The Life and Literature of Samuel Beckett

By Katy Thornton / November 26, 2020

the life and literature of samuel beckettBoth the life and literature of Samuel Beckett is fascinating. He is one of the most beloved writers in the Irish literary scene. He had such a profound influence, not only on Irish literature, but literature from around the world, that in Dublin there is a bridge named after him. His most notable works which we’ll take a look at are Waiting for Godot, Endgame, and Molloy

Early life 

Beckett was born in 1906 on Good Friday in Dublin, which is where he then grew up. In 1919 he attended Potora Royal school in Fermanagh, the same one Oscar Wilde went to. In 1923 he was accepted into Trinity College, where he studied modern languages. After he left college, Beckett became a teacher, eventually moving to Paris in 1928. While in Paris, he met James Joyce, and became something of a research assistant for him, helping him most notably with the book Finnegans Wake. The friendship between the two broke off when Beckett rejected the romantic advances of Joyce’s daughter Lucia. In 1938, Beckett met Suzanne, who would become his wife. The pair joined the French Resistance together during the Second World War. 

You can read about Beckett more in depth through this link.

Literature 

Beckett’s first published work in 1929 called “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce,” which was a critical essay in defence of Joyce’s writing style. He has a wealth of work in all mediums, including theatre, fiction, poetry, radio, and television. He is one of the most prolific writers to date, and his work is hugely important particularly when studying 20th Century literature. 

World War II 

Beckett was living in France when the Nazis invaded in 1940. He joined the French Resistance and for the following two years, he narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo. When his unit was captured in 1942, Beckett and his wife Suzanne fled to Roussillon in the South of France, where they continued to assist the Resistance efforts. Beckett was awarded the Resistance Medal for his work, although he spoke very little of his time with the Resistance and insisted what he had done was nothing special. 

Beckett Post World War II

After the war is when Beckett really came into his stride with his writing. This was when he wrote works such as Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable and much more. It would be impossible to have a look at all his work. He wrote in French and English. His plays were considered to be products of the Theatre of the Absurd, which was an era of playwriting that came just after the end of the war. The main feature of this style of theatre was the lack of reason and traditional story-telling, swapped instead for characters facing illogical and absurd situations, and finding it impossible to escape them. Waiting for Godot is Beckett’s most famous work, and arguably his most elusive. 

Waiting for Godot 

En attendant Godot Festival dAvignon 1978Waiting for Godot was first performed in 1953. It features two men, Vladimir and Estragon, standing by a bare tree, while they wait for, you guessed it, Godot. He never arrives, and what he represents is left up to the audience. Though many have tried to make the not unreasonable presumption that Godot must mean God (and given the level of importance he has in the play, this would make sense) Beckett simply stated: “If by Godot, I had meant God, I’d have said God, and not Godot.” This is about as clear as Beckett ever got in explaining the play. The play shows the two men waiting for something that will never come – perhaps this is a sense of purpose, absolution, or even a white flag. Some critics have made the deduction that Waiting for Godot reflects the time Beckett spent with the French Resistance, which ended up being a lot of waiting and hoping for something they didn’t know would ever come. 

In 2009, the parts of Estragon and Vladimir were taken by Sir Ian McKellan and Sir Patrick Stewart, where it was performed on the West End and Broadway. 

[wpdevart_youtube caption=”” align=”left”]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUXtzkLTABI[/wpdevart_youtube]

Best Quotes:

“We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist”

“There’s man all over for you, blaming on his boots the fault of his feet” 

Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!”

“Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”

Why are we here, that is the question? And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come. …We are not saints, but we have kept our appointment.”

Endgame 

Endgame beckett gacproduction 2016No, this is not the original version of The Avengers: Endgame, but it is one of Beckett’s best plays, also within the Theatre of the Absurd. This is a one-act play and it was first seen on stage in France in 1957. Hamm and Clov live in disharmony, in a house that resides away from civilisation. Hamm is frail and needs constant looking after, Clov does the looking after, but resents Hamm for it. The two men, much like Vladimir and Estragon, repeat the same sentences, and are stuck in the lives they lead, with no way of breaking free of this. It is heavily implied that Endgame is set during the apocalypse, and that if Hamm and Clov, as well as Nagg and Nell, are not the last humans on earth, then they’re close to being that. Like Waiting for Godot, Endgame seems to encapsulate the futility felt by those in the French Resistance, as well as echoing the fears of the time as the Cold War tensions were brewing. The Atomic bomb had already dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and that Nagg and Nell live in bins, or what looks like urns, seems to imply that some sort of explosion has taken place. Although Beckett is anything but a prescriptive writer, the play does seem to suggest that this is what could await life if it doesn’t stop going to war with itself. 

You can watch a whole adaptation of Endgame below. 

[wpdevart_youtube caption=”” align=”left”]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ok7Vc3jczNg[/wpdevart_youtube]
Best Quotes:

“The end is the beginning, and yet you go on” 

I love order. It’s my dream. A world where all would be silent and still, and each thing in its last place, under the last dust.”

“Then one day, suddenly, it ends, it changes, I don’t understand, it dies, or it’s me, I don’t understand that either. I ask the words that remain sleeping, waking, morning, evening. They have nothing to say.”

Molloy 

download 3Molloy was published in 1951, although not in the English language until 1955. It was the first novel in a trilogy, followed by Malone Dies and then The Unnamable. With these novels, Beckett hoped to deconstruct much of what we recognise to form fiction (plot, characters, setting) and like his plays, these novels remain somewhat elusive to the reader. Molloy is believed to be set in Ireland, although this is not specified, and it concerns two characters, Molloy, a writer who is living in his late mother’s house and gets into consistent trouble with the law, and Jacques, a private detective who is looking for Molloy. 

You can purchase Molloy through this link

Best Quotes:

If there is one question I dread, to which I have never been able to invent a satisfactory reply, it is the question what am I doing.”

It’s so nice to know where you’re going, in the early stages. It almost rids you of the wish to go there.”

I am still alive then. That may come in useful.”

“And what I have, what I am, is enough, was always enough for me, and as far as my dear little sweet little future is concerned I have no qualms, I have a good time coming.”

Later Life

the life and literature of samuel beckettIn 1969 Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the third Irish writer to be so. William Butler Yeats won it in 1923 and George Bernard Shaw won in 1925. Seamus Heaney would go on to win it in 1995. Beckett was deeply private, as much of an enigma as his work was, and found it difficult to cope with the fame of this. In the 70s and 80s, Beckett suffered from respiratory disease and had to be moved into a care facility. He died on the 22nd December 1989, only months after his wife Suzanne. His work remains something for the Irish people to be proud of and is studied worldwide. The Samuel Beckett bridge was erected in 2007 to commemorate him. The life and literature of Samuel Beckett is one that continues to be worthy of study and reverence.  

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About the author

    Katy Thornton

    Katy is a Creative Writing graduate from UCD who freelance writes and is currently working on her debut novel.

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