Study Guide

Waiting for Godot Life, Consciousness, and Existence

By Samuel Beckett

Life, Consciousness, and Existence

Act 1
Estragon

ESTRAGON
All the dead voices.
VLADIMIR
They make a noise like wings.
ESTRAGON
Like leaves.
VLADIMIR
Like sand.
ESTRAGON
Like leaves.
[…]
VLADIMIR
What do they say?
ESTRAGON
They talk about their lives.
VLADIMIR
To have lived is not enough for them.
ESTRAGON
They have to talk about it.
VLADIMIR
To be dead is not enough for them.
ESTRAGON
It is not sufficient. (2.98-114)

Vladimir and Estragon project their own dissatisfaction with their lives onto the noises they perceive as "dead voices." To live is insufficient, and so is to die; this leads right into Estragon’s earlier conclusion that to do neither is therefore the safest option. Of course, as the play demonstrates, this too is dissatisfying.

Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting.
He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.
As before.
Enter Vladimir.

ESTRAGON
(giving up again) Nothing to be done.
VLADIMIR
(advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart) I'm beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I've tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven't yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle. (He broods, musing on the struggle.) (1.1-2)

Estragon’s opening lines define the tone of the play and the plight of its players. They also establish the view of the world that Waiting for Godot presents: there is nothing to be done for Estragon and Vladimir, and, perhaps, for the rest of us, too.

ESTRAGON
Fancy that. (He raises what remains of the carrot by the stub of leaf, twirls it before his eyes.) Funny, the more you eat the worse it gets.
VLADIMIR
With me it's just the opposite. (1.278-9)

This is one of the key moments of opposites between Vladimir and Estragon. One finds repetition (in most of existence, not just with regards to the carrot) dulling, and the other finds it exciting.

Vladimir

VLADIMIR
Well? What do we do?
ESTRAGON
Don't let's do anything. It's safer. (1.194-195)

This is the fundamental problem in Waiting for Godot and—if we see the play as an allegory—the fundamental problem of life (which is highly more likely than the notion that the play is about little more than boots and hats). Fear and uncertainty result in inaction.

VLADIMIR
There's man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet. (1.40)

Vladimir starts to do what the audience is perhaps doing as well: derive meaning from the smallest of actions. We search for symbols and metaphors in the absurd objects of Waiting for Godot just as we search for meaning in the dull daily actions of our lives.

VLADIMIR
At last! (Estragon gets up and goes towards Vladimir, a boot in each hand. He puts them down at edge of stage, straightens and contemplates the moon.) What are you doing?
ESTRAGON
Pale for weariness.
VLADIMIR
Eh?
ESTRAGON
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the likes of us.
VLADIMIR
Your boots, what are you doing with your boots? (1.819-23)

While Vladimir can focus only on the boots, Estragon makes one of the play’s most reflective and poetic comments: that the moon is pale with weariness from watching this tiring routine play out below. Though he comes across as the simpleton, Estragon in a way recognizes more than Vladimir the incessant banality of their existence.

VLADIMIR
I get used to the muck as I go along.
[…]
VLADIMIR
Nothing you can do about it.
ESTRAGON
No use struggling.
VLADIMIR
One is what one is.
ESTRAGON
No use wriggling.
VLADIMIR
The essential doesn't change.
ESTRAGON
Nothing to be done. (1.281-290)

This is the second time we hear Estragon’s line "Nothing to be done," the phrase that opened the play. Here, both men have accepted the stagnancy of their situation and abandoned any hope of change or betterment. This becomes not only an excuse for passivity, but a prison of inaction, as neither man can bring himself to break the cycle of waiting for Godot.

Pozzo

POZZO
He's stopped crying. (To Estragon.) You have replaced him as it were. (Lyrically.) The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep, somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh. (He laughs.) Let us not then speak ill of our generation, it is not any unhappier than its predecessors. (Pause.) Let us not speak well of it either. (Pause.) Let us not speak of it at all. (Pause. Judiciously.) It is true the population has increased. (1.461)

Pozzo tries to dismiss any concerns about the misery of the world with the claim that things have always been this way. Stagnancy has become his excuse for inaction, but as we’ve seen with Gogo and Didi, inaction leads to stagnancy. This likely has something to do with the play’s cyclical nature.

POZZO
(having lit his pipe) The second is never so sweet . . . (he takes the pipe out of his mouth, contemplates it) . . . as the first I mean. (He puts the pipe back in his mouth.) But it's sweet just the same. (1.400)

This is Pozzo putting in his two cents to add to Gogo and Didi’s earlier conversation about the carrot. His opinion is something of a middle ground; habit deadens the senses, but there is still something to be enjoyed in the world.

POZZO
But—(hand raised in admonition)—but behind this veil of gentleness and peace, night is charging (vibrantly) and will burst upon us (snaps his fingers) pop! like that! (his inspiration leaves him) just when we least expect it. (Silence. Gloomily.) That's how it is on this b**** of an earth. (1.540)

Just like Vladimir and Estragon, Pozzo moves easily from talking about the physical (in this case, the appearance of the twilight) to the metaphysical or abstract (here, his judgments on "this b**** of an earth"). The variation in these comments makes the subject matter of Waiting for Godot somewhat rare; a combination of the absurdly mundane and the inaccessibly cerebral.

Act 2
Estragon

ESTRAGON
We don't manage too badly, eh Didi, between the two of us?
VLADIMIR
Yes yes. Come on, we'll try the left first.
ESTRAGON
We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?
VLADIMIR
(impatiently) Yes yes, we're magicians. (2.292-4)

Again, Vladimir is concerned solely with the boot while Estragon focuses on the larger issue at hand. He understands what thus far has been made clear only to the audience: that, unsure of how to be human, Vladimir and Estragon are forced to play-act, to pretend, to imitate what they think to be the normal course of human activity. It is through these affectations that the men "give [themselves] the impression [they] exist."

ESTRAGON
(aphoristic for once) We are all born mad. Some remain so.
[…]
VLADIMIR
I wouldn't go so far as that.
[…]
VLADIMIR
No, I mean so far as to assert that I was weak in the head when I came into the world. But that is not the question.
[…]
VLADIMIR
We wait. We are bored. (He throws up his hand.) No, don't protest, we are bored to death, there's no denying it. (2.536-545)

Vladimir isn’t concerned with his condition when he came into the world, but only his present condition. His conclusion that the only problem is boredom is ironic, since while he speaks he ignores the call to action spurred by Pozzo’s cries for help.

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. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. (2.526)

Vladimir decides that he and Gogo represent all mankind only once they are asked for help (in this case, by Pozzo). Didi is only able to assign meaning to his life when he is depended on, which is why he needs Estragon as much Estragon needs him.

VLADIMIR
Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be?
(Estragon, having struggled with his boots in vain, is dozing off again. Vladimir looks at him.) He'll know nothing. He'll tell me about the blows he received and I'll give him a carrot. (Pause.) Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens.) But habit is a great deadener. (He looks again at Estragon.) At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. (Pause.) I can't go on! (Pause.) What have I said? (2.795)

Vladimir has brilliantly encapsulated the most difficult concepts of Waiting for Godot, only to promptly forget all that he’s uttered! Let’s look at this little speech, since it’s confusing the first time around. Vladimir first asks himself what will happen tomorrow. He outlines all the mundane events he foresees: his conversation with Estragon, the carrot, etc. He knows he will then try to remember what happened today, but even if he accurately recalls it all, there won’t be any truth there in his memories, since there is nothing of meaning in the events of the day to ponder. There is only banality and purposelessness. Now, Pozzo has just claimed that the problem with life is time; we don’t have enough time, so life is too fleeting for us to find meaning. But here, Vladimir disagrees: the problem isn’t time, he says—we obviously have plenty of that. The problem is what we do with that time: we fill it with empty habits. These habits are what deaden our lives, or strip it of meaning, probably because habit is action without thought or purpose.

VLADIMIR
All I know is that the hours are long, under these conditions, and constrain us to beguile them with proceedings which—how shall I say—which may at first sight seem reasonable, until they become a habit. You may say it is to prevent our reason from foundering. No doubt. But has it not long been straying in the night without end of the abyssal depths? That's what I sometimes wonder. You follow my reasoning? (2.535)

All right, Vladimir’s little speech here is tricky. What he’s saying is, when you’re doing absolutely nothing every day for your entire life, time moves pretty slowly. The only solution, then, is to fill up your time with a series of actions. At first these actions seem "reasonable"—you take off your boots, you put on a hat, you converse or argue. But as time goes on, these daily actions become habit, and that’s when it starts to get a little absurd. In other words, take off your boots once, that makes sense. Take them off and put them back on twenty times a day for a decade, and that no longer makes any sense.

VLADIMIR
But that is not the question. 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— (2.526)

Vladimir uses the act of waiting for Godot to assign meaning to what is otherwise an entirely meaningless series of actions and interactions.

Pozzo

POZZO
(suddenly furious) Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It's abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we'll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer.) They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more. (He jerks the rope.) On!
Exeunt Pozzo and Lucky. Vladimir follows them to the edge of the stage, looks after them. The noise of falling, reinforced by mimic of Vladimir, announces that they are down again. Silence. (2.773)

Pozzo’s final line is a lasting image in Waiting for Godot. He paints the picture of a birth taking place literally over a grave; the "gleam" of light he describes is the course of a life, which then presumably falls—dead—into the grave. This dismal outlook—very different from the Pozzo of Act 1—seems to be the result of his going blind, which he says means he can no longer see the workings of time. Now that he can assign no meaning to time, Pozzo finds life fleeting and without purpose.