Study Guide

Waiting for Godot Mortality

By Samuel Beckett

Mortality

Act 1
Estragon

ESTRAGON
Do you remember the day I threw myself into the Rhone?
VLADIMIR
We were grape harvesting.
ESTRAGON
You fished me out.
VLADIMIR
That's all dead and buried.
ESTRAGON
My clothes dried in the sun.
VLADIMIR
There's no good harking back on that. Come on.
He draws him after him. As before.
ESTRAGON
Wait!
VLADIMIR
I'm cold!
ESTRAGON
Wait! (He moves away from Vladimir.) I sometimes wonder if we wouldn't have been better off alone, each one for himself. (He crosses the stage and sits down on the mound.) We weren't made for the same road. (1.846-54)

The men seem to be talking about a suicide attempt on Estragon’s part. Notice that the discussion of Vladimir saving his life prompts Gogo to remark that maybe they’d be better off alone. If they had been "each one for himself," Estragon would have successfully drowned himself. So what he’s really saying is, maybe it would be better if he were dead.

ESTRAGON
What about hanging ourselves?
VLADIMIR
Hmm. It'd give us an erection.
ESTRAGON
(highly excited) An erection!
[…]
ESTRAGON
Let's hang ourselves immediately! (1.170-4)

The appeal of hanging isn’t that it would bring death, but rather that it’s something to do during the eternal wait. The men are unable to comprehend the consequence of such an action.

Pozzo

POZZO
I do. But instead of driving him away as I might have done, I mean instead of simply kicking him out on his arse, in the goodness of my heart I am bringing him to the fair, where I hope to get a good price for him. The truth is you can't drive such creatures away. The best thing would be to kill them.
Lucky weeps. (1.450)

No characters in Waiting for Godot are able to take death seriously.

POZZO
Give me that! (He snatches the hat from Vladimir, throws it on the ground, tramples on it.) There's an end to his thinking!
VLADIMIR
But will he be able to walk?
POZZO
Walk or crawl! (He kicks Lucky.) Up pig!
ESTRAGON
Perhaps he's dead. (1.642-5)

See what we mean?

Act 2
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! (2.773)

Pozzo’s view of death seems disturbingly extreme, but he’s actually not telling us anything we don’t know. Death, he says, is inevitable. When a person is born, he begins his fall toward the grave. The only difference between his statement and what is perhaps a more common view of death is the amount of time that passes between birth and death. In our case, a lifetime, in this image, the moment it takes to drop into the ground. However, Waiting for Godot has already shown us that time is arbitrary (think about the conversation in Act 1 when Vladimir and Estragon try to determine what day it is). If this is true, the difference between an instant and a lifetime is simply a matter of perspective.

POZZO
Why doesn't he answer when I call?
VLADIMIR
I don't know. He seems to be sleeping. Perhaps he's dead.
[…]
VLADIMIR
Make sure he's alive before you start. No point in exerting yourself if he's dead. (2.715-35)

Vladimir is unable to take death seriously, leading us to believe that his earlier humanistic concern for Lucky’s welfare was just his impression of what he thought a person would do.

Vladimir

VLADIMIR
A dog came in—

Having begun too high he stops, clears his throat, resumes:

A dog came in the kitchen
And stole a crust of bread.
Then cook up with a ladle
And beat him till he was dead.

Then all the dogs came running
And dug the dog a tomb— (2.1)

Vladimir’s song is interesting for two reasons: it illustrates the endless repetition of cyclical routine, but it’s also about death. Of course, death should be the one end to the banality of Vladimir and Estragon’s existence, but is not in this backwards world. The dog dies, yet the song goes on and on.

VLADIMIR
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)

This is Vladimir’s response to Pozzo’s statement that life is fleeting and therefore without any meaning—notice how Beckett ties the two arguments together with a repetition of the oh-so-memorable "astride a grave" image. But while Pozzo focuses on the inevitability of death, Vladimir focuses on the banality of life. Life isn’t meaningless because we die, life is meaningless because we "deaden" it with purposeless habit.

VLADIMIR
(Estragon loosens the cord that holds up his trousers which, much too big for him, fall about his ankles. They look at the cord.) It might do in a pinch. But is it strong enough?
ESTRAGON
We'll soon see. Here.
They each take an end of the cord and pull.
It breaks. They almost fall.
VLADIMIR
Not worth a curse.
Silence. (2.865-72)

Beckett ends Waiting for Godot with the ultimate marriage of tragedy and comedy—Estragon with his pants around his knees trying to commit suicide and failing.

Estragon

ESTRAGON
Well? If we gave thanks for our mercies?
VLADIMIR
What is terrible is to have thought.
ESTRAGON
But did that ever happen to us?
VLADIMIR
Where are all these corpses from?
ESTRAGON
These skeletons.
VLADIMIR
Tell me that.
ESTRAGON
True.
VLADIMIR
We must have thought a little.
ESTRAGON
At the very beginning.
VLADIMIR
A charnel-house! A charnel-house!
ESTRAGON
You don't have to look.
VLADIMIR
You can't help looking.
ESTRAGON
True. (2.154-166)

Images of death and decay are thrown arbitrarily into otherwise unrelated dialogue in Waiting for Godot. This is what makes the discussions (of corpses, in this particular case) so disturbing, but it reiterates a main thematic point of the play: that death in fact is arbitrary and without justification.

ESTRAGON
It'd be better if we parted.
VLADIMIR
You always say that and you always come crawling back.
ESTRAGON
The best thing would be to kill me, like the other.
VLADIMIR
What other? (Pause.) What other?
ESTRAGON
Like billions of others.
VLADIMIR
(sententious) To every man his little cross. (He sighs.) Till he dies. (Afterthought.) And is forgotten. (2.85-91)

Both men seem to see death as some sort of relief or end; for Estragon, it is "the best thing" and for Vladimir it is the end of each man’s personal crucifixion. It follows, then, that they are not only waiting for Godot, but waiting for death.

ESTRAGON
All the dead voices.
VLADIMIR
They make a noise like wings.
ESTRAGON
Like leaves.
VLADIMIR
Like sand.
ESTRAGON
Like leaves.
Silence.
VLADIMIR
They all speak at once.
ESTRAGON
Each one to itself.
Silence.
VLADIMIR
Rather they whisper.
ESTRAGON
They rustle.
VLADIMIR
They murmur.
ESTRAGON
They rustle.
Silence.
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.
Silence.
VLADIMIR
They make a noise like feathers.
ESTRAGON
Like leaves.
VLADIMIR
Likes ashes.
ESTRAGON
Like leaves. (2.98-118)

This is arguably the darkest moment in Waiting for Godot, and it pretty much comes out of nowhere. It is disturbing that both men are in utter agreement about the voices they hear; it means either that the noises of the dead are a real, shared experience or that one man is willing to indulge the macabre fantasies of the other. Check out the three pairings of repetition in Estragon’s line. First "like leaves" is repeated twice, then "they rustle," and finally "like leaves" yet again. The repetition is par for the course in Waiting for Godot—a reminder of cycles and absurdity. But the image of leaves is also cyclic—just think about the tree that has sprouted overnight.

ESTRAGON
What's all this about? Abused who?
VLADIMIR
The Saviour.
ESTRAGON
Why?
VLADIMIR
Because he wouldn't save them.
ESTRAGON
From hell?
VLADIMIR
Imbecile! From death.
ESTRAGON
I thought you said hell.
VLADIMIR
From death, from death. (1.73-80)

For readers of the Bible, there wouldn’t be a difference between saving the thieves from Hell and saving them from death. Vladimir takes a secular approach to universally important matters—in this case, death—and attempts to understand them through religious means.

Estragon draws Vladimir towards the tree. They stand motionless before it. Silence.
ESTRAGON
Why don't we hang ourselves?
VLADIMIR
With what?
ESTRAGON
You haven't got a bit of rope?
VLADIMIR
No.
ESTRAGON
Then we can't.
Silence. (2.853-8)

In light of Vladimir’s earlier conclusion, whether or not he and Estragon kill themselves here is a moot point. Life is meaningless regardless of death (because it is deadened by habit), so it doesn’t matter if they have a rope or not.