Time and Modernism in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot"

Essay, 2013

9 Pages, Grade: 73


Q.Time was of great importance to modernist authors. How does this preoccupation emerge in their prose, poetry and/or drama?

At the turn of the 20th century, a crisis in Enlightenment humanism had began to emerge; from the ashes of a dying romantic era, a cultural revolution known as the modernist movement arose as ‘a progressive force promising to liberate humankind from ignorance and irrationality’ (Taket and White, p. 869). Weary from the weak, unchanging patterns of Victorian writing, a collection of writers sought to break away from pre-existing ‘dead-end’ methods of creating literature by exploring new styles which were expressed in their prose and poetic works. Placing a greater emphasis upon experimentation, modernist writers took a great interest in purposely disorientating their readership with fragmentation and elements of the absurd. A conscious experimentation with language to express both its powers and limitations became apparent components in a vast body of modern literature. Whilst the previous era embodied a strong connection to nature in the belief this relationship was crucial for man’s development as an individual, modern writers displayed little interest towards the natural world. Instead, an established vein of modern thought developed that progress as an individual was dependent upon directing the eye inward.

One particular modernist who became fascinated with the idea of the individual and perception was to be the Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett. A key piece of his work which has been heralded as a defining piece of modernist literature is his abstract play, Waiting for Godot. Frequently noted for its minimalist style, Beckett’s absurdist play has invited a multiplicity of possible interpretations. Whilst Godot does technically still reside in the ‘modern’ bracket of literature, elements of a postmodern nature can also be subtly detected within Beckett’s work - the characters of Vladimir and Estragon for example, have been noted to resemble the tragic comedic figures Laurel and Hardy, as their methods of ‘passing the time’ act as a pastiche to classic American Vaudeville routines (Kalb, p.24). The play thus appears to swing between both modern and postmodern attitudes to form a wholly complex and unique piece of work.

Within Beckett’s play, a palette of primarily modern features can be identified as the two primary protagonists await the arrival of an absent character named ‘Godot.’ Awaiting this absent person, Vladimir and Estragon perform an array of activities to pass the time, from silly things such as playing games and swapping hats, to darker matters such as contemplating suicide. The serious matters within the play are treated with the same gravity as the trivial; this dissolution between the serious and the comic earns the plays title as a ‘tragicomedy in two parts’ (Faber, p.620) and is a feature distinguishable in a number of Beckett’s other works (Beckett’s 1965 Film for example, uses a comic figure in the form of Buster Keaton to highlight the tragic nature of the protagonist ‘O’ as he tries to escape his own self-perception). As highlighted in the production title, the theme of ‘waiting’ provides the core of the play, as time becomes the underlying force which propels the production forward; that is, if the play is to move forward at all. Beckett’s bizarre piece explores the concept of time and its effects upon the protagonists involved.

Discussing the subject matter of time, Henri Bergson asserts in his treatise Duration and Simultaneity that ‘no question has been more neglected by philosophers than that of time; and yet, they all agree in declaring it of capital importance’ (Bergson, xxviii). Bergson’s theory of time is rooted in the belief that to approach the subject regarding it as ‘an absolute, objective phenomenon’ is a fallacy, as it fails to capture its ‘true essence’ (Bergson, DAS, p.vi). In The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics, he accounts for the scientific misrepresentation of time and the limitations it has been given; rather than addressing the subject of time as a metaphysical issue, the french philosopher critiques the way it has become rationalized into a ‘succession of points and instants’ within the faculty of physics (Bergson, AITM, p.12). Upon a first reading, it may that these particular notes have very little to do with modernism, let alone to do with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. However, several features within the play would appear to suggest a turn away from previous Newtonian concepts of time and instead follow Bergson’s position that time is a more complex issue which simply cannot be rationalised by science.

If one to were assess and breakdown the physical components of Waiting forGodot, it can be seen that it functions with a series of duplicates and ‘mirrors’. James Acheson makes this mirroring connection in his essay, The Shape of Ideas (Acheson, p.115) , but it is simple enough for the audience to pick out these details for his or herself: the play is split into two acts and consists of two major protagonists. Awaiting the title character, these two come into contact with another pair of characters who also find themselves ‘tied together’ in this absurd world. The theme of duplicity is not solely confined to exploration within the characters however, but also within time. In Bergson’s treatise Time and Free Will, he introduces a notion known as duration (durée) and argues of two possible conceptions of this. Whilst the first concept of time corresponds with the idea of space, the latter Bergson accounts is encountered when ‘consciousness refrains from separating its current state from previous states’ (quoted in Bergson, DAS, pvii). This struggle to separate current states from previous ones can be identified within Beckett’s production in the form of memory, as the past struggles to isolate itself from the present.

The primary figures within the play display on a number of occasions a poor recollection of the past. In Act I, Estragon questions Vladimir about what they were doing the previous day; although Vladimir insists that they were doing something besides waiting for Godot, he cannot verify what it was or where it took place. Their attempts to reconstruct a basic idea of the past and regain some sense of time are feeble and leave them disorientated in a present where they are not even fully aware which day it is: ‘...And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday? [Pause.] Or Monday? [Pause.] Or Friday?’ (WFG, p.7). In Concerning the Nature of Time, Bergson states that ‘without an elementary memory that connects two moments’, there can only be one or the other and ‘no before or after, no succession, no time’ (Bergson, DAS, p.33). With this in mind, it could be suggested that the failure of memory within Waiting for Godot equates to the seeming lack of progression within the play; if the characters cannot successfully recall the past, how can time then progress towards a future? Unable to confirm the relationship between the past and present, the role of memory could thus be established to be of grand importance as it effectively keeps the play in a state of arrested development. A struggle to remember may also be remarked to tie in with the unstable nature of identity within the play, as Estragon fails to identify his own boots the following day. His inability to identify objects which are supposed to define himself could be used to represent Estragon’s failure to affirm his own identity in the world of the play and may be a reason why the two characters find it so difficult to part further on.

As the play progresses, time becomes an issue of further complexity.

This complex relationship between time and Waiting for Godot is prominently marked by a variety of changes which appear to miraculously take place overnight; although Beckett’s Act II directions mark ‘Next Day. Same Time. Same Place’, the tree which appeared to be dead in the first act now bears several leaves. Pozzo, the character they come into contact along with his slave Lucky in Act I, has also inexplicably gone blind when he returns to the same location the next day. When Vladimir questions this bizarre occurrence, Pozzo angrily replies ‘Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind’ (WFG, p.82). He is unable to confirm the relationship to Vladimir between time and his unfortunate predicament. Neither of these two events are able to be successfully traced back onto a stable and linear time scale, helping the play to move into a modern territory of literature as it breaks away from a pre-modern Newtonian understanding of time and duration.

A key reason why time has been remarked to be an interesting component in Beckett’s play is due to its effect upon the characters; rather than stabilizing the protagonists’ experiences within the world, it effectively erodes it. Eugene Webb asserts that part of the reason Waiting for Godot is regarded as a strong example of modern literature is due to Beckett’s breakdown of time. As it is regularly regarded as a stable pattern which both shapes individual experience and keeps it on track, to see time fragment is a disturbing notion (Webb, p.35). The character of Pozzo in the first act provides the play’s only real physical attachment to a classical concept of time; upon meeting Vladimir and Estragon in Act I, he has possession of a watch and a schedule which he uses to form a stable pattern within his daily existence. He becomes discomforted by Vladimir’s remark that ‘time has stopped’ and speaks personally to his watch saying, ‘Don’t you believe it, Sir, don’t you believe it... Whatever you like, but not that’ (WFG, p.29). To Pozzo, the very possibility of losing a continuous pattern of time is a matter which is incomprehensible; yet one which he will have to adapt to when he does lose his watch. This devastating loss for Pozzo unravels his method of understanding, as the loss of the watch is symbolic for the loss of time and Pozzo’s method of comprehension within the play. With Act I foreshadowing a disintegration of time, Act II follows by allowing the notion of time to collapse completely. The following day, Vladimir agitatedly searches for Estragon who appears to have disappeared; during this brief absence, Vladimir is able to pass the time by reciting a song to the audience. Upon the surface, this song could appear to be just another of the character’s silly tasks to pass the time but upon closer inspection it displays a greater symbolic purpose. The song travels around in circles, ending awkwardly before being repeated again by Vladimir. Beckett’s stage directions indicate [He stops, broods, resumes] when Vladimir reaches ‘And dug the dog a tomb’ (WFG, p.48). The song acts as an allegory for the entire production; the repetition of language mirrors the repetition of events. Similar to the fate of the dog in the song, these events are remarked by Webb to be travelling towards one eternal event: death.


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Time and Modernism in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot"
University of Strathclyde
English Literature
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This essay is about following question: "Time was of great importance to modernist authors. How does this preoccupation emerge in their prose, poetry and/or drama?"
Modernism, Beckett, Absurdism
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Lindsey McIntosh (Author), 2013, Time and Modernism in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/358717


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