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In order to completely comprehend Samuel Beckett’s use of symbolism in his works, a reader must first understand a major component of Beckett’s writing style: that is, he put very little emphasis on the plots of his works, and focused more on the ideas he wished to portray. With this in mind, it is very easy to make out the effectiveness of Beckett’s use of symbolism in his plays Waiting for Godot and Endgame, as well as in his novel Molloy. Throughout these works, Beckett reveals many of his own ideas, as well as truths about human nature, through symbolism. His most prominent and overarching ideas are often revealed through characters and their disabilities acting as symbols, while various briefly mentioned symbols often reveal relevant and thought provoking ideas as well.

Beckett’s Characters are often his most obvious and meaningful symbols. This is evident in the play Endgame, in which Beckett uses the three most prominent characters, Clov, Hamm, and Nagg, to each symbolize a different generation. Clov, who is obviously the youngest of the three, as he is referred to as “my son” (69) by Hamm, symbolizes the younger generation of society; his dilemmas and shortcomings can be found to mimic and highlight those that young men and women run into. One such dilemma is that of the difficulty of leaving those that have raised you: Clov announces to his father figure Hamm early on that “I’ll leave you, I have things to do,” however, despite repeating this over and over he can not bring himself to leave until the last pages of the play (9). Beckett also touches on the overall immaturity of the young generation by portraying Clov as somewhat absent minded. When performing the task of moving a ladder to look out a window, Clov gets ahead of himself by forgetting to move the ladder with him: “He gets down, takes six steps towards window right, goes back for the ladder, carries it over…he gets down, takes three steps towards left window, goes back for ladder,” (1). Hamm is in between Clov and Nagg in terms of age, and therefore would symbolize the middle or adult generation. Beckett uses Hamm as a symbol to show the paradox of the middle generation: while they have power over the younger generation, they also rely heavily on the younger generation for their own survival. This paradox is made apparent because although Hamm orders Clov around – having Clov wheel him around the room in his chair, demanding his pain killers, asking for his toy dog – Clov reminds Hamm that if he himself dies, “then we’ll die,” as the immobile Hamm relies on Clov for his necessities (5). Nagg, whom Hamm refers to as his “progenitor” (9), is quite obviously the oldest of the three, and thus represents the oldest generation. This symbolism is used to show how younger generations often mistreat or entirely dismiss their elders in modern society. Indeed, mistreatment is obvious in the fact that Nagg is kept in a trashcan throughout the entirety of the play. Not only are the trashcans symbolic in themselves (after all, what shows less care for something than putting it in the trash?), but to make matters worse, Clov has not changed the sawdust in the can for sometime, which implies that Nagg and his partner Nell are forced to remain in their own excrement (17). Throughout the play, it only becomes increasingly apparent that each of these three characters really represent their generations as a whole, and that Beckett is expressing his own observations of the human race through these characters.

Pozzo and Lucky represent power and oppression

Pozzo and Lucky represent power and oppression

Interestingly enough, the symbolic relationship between those with power and those that they have power over, which is symbolized in Endgame by Clov and Hamm, is symbolized similarly by character’s in Beckett’s other works as well. In Waiting for Godot, it is easy to see how the character Pozzo has complete power over his servant Lucky by the way he orders him around and refers to him as a pig, not even acknowledging Lucky as a person: “Up pig…up hog…stop…turn…closer… hold that…whip!” (16). As symbols of power and oppression, these characters reveal how those in power often rely on those they have power over. When Pozzo and Lucky re-enter in the second act of the play, Pozzo, who commanded Lucky so cruelly before, is now blind and must rely on Lucky to lead him: “Enter Pozzo and Lucky. Pozzo is blind…Rope as before, but much shorter, so that Pozzo may follow more easily,” (49). Clearly, the relationship between Pozzo and Lucky symbolizes the relationship between those with power and those they have power over. In Molloy, the character Jacues Moran often exercises power over his son: “to my son I gave precise instructions…I never changed my mind before my son,” (103). Later on, however, when Moran is on his way to the town of Bally and undergoes an injury, he admits that he “would not have got there without [his] son,” (158). This is but another example of two characters whose symbolic relationship shows the paradox of humans with power depending on those whom they have power over. The fact that Beckett uses this symbolic relationships repeatedly to highlight the same paradox is undisputable evidence that each set of characters are meant to act as more than just mere characters, but highly developed symbols as well.

Of course, Beckett’s most developed symbolic character is one that never shows up on stage at all; this is, of course, Godot from the play Waiting for Godot. Throughout the play, the two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, spend the entirety of the show waiting in the same place to meet this man called Godot. By the end of the show, it is apparent that Godot is a symbol for that time that every person is waiting for, that time in life where they will be called to do something more important than their day to day routine. This symbolism is made obvious by how these two men refuse to do anything other that wait for Godot. When Estragon asks what they should be doing Vladimir replies, “let’s wait and see what he [Godot] says,” (12). Beckett uses Godot as a symbol to show his audience how, while waiting for what we think of as our moment, we may really be missing other opportunities for greatness, just as Vladimir and Estragon overlook their chance to aid Pozzo when he has fallen. The two clearly see that this is an opportunity to do a meaningful act, which they have been waiting to do all play: “Let us not waste our time in idle discourse…Let us do something while we have the chance,” (51). Despite Pozzo’s yells for help, however, the two merely bicker and continue waiting for Godot. Since Godot never once appears on stage, it is obvious to an audience that his purpose goes beyond that of a functioning character: he is a rich symbol.

Beckett uses leg injuries in "Molloy" to symbolize degradation.

Beckett uses leg injuries in "Molloy" to symbolize degradation.

Beckett also has a tendency to use characters’ disabilities or ailments as symbols. The most prominent of these symbols is that of the injured leg, which recurs often in Beckett’s novel Molloy. The novel follows the journey of two different characters – Molloy and Jacques Moran, both of which suffer from debilitating leg injuries. As these injuries become worse and worse for these two men, it becomes apparent that the injuries symbolize deterioration of life or the quality of life. For Molloy, a man that does not like to stay put for extended periods of time, the more he journeys the more his legs begin to ail him. Ironically, this means that in order to do what he does best, travel, he must stop more and more often: “Yes, my progress reduced me to stopping more and more often, it was the only way to progress, to stop,” (78). By the end of the novel, this disability causes him to lie down and never again get up. Obviously, his way of life has been ruined by his injured leg. Moran too became a victim of “a malignancy of man, nature, and [his] own failing flesh” when he was forced to hobble home, a few steps at a time, over the course of six months from a far away town. This specific injury, which recurs for both characters, has by the end of the novel taken away Molloy’s way of life and months of Moran’s life. It is not merely an ailment, but a symbol for degenerating life.

Not all of Beckett’s symbols are humans or human related however; many other symbols can be picked out of his works as well. One such symbol is the rope tied around Lucky’s neck in Waiting for Godot, which is a symbol of control. When Pozzo and Lucky first enter, “Pozzo drives Lucky by means of a rope passed around his neck,” and Pozzo repeatedly jerks the rope to make Lucky move (15). Not only does the rope give Pozzo physical power, but symbolic power as well: the rope is used in the same manner as a leash, obviously implying Pozzo has the same power over Lucky as a master over his dog. In the play Endgame, Beckett uses the classic symbol of the window; however, he puts his own twist on it. Usually in literature, windows represent the outside world or a longing for the outside world, but Beckett, sticking to his usually gloomy themes, uses the window to symbolize a lack of opportunity in the outside world. Hamm asks his son Clov to open a window so that he can hear the sea, but Clov refuses, saying that he wouldn’t hear it anyway. Hamm then asks, “then it’s not worthwhile opening it?” (64). If a window is universally used in literature to symbolize the outside world, then a window not worth opening obviously would symbolize an outside world not worth venturing into. Finally, in Molloy, Beckett uses a small silver object with an unknown function to symbolize all things in life which we can not understand. After stealing the object, he realizes that he “could never understand what possible purpose it could serve, nor even contrive the faintest hypothesis on the subject,” (63). This object causes Molloy’s stream of consciousness to move onto philosophic thoughts pertaining to knowledge: “For to know nothing is nothing, not to want to know anything likewise…to know you are beyond knowing anything, that is when peace enters in,” (64). The implication of these two passages is that because Molloy accepts that he knows nothing about the object he is now happier than he would have been fussing over its purpose. What Beckett intended was for readers to see this silver object as a representation (or symbol) of that which we can not understand in our lives in hopes that said readers would learn not to dwell on what they can not know. While these symbols are all briefly mentioned and perhaps not quite as obvious as Beckett’s other symbols, they are by no means less important.

As one can see, the symbols that Beckett uses vary almost as much as the purposes that they serve. With physical symbols, such as windows, and characters that act as symbols, such as Godot, Beckett reveals to us an assortment of truths, ranging from the human race’s shortcomings, to the nature of the world, to his own philosophical ideas. Using these rich symbols, Samuel Beckett writes more than mere stories, but thought provoking drama and prose.

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