English Extension 1 gets students to study texts which are undeniably more challenging than those in English Advanced. As such, many run into difficulty when synthesising their understanding of the prescribed text, how it fits into their prescribed elective and how to adapt their appreciation of the work to different questions that might be hauled at them during the exam.
Waiting for Godot is a text studied as part of the elective 'Worlds of Upheaval' in the Extension1 course, with many students finding it one of the most complex texts (understandably). Given its sheer absurdism, it's easy to get lost in the incomprehensible, oftentimes bewildering nature of Beckett's play.
This blog post seeks to clarify a few of the approaches we can take when deconstructing both the meaning and purpose of this text. We will run through the various ways in which we can interpret Beckett's opaque symbolism so that we can construct meaning and derive textual value in line with the elective 'Worlds of Upheaval'.
Contextual Absurdity of Postmodernism in ‘Waiting for Godot’
Arguably one of the most bewildering pieces of literature, the ‘absurd’ is raised to metaphysical heights in Samuel Beckett’s play ‘Waiting for Godot’ in which ‘nothingness’ itself becomes a point of critical discussion.
The play follows two sets of characters in a desolate, barren setting of a road: one pair being Vladimir and Estragon who wait passively for a third man named ‘Godot’ (who never arrives), and the other being Pozzo and Lucky who spend their time aimlessly journeying.
Beckett strips the false rewards of power, wealth, spiritual and moral conviction, marriage or intellect to present a highly concentrated vision of sparseness and futility as a means of exploring existential questions about the nature of being in the midst of postmodern angst. The term 'postmodernism' is something we should acquaint ourselves with in its contextual and philosophical sense because we are able to tie this to the notions of 'upheaval' raised in the rubric. At its core, postmodernism "employs concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilise other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty and the univocity of meaning."Though the premodern world was cohered by a set of truths and ideological systems which organised reality in a rational and logical fashion, this intellectual, spiritual, sociological and philosophical consensus was radically deformed and upheaved by events that damaged the collective consciousness.
Thus, 'truth' and 'order' in any sense of the word, began to dissolve and these perceptual distortions about meaning and purpose left the human in a fractured state of ontological and existential uncertainty. "The later nineteenth century is the age of modernity as an achieved reality, where science and technology, including networks of mass communication and transportation, reshape human perception." Indeed, "a consequence of achieved modernism is what postmodernists might refer to as de-realisation. De-realisation affects both the subject and the objects of experience, such that their sense of identity, constancy and substance is upset or dissolved."
It is this de-realised world, where logic and rationality and order become abstract phantoms that merely tantalise the individual with the idea that there is inherent purpose to our experiences of the physical world and the actions we engage in it, which hold the characters in a state of prolonged unresolve as they are intellectually and emotionally incapable of achieving realisation. Perhaps then, the utter absurdity and weirdness, strangeness and arbitrariness, of the play is the only textual instrument capable of holding together the mass of unreal individuals "who never are and never can be united in an actual situation or organisation" - cohered and integrated in any form. To link this back to the module, I would encourage an appreciation of the ways that intellectual, philosophical and cultural dissolution on a macro level and as societal processes that affect the collective psyche initiate processes of emotional and spiritual fragmentation within the individual (and thus cause personal turmoil).
Beckett brings to light the interrelatedness between public and private upheavals.
Deepening our understanding of the characters in Waiting for Godot
The senselessness of Beckett's post war world is faithfully captured through the negation of action, logic and purpose, allowing Beckett to question, but never answer, what it is that the human waits for in a world where nothing intends to arrive, through Didi and Gogo. And it is in this space of passivity, silence and stillness where our unending questioning of the universe and our place within it culminates in an unfixable ontological and epistemic crisis where reason and faith no longer provide any sense of control.
Through Vladimir and Estragon’s “waiting” for someone (or something) that never arrives, we are forced to a halt, into a moment of extended torture and observation where memories and thoughts take on vague shapes and forms, memories linger, d feelings are only half-understood, and time is suspended lightly on a beam of logic that is about to disintegrate.
Who is Godot?
Most people that read the play are left wanting a revelation given Beckett’s persistent repulsion against objective and concrete storytelling. As the play takes place largely in a state of indefinite ‘waiting’, which in itself is a passive state of inaction, a form of paralysis, we are left with unresolved expectations once we deduce that what Vladimir and Estragon are ‘waiting’ for never arrives - or perhaps may not even exist. In this light, we might want to reframe our approach of deconstructing the play not as an examination of what it is exactly that humans ‘wait’ for, but rather, Beckett’s interest in the process of ‘waiting’ itself and what this may symbolise as a means of synthesising a commentary about say, the hopeless futility of human belief in a world of irrationality and flux. This is because ‘Godot’ could stand to mean many things depending on the ideological perspective we wish to adopt.
For instance, if we were to undertake a more spiritual analysis of the play, one could presume that Beckett constructs Godot as a representation of ‘God’, which means that the play serves as an insight into the trust and belief of man in the idea that a divine creator will save him from his suffering. From a humanistic standpoint however, we might say that ‘Godot’ is a representation whose meaning is derived on a personal level, constructed uniquely by the responder in relation to where in life they find empowerment and individual purpose.
Regardless of the perspective we take, the precise identity of ‘Godot’ is indefinite and eludes concrete definition and explanation. There are multiple theories coming from all directions when it comes to Godot that coexist simultaneously within a transcultural, linguistic and philosophical space. This means that Godot is everything and nothing - what he or ‘it’ may be is beyond human comprehension because there is infinite pluralism in its conception, and its existence can be constructed in endless ways to fit whichever narrative. Of course, this equivocality speaks strongly to the postmodernist’s rejection of absolute truth - the skepticism and uncertainty towards power and history which then culminates in their spiritual and existential drama. The fact that debate exists in the identity of Godot, alongside the truth that there will never be a singular construct capable of containing everything that Godot could potentially be, we then turn our focus to the one thing that is somewhat certain in the play: waiting.
In the play, ‘waiting’ comes to represent the passivity of humans to the narratives we construct as a way of explaining and making sense of reality. As Didi and Gogo wait endlessly for an unchanging situation to change when it is clear that Godot will never arrive, with “nothing to be done”, Beckett brings to life a disturbing but seemingly unavoidable truth that human existence is itself inherently absurd, empty of meaning and purpose. The absurdity of the characters’ behaviours from beginning to end as they cyclically wander around, engage in incoherent speech and struggle to formulate an understanding of who they are and what they are doing outside of the simple act that they are ‘waiting’ is at once, tragic and comical.
Wrapping up Waiting for Godot
Beckett illustrates how their existential crisis is a horrifying one due to the rather discomforting truth that though the human’s attempts to construct meaning provides temporary relief from life’s bitterness, this hope lasts to the extent that our faith provides us with the sustenance to transcend agony. However once this belief breaks down, we have no option but to simply succumb, to ‘laugh’ at the sheer absurdity of our condition, and our spiritual and existential limits as a mortal being. The fusion of tragedy and comedy is in my opinion what characterises the Theatre of Absurd. Comedy and tragedy as narratological devices form two sides of the same coins; incongruity and reversal are thus sources of existential insight.
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