In a typical uber-confusing Beckett move, Vladimir is also called "Didi" or, in one bizarre moment, "Albert."
Breaking into Waiting for Godot is super daunting, but the solution is to just dive in. So let’s start off with Vladimir. If we wanted to take the easy way out, we’d say he was interchangeable with Estragon. But a) we never want to take the easy way out and b) in fact, Vladimir and Estragon are two very different characters.
Popular belief is that Vladimir is the more intellectual. He’s the alpha male, he has the better memory, and he’s more logical. And Vladimir makes a point of saying—repeatedly, we might add—that Estragon depends on him for his life. So that’s that.
Well, not quite. First of all, Vladimir’s claims might not be true. If we took his word for everything, we’d all be wearing bowlers and waiting for the moon to come up. His insistence that Estragon depends totally on him probably means that he needs Estragon just as much. It’s the original Bert and Ernie-type comradeship. Gogo might need Didi to tell him what to do and keep him alive, but Didi needs Gogo to need him. Make sense?
Onward! The next question is, if these guys both need each other, why is their friendship so messed up? They spend half their time asking if they should really be friends or if they’d be better off without each other. And, as we’ve come to expect in the play, they never really come to any sort of conclusion. The nature of their friendship is as ambiguous as all else in Waiting for Godot; the only thing certain is its uncertainty.
Too scared to part but too hesitant to have a real friendship, the men are left in constant limbo—especially Vlad. He wants to hug Gogo, but be doesn’t want to get too close. He gives up his jacket to his friend and shivers in the cold while singing him a lullaby, but then he flips out when Estragon tries to dish about his personal nightmares. Mixed signals, much? For one reason or another, Vladimir is incapable of having a real relationship. And that’s because of…
Yes, that’s right; we think Vladimir’s "don’t get too close to me" attitude has to do with his severe reactions to watching others suffer. Just look at the way he flips out when Estragon wants to talk about his "private nightmares":
(restored to the horror of his situation) I was asleep! (Despairingly) Why will you never let me sleep?
I felt lonely.
I had a dream.
Don't tell me!
I dreamt that—
DON'T TELL ME!
(gesture toward the universe) This one is enough for you? (Silence.) It's not nice of you, Didi. Who am I to tell my private nightmares to if I can't tell them to you?
Let them remain private. You know I can't bear that. (1.146-153)
Yup, this exchange happens three times in Waiting for Godot.
On top of that, you’ve got Vladimir exploding at Pozzo for mistreating Lucky:
(exploding) It's a scandal!
Silence. Flabbergasted, Estragon stops gnawing, looks at Pozzo and Vladimir in turn. Pozzo outwardly calm. Vladimir embarrassed.
(To Vladimir) Are you alluding to anything in particular?
(stutteringly resolute) To treat a man . . . (gesture towards Lucky) . . . like that . . . I think that . . . no . . . a human being . . . no . . . it's a scandal!
(not to be outdone) A disgrace!
He resumes his gnawing. (1.386-9)
Shortly afterwards he’s berating Lucky for mistreating Pozzo, which suggests the problem isn’t so much an aversion to slavery as it is an aversion to suffering of any kind. Vladimir doesn’t want to witness it, hear it, or talk about it.
But wait… what does that have to do with Vladimir’s inability to have real friendships? Well, Waiting for Godot presents suffering as the fundamental and constant state of being. All people are suffering always. It follows, then, that a person who can’t deal with suffering can’t deal with people... at least not for more than stretches of ten seconds or so while those other people are asleep. (Notice that Vladimir is kindest to Estragon when he’s sleeping? Exactly.)
But look at Vladimir’s famous speech toward the close of Act 2:
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 here comes the closest of any character to grappling with the difficulty of his and Estragon’s predicament, and in fact comes closest to understanding the perpetual condition of human suffering.
Unfortunately, while he explores this cerebrally, he’s busy ignoring Pozzo’s cries of help from the ground. While Vladimir may understand suffering intellectually, he certainly can’t get a handle on it emotionally or practically, which is probably why hearing the pain of others is so difficult for him: it messes with his conception of reality. He can’t keep the idea of suffering abstract if he has to watch it take place in front of his eyes.
What’s a Vladimir to do? This is the part where we talk about…
This sounds way more profound than it is. All we’re getting at is that Vladimir’s solution to emotional inadequacy is to mimic what he thinks a person should do. He doesn’t know how to be human, so he fakes it:
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)
Come to think of it, Vladimir isn’t the only guy around here trying to figure out how to be a person. Estragon, with no notion of how to act, resorts to the same play-acting. "Let’s abuse each other," he offers. "Let’s make it up," or have an argument, or ask questions, etc. It doesn’t get much more explicit than Estragon’s suggestion that they literally pretend to be Lucky and Pozzo, two men who also, incidentally, pick up on cues of how to act from those around them.
What distinguishes Vladimir, though, is his complete lack of awareness at his own state of pretend. Estragon is quite aware ("We always find something […] to give us the impression we exist" (2.293)), and Pozzo is more than willing to admit that most of what he does is pointless ("To-morrow I won’t remember having met you to-day" (2.751)), but Vladimir hasn’t stepped outside his own dissemblance to realize that he’s just faking it. Look at his exchange his Estragon, in which he commands him to say he is happy "even if it’s not true." It may be that Vladimir is satisfied with the illusion of being human, which is some ways would mean he’s actually the worst off of all these guys.
Yet still, amazingly, if we had to pick one character with whom we most identify, it would be Vladimir—although the competition isn’t exactly stiff. Nowhere is this more true than at the end of Act 2, when Vladimir is at his most lucid and logical. Conversing with the Boy, Vladimir realizes that the kid will come back tomorrow having forgotten this interaction. He will likely report that Godot can’t make it, just as he has done day after day in the past.
For at least this one moment, Vladimir grasps the magnitude of his predicament and, in a rush of genuine, human emotion, lunges at the Boy. He’s not faking it here. Of course, he goes right back to his old self moments later ("We have to come back tomorrow […] to wait for Godot," he tells Estragon), but at this one instant of clarity, Vladimir represents our logical frustration and anger.
Of course, the fact that we can, at least at times, identify with Vladimir is what makes his and Estragon’s predicament so disturbing. (If they were a pair of bananas running around, it probably wouldn’t be so poignant.) Even more frustrating for us to watch is the fact that, actually, all Vladimir’s problems are Vladimir’s fault. He lives in a hell of his own making. According to Vladimir, the act of waiting for Godot prevents him from choosing another action.
Estragon wants to know why they can’t leave: because they’re waiting for Godot. Why do they have to come back tomorrow? Because they’re waiting for Godot. Why can’t they live their lives instead of partaking in endless and fruitless banality? Because of… global warming? No, because they’re waiting for Godot.
But what Vladimir fails to realize is that the act of waiting for Godot is a choice in itself. If he is restricted by his waiting, it’s because he chooses to wait and therefore chooses to be restricted. Notice that he is the character—not Estragon—who insists that they stay put. His rationale is that, once the appointment is made, he has to keep it; but as we see twice through his interaction with the Boy, Vladimir always chooses to renew his appointment with Godot. In this way he is self-damning; he ends every day of waiting by committing to do the same the next day.