahl, 41).

As the term ‘existence’ is already inherent in existentialism, we can conclude that existence and with it essence play a vital role for this philosophical area. Yet, the question is how they relate to each other. Although existentialists often display highly different approaches, all existential atheists act on the same assumption: “What they have in common is simply the fact that they believe that existence comes before essence – or, if you will, that we must begin from the subjective” (Sartre 1964, 289; emphasis by Jean-Paul Sartre). This means that human beings first exist, in the sense of being there . Only afterwards, their nature is defined. In this respect, they differ from things. Thus, the need for something which is able to cut paper led, for instance, to the invention of the scissor. Accordingly, the essence of the scissor (to cut paper) precedes its existence. This is the difference between a scissor and a human being. Sartre even gives an explanation for this phenomenon.

Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man or, as Heidegger has it, the human reality (Sartre 1964, 290).

Now, we are back at Heidegger’s ‘thrownness.’ Human beings are born without having an essence. At first, our reaction to this absurdity is a feeling of abandonment. Man becomes aware of the fact that he is left alone in this world. There is no God who gives him shelter and guides him through his life (cf. Sartre 1964, 294). This “triggers the reaction Sartre describes as nausea. The individual is thrust at birth into a world in which he feels estranged” (Glicksberg, 212).

After a certain time, we realise, however, that our thrownness does also have a positive effect. If there is no one who determines our lives, we are totally free. According to Sartre, the only limitations of this freedom are the general human condition, the particular situation, other human beings and death.

The general human condition is our duty to work and to die (cf. Sartre 1964, 303). It is without any doubt a limitation to our freedom. Furthermore, the particular situation in which we are located may restrict us because it is independent. However, we still have the possibility to choose which attitude we adopt towards the situation (cf. Jaroszewski, 43). Thus, although we cannot determine the situation itself, we are able to determine its significance for us.

Another limitation of our freedom are other people. Since man is a social being, he is dependent on others.

He recognises that he cannot be anything […] unless others recognise him as such. I cannot obtain any truth whatsoever about myself, except through the mediation of another. […] Thus, at once, we find ourselves in a world which is, let us say, that of ‘inter- subjectivity’ (Sartre 1964, 303).

The other may become perilous regarding my freedom. He or she tries to force his or her perspective onto me and, thereby, attempts to turn me into an object. One instrument which is applied in order to achieve this is the gaze. By looking at me, the other gains power over me. There are three attitudes towards the other which try to

prevent this: love, language and masochism. Unfortunately, they are all ineffective (cf. Treiber, 141f).

Death is the last limitation of our freedom. Far from being a salvation from the absurdity, it deprives us of our power to give meaning to our lives. “Death is not one of my possibilities because, logically speaking, I can do nothing with my own death when it has occured [sic!]” (Crosby, 71; emphasis by Donald A. Crosby).

This small amount of limitations to our freedom seems to be acceptable. Yet, the almost complete freedom has a reverse. We are not only allowed to choose our actions, we must choose them in order to give meaning to our lives.

We are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does (Sartre 1964, 295).

The result is that man is what he does. Only by acting, he defines his meaning, his essence. However, man is not only responsible for himself but also for the others. This is closely linked to the fact that we have to choose before we are able to act. There are always several possibilities, and we have to select the one which is best for us. Even if we do not choose one of them, to choose nothing is still a choice. Since the chosen option is the best for the individual, it is also the best for all of the other people.

To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all (Sartre 1964, 291f).

As a consequence of the non-existence of God, there is no one who establishes values for our lives. Unlike Nietzsche, Sartre thinks that every individual creates values by choosing one thing rather than another. Therefore, each individual is responsible for himself and his fellow man: “[L]’homme, étant condamné à être libre, porte le poids du monde tout entier sur ses épaules: il est responsible du monde et de lui-même en tant que manière d’être“ (Sartre 1949, 639).

Faced with such a huge responsibility, man reacts in different ways. Sartre mentions, for instance, anguish and despair (cf. Sartre 1964, 292). Man is in fear of doing something wrong. Moreover, he is desperate because it is clear that there is no

escape from his responsibility. Nevertheless, he tries to find a way to escape. In his philosophical book L’être et le néant , which is his main work and contains his whole theory, Sartre devotes a whole chapter to, what he calls, ‘la mauvaise foi’ or ‘bad faith.’ It is similar to a lie but there is an essential difference:

Certes, pour celui qui pratique la mauvaise foi, il s’agit bien de masquer une vérité déplaisante ou de présenter comme vérité une erreur plaisante. La mauvaise foi a donc en apparence la structure du mensonge. Seulement, ce qui change tout, c’est que, dans la mauvaise foi, c’est à moi-même que je masque la vérité. Ainsi, la dualité du trompeur et du trompé n’existe pas ici. La mauvaise foi implique au contraire par essence l’unité d’une conscience (Sartre 1949, 87; emphasis by Jean-Paul Sartre).

When I lie, this usually implies that I lie to someone else . On the contrary, bad faith means that I lie to myself . I am the liar as well as the one who has been told the lie. Consequently, I may have moments of truth as I am not capable of constantly lying to myself (cf. Sartre 1949, 88). The aim of bad faith is to escape my responsibility and thereby, to escape what I am. “Dans la mauvaise foi, il n’y a pas mensonge cynique, ni préparation savante de concepts trompeurs. Mais l’acte premier de mauvaise foi est pour fuir ce qu’on ne peut pas fuir, pour fuir ce qu’on est“ (Sartre 1949, 111). Sartre condemns this kind of behaviour. He pleads for authenticity and consistency, which means that one should accept one’s responsibility instead of disguising oneself (Sartre 1964, 307).

All of the ideas mentioned above, which appear in L’être et le néant , have already been illustrated before in Sartre’s novel La Nausée . Roquentin, the protagonist, becomes aware of his inner emptiness and the absurdity of the world. This triggers the feelings of abandonment, anguish, despair and above all nausea (cf. Espiau de La Maëstre, 103). By confronting us with this particular example of a man who realises the absurdity of life, Sartre wants to demonstrate the concrete appearance of his theory in reality. Thereby, he intends to give us a better understanding of his ideas, and, at the same time, he adverts to the absurdity in our lives.

Now that we have learned the extent of our responsibility, we might still ask ourselves if there will ever be an end to it. Unfortunately, the answer is no. Sartre does not believe in progress as the situation of man is always the same. “Progress implies amelioration; but man is always the same, facing a situation which is always changing, and choice remains always a choice in the situation” (Sartre 1964, 306).


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The omnipresent emptiness in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot"
University of Mannheim
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Saskia Bachner (Author), 2008, The omnipresent emptiness in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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