Study Guide

Waiting for Godot Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Samuel Beckett

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Duality

Waiting for Godot is chock-full of pairs. There’s Vladimir and Estragon, the two thieves, the Boy and his brother, Pozzo and Lucky, Cain and Abel, and of course the two acts of the play itself. With these pairs comes the repeated notion of arbitrary, 50/50 chances. One thief is saved and other damned, but for no clear reason. If Vladimir and Estragon try to hang themselves, the bough may or may not break. One man may die, one man may live. Godot may or may not come to save them. In the Bible, Cain’s sacrifice was rejected and Abel’s accepted for no discernible reason. It’s minor, but check out Estragon’s line in Act I: "My left lung is very weak […]. But my right lung is sound as a bell!" More pairs, more arbitrary damnation. Even the tone of Waiting for Godot is filled with duality: two person arguments, back-and-forth questions, disagreement-agreement, questions and (often inadequate) answers.

The Tree

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," as in, "Jesus was nailed to the 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" word 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 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 I and Act II. 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 I to Act II (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 I, when he says, "Hope deferred maketh the something sick, who said that?" 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 II that "things have changed here since yesterday" when, clearly, nothing at all has. Or it could be something else all together.

    Nightfall and the Rising Moon

    While Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot, they also wait for nightfall. For some reason (again, arbitrary and uncertain), they don’t have to wait for him once the night has fallen. The classic interpretation is that night = dark = death. The falling of night is as much a reprieve from daily suffering as death is from the suffering of a lifetime.

    There’s also the issue of the moon, as its appearance in the sky is the real signal that night has come and the men can stop waiting for Godot. Estragon, in one of his "wicked smart" moments, comments the moon is "pale for weariness […] of climbing heaven and gazing on the likes of us." Though the man remembers nothing of yesterday, he does in this moment seem to comprehend the endless repetition of his life. And if the moon is weary just from watching, imagine what that says about the predicament of the men themselves.

    Vladimir’s Song that Never Ends

    Repetition, banality, and a comically macabre subject matter? We think you can handle this one on your own.

    The Carrot

    Carrots and turnips are in one sense just a gag reel for Vladimir and Estragon’s comic bits. But we were interested in their disagreement over the vegetable: "Funny," Estragon comments as he munches, "the more you eat, the worse it gets." Vladimir quickly disagrees, adding that, for him, it’s "just the opposite." On the one hand, this could be a completely meaningless conversation – the point is simply that Vladimir is in disagreement, playing at opposites, adding to the bickering duality between himself and Gogo.

    On the other hand, the carrot could be about the meaning of life. Exclamation point! OK, so the carrot probably isn’t about the meaning of life. But it could be a hint as to the differences between the way Vladimir and Estragon live their lives. Vladimir’s subsequent comment, an addendum to his carrot claim, is that he "get[s] used to the muck as [he goes] along." He resigns himself to banality. Estragon, on the other hand, wearies as time passes – much like the weary moon he observes in Act II. When Pozzo later dishes about smoking, he claims that a second pipe is "never so sweet [as the first]. But it’s sweet just the same." This is a third and distinct answer to the carrot question.

    Lucky’s Dance

    When Lucky is commanded to dance in Act I, Pozzo reveals that he calls his dance "The Net," adding, "He thinks he’s entangled in a net." You would think a guy tied up on a rope leash would feel confined enough. Of course, the image of Lucky writhing in an imaginary net is a lasting image for the play as a whole, and especially for the plight of Vladimir and Estragon, who, as we’ve said before, are confined in a prison – or perhaps a net – of their own imaginations.

    The Hats, The Boots, The Vaporizer

    There seems to be no shortage of inane props in Waiting for Godot, and these three have one thing in common: they are all absurd objects on which the men have developed irrational dependences. Lucky cannot think without his bowler. Pozzo needs his vaporizer to speak. Estragon seems condemned to forever take his boots on and off, as does Vladimir with his hat. This is another great combination of the tragic and the comic; the situation is hilarious for its absurdity, but dismal at the same time.

    Smell

    Estragon is repeatedly repelled by smells in Waiting for Godot. Vladimir stinks of garlic, Lucky smells like who knows what, and Pozzo reeks of a fart in Act II. It seems every time Estragon tries to get close to a person, he is repelled by their odor. It looks to us like smells represent one of the barriers to interpersonal relationships. Estragon isn’t just repelled by odors – he’s repelled by the visceral humanity of those around him. There’s something gritty and base about the odor of a human body, and for Estragon it’s too much to handle.

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