In Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett questions the nature of human existence on earth. The argument can be made that Beckett is examining the role of religious belief in society, and how it affects the human condition. Since humans will never know the true state of existence of a god or a higher power, life, it would seem, is a quest to search for an alternate explanation. We find ourselves constantly searching for the meaning of life and self-fulfillment, while subconsciously waiting someone or something to come along and give us an answer. According to Beckett, human existence ultimately equates to waiting for the possibility of salvation from God, and everything else in life is essentially reduced to nothing. These ideas are illustrated in a play where time seems to be irrelevant, nothing of importance ever happens, and the main characters are left waiting for someone who may or may not ever come.
At the beginning of the play, Beckett hints at his proposal to the solution to the human condition. Vladimir tells the ignorant Estragon the story from the Bible of the two thieves that were crucified at the same time as Jesus. Apparently, one of the thieves believed in God, the other did not–the one who believed was saved. In Vladimir’s opinion, this is not that bad a deal: ‘One of the thieves was saved. (Pause.) It’s a reasonable percentage’ (8).
It seems that according to the story, reward or punishment is handed out depending on behavior (or at least belief). Vladimir’s thoughts are somewhat parallel to those of the French philosopher Pascal who rationalized that given the possible outcomes, one is better to bet that God exists. However, as Vladimir continues, Beckett makes an important point in the variations of the four versions of the story: ‘And yet…how is it that of the four Evangelists only one speaks of the thief being saved. The four of them were there–or thereabouts–and only one speaks of a thief being saved’ (9). Therefore, in the Book that many have long considered to hold the solutions to all our problems, there are ‘inconsistencies’. Beckett poses the questions: ‘Is anything really for certain?’; ‘Can assumptions at all be made?’. In a word, he responds: no. And right away, he gives the first evidence of a major theme.
In the same vein, there seems to be some problem with time–which could be viewed as directly related to this overall problem of uncertainty–evident throughout the entire play. The characters (especially poor Estragon) have an especially difficult time remembering events, the days on which events occurred, and the people involved. They do not know if what happened ‘yesterday’ happened, or if it was a dream. They do not know if they are in the right location, or even what day it is. “V: What are you insinuating? That we’ve come to the wrong place? … E: We came here yesterday. V: Ah no, there you’re mistaken. E: What did we do yesterday? V: What did we do yesterday? E: Yes. … V: He said Saturday. (Pause.) I think… E: (very insidious). But what Saturday? And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday? (Pause.) Or Monday (Pause.) Or Friday?” (10-11)
By far the best illustration of loss of significance in the structures found in our world is in Lucky’s speech (28-29). While it is actually pages in length, it is in no way comprehensible; it has no unifying content or evidence of a theme; it has no form and continuously changes topics; it has no punctuation. Theological issues, scientific problems, academia, sports, et cetera–are all evoked, and therefore all become insignificant. Beckett uses both the structure and the content of the speech to demonstrate the deterioration of literally everything in the real world. Here Beckett’s major theme is further illustrated as the speech closely parallels the play as a whole. It is completely filled with everyday activities and concerns; however, when Lucky stops we have not learned anything of real importance and we are left as we were before–confused, hopeless, and still waiting.
Literally, nothing significant happens in the play. Other than a tree the stage is empty, the language used is simple (except for Lucky’s speech), and there are only five cast members. There is a lot of activity (or at least ‘conversation’) but no action, and nothing gets accomplished: ‘Yes, now I remember, yesterday evening we spent blathering about nothing in particular. That’s been going on now for half a century’ (42). They try on boots that appear to have just been left behind; they contemplate hanging themselves (but in the end decide they lack the proper equipment); they worry about if they should eat carrots or turnips. If they should run out of carrots Estragon says he will go find more but just stays where he is.
Vladimir and Estragon do the things they do simply to pass ‘time’ and to attempt to give some sort of meaning to their lives; to de-emphasize the fact that what they are doing, in actuality, is waiting. Vladimir comments that what they do day after day is getting to be ‘really insignificant’. There is nothing else to do however, nothing is any more significant than what they are doing, so they stay. Despite the fact that no one knows what day it is, in spite of the lack of activity, and regardless of what is or is not accomplished, they are doing something. And actually to Vladimir, what they are doing is the only thing that is clear.
“V: Let us do something, while we have the chance! …Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! …What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come…V: Or for night to fall.” (51). Unfortunately, it always appears to be the latter that finds them before Godot ever makes it, which means that the following night they will have to wait again. Vladimir and Estragon themselves have nothing. They are homeless and hungry, they get beat up, and they sleep in ditches. However, despite the arguments and the talk about parting, they do seem to be fairly good friends. They never actually find anything better to do then be with each other. Therefore, I suppose one might argue that although it seems they have nothing, that they actually have each other.
Possibly, but maybe not. I believe together, they form one existent. Vladimir represents the mind: he is the leader, he has the food (but for some reason never eats it), and it is he who always remembers that they are in fact waiting for Godot. Estragon, on the other hand, represents the body: he is just there, he is down to Earth, and for some reason cannot remember anything.
What they actually have is not each other, but conflicts between the two fundamental parts of the self: the ‘conscience’ that feels the most important thing is to keep waiting because nothing seems more significant; and the ‘physical body’ that has trouble remembering the reason they continually sit around and blather about nothing who also thinks it might be better if they parted. Of course, if the two parts of the self were to separate, the existent dies. In the end, belief constitutes one of two choices: we can either wait or die, there is nothing else. “E: I can’t go on like this. V: That’s what you think. E: If we parted? That might be better for us. V: We’ll hang ourselves to-morrow. (Pause.) Unless Godot comes. E: And if he comes? V: We’ll be saved….V: Well? Shall we go? E: Yes, let’s go. They do not move.” (60).
Immediately, given these choices, it seems they apt for the waiting. But just how long can one wait for hope–or salvation–and especially given the fact that possibly that for which they are waiting is partially of their own invention. Godot obviously represents this hope, but never does the spectator learn the details of the absent ‘character.’ How do they know that they are supposed to wait? How do they know where to wait and at what time?
If neither of them has ever seen Godot, where did they get their information? What proof do they have that he will indeed come? That just happens to be the problem. They honestly do not know anything. Everything they know of Godot seems to have either come from their own minds or from ambiguous ‘signs’ such as the boy’s appearance in place of Godot every night. They are just hoping that he will come and give them the solutions to their all problems. Until he comes it seems they will continue with the same routine:
V: Well? What do we do?
E: Don’t let’s do anything. It’s safer.
V: Let’s wait and see what he says.
E: Good idea.
V: Let’s what till we know exactly how we stand. (12)
Given the numerous ‘indirect’ references to the Bible, there are great implications that Beckett is referring to God or salvation through Christ. But the fact does remain, that Beckett’s Godot never shows up. This does not mean that He does not exist, but this continuous waiting is like a silent plea for meaning and answers; the lack of response seems to force hopelessness on all those waiting. Beckett says that life is waiting–waiting for salvation, damnation, or nothing, where everything else, every other human task, is meaningless:
Am I sleeping now? To-morrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of to-day? That with Estragon my friend…I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed…and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be? …We have time to grow old. …But habit is a great deadener. (58)
It is unfortunate that after waiting so long and nothing positive ever happens (besides a few leaves on a tree) that even the persistence of the ‘conscious’ seems to begin to fade as well.
Beckett poses some interesting questions. If all we are doing on Earth is waiting–waiting for answers whose meanings we may never comprehend–is anything that we do significant at all? As humans, it seems that in a sense we do, somewhere in us, realize our condition. However, we try to remain ignorant of it. We look for distractions; we look for something that seems to have meaning just so the absolute absurdity of our life remains masked. We search for answers–answers that may or may not ever come. In our continued waiting nonetheless, it seems our situation continues to become more hopeless.