Salient Themes of Waiting for Godot
In this richly evocative â€œstoryâ€ about two men who wait for another who never comes there are so many possible themes it is difficult to enumerate them. Those that are readily apparent include the issues of absurdity, alienation and loneliness, appearance and reality, death, doubt and ambiguity, time, the meaning of life, language and meaning, and the search for self. But one theme that encompasses many of these at once is the question of the human condition â€” who are we as humans and what is our short life on this planet really like?
We appear to be born without much awareness of our selves or our environment and as we mature to gradually acquire from the world around us a sense of identity and a concept of the universe. However, the concept of human life that we generally acquire may be fraught with illusions. Early in his life Beckett dismissed the Christian concept of God and based his concept of the human condition on the assumption that human existence ends in the grave, mat our most monumental achievements are insignificant measured by the cosmic scales of time and space, and that human life without illusions is generally difficult and sad. Vladimir and Estragon live in a world without comforting illusions about human dignity, the importance of work and achievement, the inevitability of justice, or the promise of an afterlife of eternal bliss. They live in a world where almost nothing is certain, where simply getting your boots off or sleeping through the night without having to urinate is a pretty significant achievement. They live in a world where violence and brutality can appear at any time, often victimizing them directly. They live without amenities, find joy in the smallest of victories, and are ultimately quite serious about their vague responsibility to wait for this mysterious figure who may or may not come and who may or may not reward them for their loyalty. It is a life lived on the razorâ€™s edge of hope and sadness.
Strangely enough, Pozzo often voices most clearly what Beckett might have called the reality of this world. In Act I, for example, Estragon feels pity for the abused and weeping Lucky, who is sobbing because Pozzo has said aloud that he wants to â€œget rid of him.â€ As Lucky sobs, Pozzo brutally says, â€œold dogs have more dignity.â€ But when Estragon goes with a handkerchief to wipe his tears, Lucky kicks him violently in the shins and it is now Estragon in pain. Pozzo then offers this observation: â€œheâ€™s stopped crying. [To Estragon.] You have replaced him as it were. [Lyrically.] The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep, somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh. [He laughs.] Let us not then speak ill of our generation, it is not any unhappier than its predecessors. [Pause.] Let us not speak well of it either. [Pause.] Let us not speak of it at all.â€
As Beckett dismissed what most of us take for granted, he eventually dismissed language itself as a reliable source of security. Ironically, this man of words ultimately mistrusted them. He knew that the word could never be counted on to convey meaning precisely and that linguistic meaning was always an approximation. Thus he shows Vladimir and Estragon spending most of their time dancing around words, attempting vainly to pin them down, to use them as guiding stars as best they can. At the end of the play, for example, Vladimir is struck by Estragonâ€™s suggestion that much of what Vladimir â€œknowsâ€ might be as unreliable as Estragonâ€™s dreams, and Vladimir launches into a poetic monologue that begins,â€œWas I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now?â€ But when he ends this lyrical moment of introspection he simply says, â€œwhat have I said?â€ This is a world where even words fail to wrestle our lives into consistently coherent patterns of meaning, a world where the human condition is radically insecure but where the struggle to find meaning is perhaps the only nobility left for us.
It is tempting to see Beckett as a â€œnihilist,â€ as someone who believed that there was nothing of value or meaning in human life, but the friendship of Estragon and Vladimir clearly offers us something positive and even uplifting in the difficult world of Beckettâ€™s play. In the unconventional banter of these two men it is sometimes easy to miss the intensity of their symbiotic relationship, but close attention to the theatrical qualities in their exchanges will show that they care deeply for one another and in many ways need one another to survive in their inhospitable world. Beckett, of course, is not sentimental about friendship â€” he is stubbornly realistic about everything he sees â€” but on the whole the relationship between Estragon and Vladimir is an important focus for understanding Beckettâ€™s most famous play.
In many places in the action Vladimir and Estragon bicker, misunderstand, and even ignore one another, but in other places their relationship is clearly tender, such as in the moment of Act II when Vladimir covers the sleeping Estragon with his coat. But if one were to focus on one moment in detail the most logical place to start might be the entrances of the two men at the beginning of the play. As the play begins, Estragon is sitting on a mound trying to take off his boot. Estragon and Vladimir have been separated overnight, but Beckett doesnâ€™t expect us to worry about why they have separated, any more than he expects us to give a momentâ€™s thought as to how they first met or how long they have known one another. It is enough to know that they are friends and that as the play begins Estragon is alone on this country road struggling to get his boots off. He finally gives up, saying â€œNothing to be done,â€ and at that moment Vladimir enters and responds to his friendâ€™s words as if he had been there from the start of Estragonâ€™s struggle â€” â€œIâ€™m beginning to come round to that opinion,â€ says Vladimir. The ease with which they are together again, as if they never were parted, is indicated deftly in die seamlessness of mat second line of the play. Vladimir then says, more directly, â€œIâ€™m glad to see you back. I thought you were gone foreverâ€ and though the line is spoken casually the clear implication is that losing Estragon forever would have created a very considerable hole in Vladimirâ€™s life. Vladimir expresses concern over Estragonâ€™s beating, then quickly shifts into one of his annoyingly condescending roles as Estragonâ€™s protector. Vladimir talks, almost as if he simply enjoys hearing the sound of his own voice, while Estragon resumes the struggle with the boot. Eventually, Estragon succeeds in removing his boot and it could easily be suggested that he does so in part because of the mere presence of his friend. It is certainly no accident that just as Vladimir echoes Estragonâ€™s opening phrase, â€œNothing to be done,â€ Estragon â€œwith a supreme effort succeeds in pulling off his boot.â€ The removal of the boot, of course, is mundane. As Vladimir says, â€œBoots must be taken off every day.â€ But in Beckettâ€™s careful art, the removal of the boot with the indirect emotional support of a friend is a metaphor for anything we attempt to do in our lives. In this life we face difficulties in the simple execution of daily affairs and ultimately we must face them alone or in the company of others who struggle as we do.