Study Guide

Waiting for Godot Themes

By Samuel Beckett

  • Choices

    Waiting for Godot consists of two men unable to act, move, or think in any significant way while they kill time waiting for a mysterious man, Godot. The characters fail to realize that this very act of waiting is a choice; instead, they view it as a mandatory part of their daily routine. Even when these men manage to make a conscious decision, they can’t translate that mental choice into a physical act. They often "decide" to leave the stage, only to find that they are unable to move. Such inaction leads to stagnancy and repetition in the seemingly endless cycle of their lives.

    Questions About Choices

    1. What is the barrier between the decision to act and action itself in Waiting for Godot? Why are the men unable to move after they’ve decided to do so?
    2. Are Vladimir and Estragon condemned to wait for Godot, or is the act of waiting a choice itself?
    3. Does Lucky’s position as a servant seem to be a choice on his part?

    Chew on This

    If Vladimir and Estragon realized they had the freedom of choice, they could break their daily cycle of habit and inaction. The problem is one of consciousness.

    Vladimir and Estragon are fully aware of their situation and of their ability to choose, but the uncertainty surrounding the result of any potential action prevents them from breaking the stagnant cycle of their waiting.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd

    Waiting for Godot is hailed as a classic example of "Theater of the Absurd," dramatic works that promote the philosophy of its name. This particular play presents a world in which daily actions are without meaning, language fails to effectively communicate, and the characters at times reflect a sense of artifice, even wondering aloud whether perhaps they are on a stage.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd

    1. Vladimir and Estragon’s situation is so absurd that it doesn’t resemble any reality we’re familiar with. How is it possible, then, that the play can comment on our own lives? Does Beckett suggest a level of absurdity in the real world?
    2. Do Estragon and Vladimir recognize that their actions are absurd? Or does everything seem "normal" to them?
    3. How do the absurd characters of Pozzo and Lucky comment on Gogo and Didi? Who seems more rational?
    4. At any moment is the play meta-fictional? In other words, where do the characters seem to reveal an understanding (or at least a suspicion) that they are part of a contrived reality? How does this affect the way we see the play?

    Chew on This

    Lucky is the only character in Waiting for Godot whose actions are rational, rather than absurd.

  • Truth

    Waiting for Godot is a play driven by a lack of truth—in other words, uncertainty. Characters are unable to act in any meaningful way and claim this is because they are uncertain of the consequences. Without the presence of objective truth, every statement is brought into question, and even common labels (color, time, names) become arbitrary and subjective.

    Questions About Truth

    1. After the debate over whether or not to attempt suicide, Estragon concludes in Act 1, "Don’t let’s do anything. It’s safer." Is doing nothing safer?
    2. Vladimir and Estragon are constantly faced with the uncertainty of consequence, and as such choose not to choose. But what is the consequence of not choosing in this play? Can we even be certain of this?

    Chew on This

    In Waiting for Godot, Beckett espouses the Existentialist tenet that the world is without meaning, but disagrees with the belief that one can give the world meaning and purpose through action.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    The portrait of daily life painted by Waiting for Godot is a dismal one. It is repetitive and stagnant. It lacks meaning and purpose and entails perpetual suffering. The solution (which none of the characters take) would seem to be action and choice despite the ever-presence of uncertainty, and an awareness of one’s surroundings and past actions. As one character says, "habit is a great deadener"—our actions should stem from conscious choice rather than apathy.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. What is the value of life in Waiting for Godot?
    2. Pozzo claims that life has no meaning because it is fleeting; Vladimir counters that life has no meaning because we deadened it with habit. Which statement, if either, does the play support?
    3. Vladimir wonders toward the end of Act 2 whether or not he is even awake. Why does it take him until now to ask this question? What has happened over the course of the play that might have led him to this doubt? Does asking this question symbolize any sort of transition for him?

    Chew on This

    The barren setting of Waiting for Godot is proof that Vladimir and Estragon will never be able to break their cycle of inactive waiting; it negates the possibility of life or creation.

    Suffering is a necessary and constant state for all men in the world of Waiting for Godot.

  • Time

    Time presents a slew of problems in Waiting for Godot. The very title of the play reveals its central action: waiting. The two main characters are forced to whittle away their days while anticipating the arrival of a man who never comes. Because they have nothing to do in the meantime, time is a dreaded barrier, a test of their ability to endure. Because they repeat the same actions every day, time is cyclical. That every character seems to have a faulty memory further complicates matters; time loses meaning when the actions of one day have no relevance or certainty on the next.

    Questions About Time

    1. Characters in Waiting for Godot repeatedly forget the events of yesterday. If memory is faulty and one cannot remember past actions, do these actions have any meaning?
    2. Can we trust Vladimir's and Estragon’s memories of events that have supposedly occurred before the start of the play?
    3. Does time pass any differently in Act 2 than it does in Act 1?

    Chew on This

    Pozzo chooses to go blind because he has lost his watch.

  • Religion

    Religion is incompatible with reason in Waiting for Godot. Characters who attempt to understand religion logically are left in the dark, and the system is compared to such absurd banalities as switching bowler hats or taking a boot on and off. Religion is also tied to uncertainty, since there is no way of knowing what is objectively true in the realm of faith.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Who has a better understanding of religion, Vladimir or Estragon?
    2. We’ve said that in Waiting for Godot, religion is incompatible with logic. If this is true, what’s the next step? Does the play argue that we should accept religion despite its lack of rationality, or that we should reject it for the same reasons?
    3. If Godot is a representation of God, what do Vladimir and Estragon expect will happen if he does finally show up?

    Chew on This

    Waiting for Godot operates on one principle contradiction: the men can only be saved if their personal god, Godot, were to appear. However, since a commonly accepted interpretation of God is that he is without extension (meaning he doesn’t occupy space), Godot’s presence would mean that he is not God. This renders Vladimir and Estragon’s waiting absurdly futile.

  • Friendship

    Friendship is tricky in Waiting for Godot, as each character is fundamentally isolated from each other. Relationships teeter between a fear of loneliness and an essential inability to connect. This tension is central to the play. The problems that keep characters apart vary from physical disgust to ego to a fear of others’ suffering.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. What is the best term to describe Vladimir and Estragon’s relationship? Are they friends? Companions? Master and slave? Mere acquaintances?
    2. Vladimir and Estragon constantly ask whether they would be better off without each other. So… would they?
    3. Of Vladimir and Estragon, which man is more eager to draw closer, and which man is more hesitant?

    Chew on This

    Because Lucky and Pozzo understand and accept the nature of their positions as slave and master, they have a healthier relationship than Vladimir and Estragon.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Every character in Waiting for Godot seems to live in a prison of his own making. Each is confined to a state of passivity and stagnancy by his own inability to act. The one character who is literally the slave of another is no more restricted than those who are technically free; in fact, he may be more free because he is at least aware of his imprisonment.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Does Lucky choose to be a slave?
    2. Why does Vladimir want to play the part of Lucky when he’s pretending with Estragon?
    3. Between Estragon and Vladimir, who has more freedom?

    Chew on This

    Lucky’s position is the most enviable in Waiting for Godot since he has the security of being told what to do.

    Vladimir and Estragon are slaves to their concept of Godot just as Lucky is a slave to Pozzo.

  • Suffering

    Suffering is a constant and fundamental part of human existence in Waiting for Godot. Every character suffers and suffers always, with no seeming respite in sight. The hardships range from the physical to the mental, the minor to the extreme. Suffering drives some men to find companionship (so as to weather the storm together), causes others to abuse their companions (to lessen the suffering of the self), and motivates others isolate themselves (since watching people suffer is a kind of anguish on its own).

    Questions About Suffering

    1. What is the worst kind of suffering we see in Waiting for Godot?
    2. Have Estragon and Vladimir ever been happy? How do they define "happy"?
    3. Is there any purpose served by Gogo's and Didi’s suffering? Do they learn from it?

    Chew on This

    Vladimir and Estragon suffer not for lack of happiness, but for lack of certainty. It is worse to not know whether or not they are miserable than to be certain of their anguish.

  • Mortality

    None of the characters in Waiting for Godot shy away from the fact that death is inevitable. In fact, death becomes at times a solution for the inanity of daily life. The main characters contemplate suicide as though it were as harmless as a walk to the grocery store, probably because there’s nothing in their lives worth sticking around for anyway. They ultimately do not commit suicide because they claim not to have the means, but also because they are uncertain of the result of their attempt (it may work, it may fail). Because they can’t be sure of what their action will bring, they decide on no action at all.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Why do Estragon and Vladimir want to kill themselves?
    2. Why don’t they?
    3. If death is inevitable and ever-impending, as Pozzo points out, how do we live our lives with any sense of purpose? Does Waiting for Godot propose a solution to this problem?

    Chew on This

    Estragon and Vladimir put the label of "waiting for Godot" on what is really just a systematic waiting for death.