Study Guide

Waiting for Godot Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd

By Samuel Beckett

Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd

Act 1
Estragon

ESTRAGON
What did we do yesterday?
VLADIMIR
What did we do yesterday?
ESTRAGON
Yes.
VLADIMIR
Why . . . (Angrily.) Nothing is certain when you're about.
ESTRAGON
In my opinion we were here.
VLADIMIR
(looking round) You recognize the place?
ESTRAGON
I didn't say that.
VLADIMIR
Well?
ESTRAGON
That makes no difference. (1.122-130)

The unreliability of memory is one of the reasons that Waiting for Godot lacks rationale.

ESTRAGON
Why doesn't he put down his bags?
POZZO
I too would be happy to meet him. The more people I meet the happier I become. From the meanest creature one departs wiser, richer, more conscious of one's blessings. Even you . . . (he looks at them ostentatiously in turn to make it clear they are both meant) . . . even you, who knows, will have added to my store.
ESTRAGON
Why doesn't he put down his bags?
POZZO
But that would surprise me.
VLADIMIR
You're being asked a question.
POZZO
(delighted) A question!
[…]
VLADIMIR
You can ask him now. He's on the alert.
ESTRAGON
Ask him what? (1.407-414)

The lack of memory in Waiting for Godot establishes a world of absurdity and purposelessness. If Estragon can’t recall his original question, the questions of the past have no meaning in the present. Likewise, questions are irrelevant by nature since answers will soon after be forgotten.

Lucky

LUCKY
Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell […]. (1.639)

Lucky’s speech parodies the absurdity of pedantic jargon. With repeated phrases such as "qua," "for reasons unknown," "time will tell," etc., the speech has an academic exterior but no substance.

Vladimir

VLADIMIR
You want to get rid of him?
POZZO
He wants to cod me, but he won't.
VLADIMIR
You want to get rid of him?
POZZO
He imagines that when I see how well he carries I'll be tempted to keep him on in that capacity.
ESTRAGON
You've had enough of him?
POZZO
In reality he carries like a pig. It's not his job.
VLADIMIR
You want to get rid of him?
POZZO
He imagines that when I see him indefatigable I'll regret my decision.
[…]
VLADIMIR
You want to get rid of him?
POZZO
Remark that I might just as well have been in his shoes and he in mine. If chance had not willed otherwise. To each one his due.
VLADIMIR
You waagerrim?
POZZO
I beg your pardon?
VLADIMIR
You want to get rid of him?
POZZO
I do. (1.437-450)

Vladimir asks his question five times without response. It’s not until he slurs his speech that he is able to communicate effectively with Pozzo—just another example of the backwards logic of Waiting for Godot.

VLADIMIR
I thought it was he.
ESTRAGON
Who?
VLADIMIR
Godot.
ESTRAGON
Pah! The wind in the reeds.
VLADIMIR
I could have sworn I heard shouts.
ESTRAGON
And why would he shout?
VLADIMIR
At his horse.
Silence.
ESTRAGON
(violently) I'm hungry!
VLADIMIR
Do you want a carrot? (1.245-53)

Notice how Vladimir and Estragon switch rapidly from serious subject matter (whether or not Godot has arrived) to absurdly inane details (that would be carrots). This is part of the play’s attempt at "tragicomedy," but also the reason why Vladimir and Estragon can’t take part in anything meaningful: they are too distracted by the petty habits of everyday life.

(Estragon with a supreme effort succeeds in pulling off his boot. He peers inside it, feels about inside it, turns it upside down, shakes it, looks on the ground to see if anything has fallen out, finds nothing, feels inside it again, staring sightlessly before him.)
VLADIMIR
Well?
ESTRAGON
Nothing.
VLADIMIR
Show me.
ESTRAGON
There's nothing to show.
VLADIMIR
Try and put it on again. (1.34-8)

Estragon’s putzing about with his boot is a central iteration of absurdity in the play. It’s unclear what he’s looking for inside the boot and obviously irrational to think that anything will materialize if he puts it back on. On the other hand, we are also introduced to the sort of backwards logic of Waiting for Godot in this scene. Vladimir has a point: if Estragon puts his boot on, there will be something inside it.

VLADIMIR
Do you want a carrot?
ESTRAGON
Is that all there is?
VLADIMIR
I might have some turnips.
ESTRAGON
Give me a carrot. (Vladimir rummages in his pockets, takes out a turnip and gives it to Estragon who takes a bite out of it. Angrily.) It's a turnip!
VLADIMIR
Oh pardon! I could have sworn it was a carrot. (1.253-7)

If we look at Waiting for Godot through our Magic Allegory Lens, this exchange becomes commentary on the way that most people lead their lives, concerned with the petty differences between turnips and carrots and missing the bigger picture.

VLADIMIR
(to Pozzo) Tell him to think.
POZZO
Give him his hat.
VLADIMIR
His hat?
POZZO
He can't think without his hat. (1.621-4)

Actions are restricted by absurd rules in Waiting for Godot. The bowler hat itself is already a comic symbol, thanks to Charlie Chaplin, so the dependence of something so vital—thinking—on such a trivial object is doubly ridiculous.

VLADIMIR
Charming evening we're having.
ESTRAGON
Unforgettable.
VLADIMIR
And it's not over.
ESTRAGON
Apparently not.
VLADIMIR
It's only beginning.
ESTRAGON
It's awful.
VLADIMIR
Worse than the pantomime.
ESTRAGON
The circus.
VLADIMIR
The music-hall.
ESTRAGON
The circus. (1.486-495)

At first, Estragon’s habit of repeating the same line in an exchange seems absurd. But it makes an interesting point: neither of them was saying anything new anyway. Repeating "the circus" is no less useful than listing off another synonym for "cheap entertainment."

During Lucky's tirade the others react as follows.
1) Vladimir and Estragon all attention, Pozzo dejected and disgusted.
2) Vladimir and Estragon begin to protest, Pozzo's sufferings increase.
3) Vladimir and Estragon attentive again, Pozzo more and more agitated and groaning.
4) Vladimir and Estragon protest violently. Pozzo jumps up, pulls on the rope. General outcry. Lucky pulls on the rope, staggers, shouts his text. All three throw themselves on Lucky who struggles and shouts his text.
(1.638)

Lucky’s speech might not make any sense, but neither do the reactions of these three men. Notice that Beckett’s stage directions don’t note any specific moments in the speech where the men are to switch from a stance of interest to that of protest; this means the change in action isn’t dependent on the words being uttered and is intentionally arbitrary.

Act 2
Estragon

Estragon goes towards the boots, inspects them closely.
ESTRAGON
They're not mine.
VLADIMIR
(stupefied) Not yours!
ESTRAGON
Mine were black. These are brown.
VLADIMIR
You're sure yours were black?
ESTRAGON
Well they were a kind of gray.
VLADIMIR
And these are brown. Show me.
ESTRAGON
(picking up a boot) Well they're a kind of green. (2.243-50)

As we’ve already seen in the case with numbers, color is also an arbitrary and meaningless label in the world of Waiting for Godot.

ESTRAGON
You think all the same.
VLADIMIR
No no, it's impossible.
ESTRAGON
That's the idea, let's contradict each another.
VLADIMIR
Impossible. (2.140-3)

The absurdity is that, in calling Estragon’s idea of contradiction impossible, Vladimir is in fact contradicting 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)

OK, we’ll admit, this exchange at first seems entirely without logic. But it’s actually just a series of conversations all taking place at once, with several of the responses interchangeable and taking place in more than one back-and-forth. Vladimir’s statement that it is terrible to have thought is continued when Estragon replies "True" several lines below. The question of the corpses is abandoned until Vladimir realizes they come from a charnel-house. Didi ignores Estragon’s question about mercies, so Estragon resumes this strand of thought himself with the line "But did that ever happen to us?" (likely referring to acts of mercy, although one can’t be sure if this is part of a different exchange).

Estragon takes Vladimir's hat. Vladimir adjusts Lucky's hat on his head. Estragon puts on Vladimir's hat in place of his own which he hands to Vladimir. Vladimir takes Estragon's hat. Estragon adjusts Vladimir's hat on his head. Vladimir puts on Estragon's hat in place of Lucky's which he hands to Estragon. Estragon takes Lucky's hat. Vladimir adjusts Estragon's hat on his head. Estragon puts on Lucky's hat in place of Vladimir's which he hands to Vladimir. Vladimir takes his hat, Estragon adjusts Lucky's hat on his head. Vladimir puts on his hat in place of Estragon's which he hands to Estragon. Estragon takes his hat. Vladimir adjusts his hat on his head. Estragon puts on his hat in place of Lucky's which he hands to Vladimir. Vladimir takes Lucky's hat. Estragon adjusts his hat on his head. Vladimir puts on Lucky's hat in place of his own which he hands to Estragon. Estragon takes Vladimir's hat. Vladimir adjusts Lucky's hat on his head. Estragon hands Vladimir's hat back to Vladimir who takes it and hands it back to Estragon who takes it and hands it back to Vladimir who takes it and throws it down. (2.349)

This comic interlude is the pinnacle of the play’s absurdity. The endless nature of the hat exchange parallels the cyclic repetition of Vladimir and Estragon’s daily routine.

Vladimir

VLADIMIR
(alarmed) Mr. Pozzo! Come back! We won't hurt you!
Silence.
ESTRAGON
We might try him with other names.
VLADIMIR
I'm afraid he's dying.
ESTRAGON
It'd be amusing.
VLADIMIR
What'd be amusing?
ESTRAGON
To try him with other names, one after the other. It'd pass the time. And we'd be bound to hit on the right one sooner or later.
VLADIMIR
I tell you his name is Pozzo.
ESTRAGON
We'll soon see. (He reflects.) Abel! Abel!
POZZO
Help!
ESTRAGON
Got it in one!
VLADIMIR
I begin to weary of this motif. (2.613-23)

Vladimir is very likely "weary" of the absurdity, but his comment itself is absurd because of its metafictional nature; he seems almost to step out of the play for a moment to observe it objectively—definitely not allowed in rational theater.

VLADIMIR
Pull on your trousers.
ESTRAGON
What?
VLADIMIR
Pull on your trousers.
ESTRAGON
You want me to pull off my trousers?
VLADIMIR
Pull ON your trousers.
ESTRAGON
(realizing his trousers are down) True.
He pulls up his trousers.
VLADIMIR
Well? Shall we go?
ESTRAGON
Yes, let's go.
They do not move. (2.881-88)

The absurd comedy of the trouser bit is matched with the absurd tragedy of Vladimir and Estragon’s inability (or unwillingness?) to move off the stage.

Pozzo

POZZO
I am blind.
Silence.
ESTRAGON
Perhaps he can see into the future. (2.655-6)

Estragon imposes his own sense of backward logic: if the man is denied one manner of sight, perhaps he has gained another. This is also a mythological reference to any one of the many blind prophets in history (think Tiresias from Greek Mythology, since we’re certain you read Shmoop’s Odyssey).