Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Tree of Life, Tree of Strife
The tree is the only distinct piece of the setting, so we’re pretty sure it matters. (Also, if you check out the painting that inspired Beckett, you’ll see that a big tree features prominently.) Right off the bat you’ve got the biblical stuff: Jesus was crucified on a cross, but that cross is sometimes referred to as a "tree." That Vladimir and Estragon contemplate hanging themselves from the tree is likely a reference to the crucifixion, but it also parodies the religious significance. If Jesus died for the sins of others, Vladimir and Estragon are dying for… nothing. (There’s that pesky "nothing" again. You just can’t get rid of it in this play.)
But you can also think of the two men not as Jesus, but rather as the two thieves crucified along with Jesus. This fits quite nicely with gospel’s tale as Vladimir tells it; one thief is saved and the other damned, so Didi and Gogo are looking at a fifty-fifty chance. (Duality! Again.) The uncertainty that stems from the inconsistency between the four gospels is fitting, too, since Vladimir can’t be certain if Godot is coming to save either one of them. (Uncertainty! Again.) (Repetition! Again.)
There’s more. Vladimir reports that he was told to wait for Godot by the tree. This should be reassuring—it means the men are in the right place. Right? Wrong. As Estragon points out, they’re not sure if this is the right tree. And, come to think of it, they can’t even be sure if this is a tree or not. It kind of looks like a shrub.
Now what we find to be completely baffling is the tree’s random sprouting of leaves in between Act 1 and Act 2. This is regeneration: it is hopeful, it is growth, it is life! And that doesn’t sound anything like Waiting for Godot, especially when you look at how everything else degenerates from Act 1 to Act 2 (we’re thinking in particular of Pozzo’s going blind and Lucky mute, as well as Gogo and Didi’s increasing uncertainty and suffering).
So what gives? Take a look at Vladimir’s line early in Act 1:
(musingly) The last moment . . . (He meditates.) Hope deferred maketh the something sick, who said that? (1.32)
As we’ve mentioned, Vladimir is referring to the biblical proverb that goes a little something like this: "Hope deferred makes the heart sick; but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life" (Proverbs 13:12).
See that? Tree of life. So the tree’s random blooming would suggest that it is something of a tree of life. And, according to the proverb, that means a desire has been fulfilled.
Of course, as far as we can tell, no desires have been fulfilled. At all. This could mean that the proverb is completely without truth and reason, which fits with Godot’s general stance on religion. Then again, the tree’s sprouting leaves could be an ironic symbol pointing out that, far from fulfilled desires, hopes have been deferred yet another day—much like Vladimir’s ironic claim in Act 2 that "things have changed here since yesterday" when, clearly, nothing at all has.
Or it could be something else all together.