Study Guide

Waiting for Godot Choices

By Samuel Beckett

Choices

Act 1
Vladimir

VLADIMIR
A running sore!
ESTRAGON
It's the rope.
VLADIMIR
It's the rubbing.
ESTRAGON
It's inevitable.
[…]
ESTRAGON
Look at the slobber.
VLADIMIR
It's inevitable.
[…]
VLADIMIR
(looking closer) Looks like a goiter.
ESTRAGON
(ditto) It's not certain.
VLADIMIR
He's panting.
ESTRAGON
It's inevitable. (1.348-365)

The repetition of the line "it’s inevitable" is important here; both men resort to a notion of determinism to explain what is clearly just the result of Pozzo abusing Lucky. Check out the structural symmetry in your text; the line alternates from Estragon to Vladimir and back to Estragon again; it frames these thirteen lines of dialogue and splits them in half (there are six lines in the first half of the exchange and six in the second half). This is not unlike the symmetrical, macro structure of the play’s two acts.

VLADIMIR
Well? What do we do?
ESTRAGON
Don't let's do anything. It's safer. (1.194-5)

Thematically, this is one of the most important lines in the play. What we were saying is, Vladimir and Estragon chalk up their inability to choose to act by claiming that doing nothing at all is safer. If you never act, you can never act wrongly, and if you never choose, you can never choose incorrectly. The problem is, as a very wise and famous person once said, we choose by not choosing. Doing nothing is as unsafe as doing something. Which is bad news for these guys.

VLADIMIR
Two thieves, crucified at the same time as our Saviour. One—
ESTRAGON
Our what?
VLADIMIR
Our Saviour. Two thieves. One is supposed to have been saved and the other . . . (he searches for the contrary of saved) . . . damned. (1.62-64)

Vladimir’s story of the two thieves reminds us of the frequent absence of choice in an uncertain world; neither thief chose to be damned or be saved, but were subject to arbitrary chance.

Estragon

ESTRAGON
An Englishman having drunk a little more than usual proceeds to a brothel. The bawd asks him if he wants a fair one, a dark one or a red-haired one. Go on. (1.162)

OK, we have to explain this joke in order for us to make our argument. Our reference is a very reputable scholar. The rest of the joke (which is cut off by Vladimir’s refusal to tell it) is that the Englishman has to decide whether he wants a blonde, brunette, or red-head. He chooses and is led through one of three doors. He is then faced with two doors and asked to make another choice, this time in regard to the upper half of the female body and size. He chooses and is led through another door. He is then faced with two doors and asked to choose again, this time based on size and the lower half of the female anatomy. At the end, the Englishman walks through a door only to find himself alone and back on the street. The relevance in this theme is that the Englishman makes a series of choices that are essentially arbitrary and cannot ultimately determine the course of his action. Like much of Waiting for Godot.

ESTRAGON
Let's go.
VLADIMIR
We can't.
ESTRAGON
Why not?
VLADIMIR
We're waiting for Godot. (1.91-94)

For Vladimir, the act of waiting for Godot prevents him from choosing any other course of action. Yet his decision to wait for Godot at all is a choice in itself; if he realized the radical personal freedom afforded to him by choice, he could decide to leave the stage.

ESTRAGON
Excuse me, Mister, the bones, you won't be wanting the bones?
Lucky looks long at Estragon.
POZZO
(in raptures) Mister! (Lucky bows his head.) Reply! Do you want them or don't you? (Silence of Lucky. To Estragon.) They're yours. (Estragon makes a dart at the bones, picks them up and begins to gnaw them.) (1.384-5).

Lucky is incapable of making a decision, therefore one is made for him. In a sense, this is what makes Lucky lucky – the burden of responsibility has been taken from his shoulders as a condition of his servitude.

ESTRAGON
What exactly did we ask him [Godot] for?
[…]
VLADIMIR
Oh . . . Nothing very definite.
ESTRAGON
A kind of prayer.
[…]
ESTRAGON
And what did he reply?
VLADIMIR
That he'd see.
ESTRAGON
That he couldn't promise anything.
VLADIMIR
That he'd have to think it over.
[…]
VLADIMIR
Consult his family.
ESTRAGON
His friends.
VLADIMIR
His agents. (1.202-217)

Even Godot, or at least Vladimir’s conception of Godot, is incapable of making independent choices.

ESTRAGON
Then adieu.
POZZO
Adieu.
VLADIMIR
Adieu.
POZZO
Adieu.
Silence. No one moves.
VLADIMIR
Adieu.
POZZO
Adieu.
ESTRAGON
Adieu.
Silence.
[…]
POZZO
I don't seem to be able . . . (long hesitation) . . . to depart.
ESTRAGON
Such is life. (1.670-684)

It is Estragon, NOT Vladimir, who makes the connection here: there is a barrier between a choice to act and the actual action itself.

ESTRAGON
Who believes him?
VLADIMIR
Everybody. It's the only version they know.
ESTRAGON
People are bloody ignorant apes. (1.87-89)

Waiting for Godot argues that people are driven to beliefs by habit, popularity, and ignorance, rather than by conscious choice.

ESTRAGON
We've no rights any more?
Laugh of Vladimir, stifled as before, less the smile.
VLADIMIR
You'd make me laugh if it wasn't prohibited.
ESTRAGON
We've lost our rights?
VLADIMIR
(distinctly) We got rid of them. (1.236-239)

That Vladimir says this last line "distinctly" is interesting; he at this moment appears to understand what has otherwise been beyond his grasp: that the men cannot leave because they consciously decide not to. If they have no rights, it is because they decided to get rid of them. All compulsory restrictions, then, are at the core a self-inflicted choice.

ESTRAGON
I'm going.
He does not move. (1.67)

The ability to choose is rendered useless when a decision cannot be joined with action. This seems constantly to be the case in Waiting for Godot.

Pozzo

POZZO
(He looks at the stool.) I'd very much like to sit down, but I don't quite know how to go about it.
ESTRAGON
Could I be of any help?
[…]
If you asked me to sit down.
ESTRAGON
Would that be a help?
POZZO
I fancy so.
ESTRAGON
Here we go. Be seated, Sir, I beg of you.
POZZO
No no, I wouldn't think of it! (Pause. Aside.) Ask me again.
ESTRAGON
Come come, take a seat I beseech you, you'll get pneumonia.
POZZO
You really think so?
ESTRAGON
Why it's absolutely certain.
POZZO
No doubt you are right. (He sits down.) Done it again! (Pause.) Thank you, dear fellow. (1.519-531)

Pozzo, too, requires others to help him act. Again we see that choice does not enable action in this play.

Act 2
Vladimir

VLADIMIR
Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! (Pause. Vehemently.) Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. (2.526)

Vladimir has resolved himself to action, yet still wastes time in the very "idle discourse" he intends to condemn. His choice (in this case, to act) is negated by the very process of making that choice.

VLADIMIR
We have to come back tomorrow.
ESTRAGON
What for?
VLADIMIR
To wait for Godot. (2.841-3)

Vladimir finds himself once again condemned to wait for Godot, but he fails to realize that – just moments before – he made a choice to set up another "appointment." Through his apparently routine conversations with the Boy, Vladimir in fact condemns himself to a lifetime of waiting for Godot.

VLADIMIR
We'll hang ourselves tomorrow. (Pause.) Unless Godot comes.
ESTRAGON
And if he comes?
VLADIMIR
We'll be saved. (2.877-9)

Vladimir removes himself from the responsibility of choice by hinging his fate on the action of another – Godot. This way, he isn’t responsible for choice. It’s a lot like flipping a coin to decide whether to major in English or Math (as if that’s a tough one).

Estragon

ESTRAGON
Suppose we got up to begin with?
VLADIMIR
No harm trying.
They get up.
ESTRAGON
Child's play.
VLADIMIR
Simple question of will-power.
ESTRAGON
And now?
POZZO
Help! (2.634-9)

Here we see a fundamental difference between Pozzo and the two men Vladimir and Estragon. The latter are able to act, albeit after deliberation, but Pozzo remains helpless until others either tell him what to do or physically do it for him.

ESTRAGON
(having tried in vain to work it out) I'm tired! (Pause.) Let's go.
VLADIMIR
We can't.
ESTRAGON
Why not?
VLADIMIR
We're waiting for Godot.
ESTRAGON
Ah! (Pause. Despairing.) What'll we do, what'll we do! (2.263-264)

This excuse for passivity (waiting for Godot) is as much a problem in Act II as it is in Act I.

ESTRAGON
Tell me what to do.
VLADIMIR
There's nothing to do.
ESTRAGON
You go and stand there. (2.390-2)

The men, unable to make choices for themselves, resort to making choices for each other – perhaps because they find it "safer" than deciding action that holds personal repercussions.

ESTRAGON
For me it's over and done with, no matter what happens. (2.13)

Estragon takes a determinist viewpoint and thus denies himself the ability to choose.