Beckett Passage of Time in Waiting for Godot and Molloy
One of the most prominent themes throughout Beckett’s works is the passage of time. This essay will explore the presentation of the passage of time in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Molloy. The characters in these works are utterly constrained by the ways in which time passes, has passed and will continue to pass; from Vladimir and Estragon who are condemned to spend their lives waiting for a person that may not even exist, to Molloy and Moran who find continuous loops in time and bend and contort it to fit their own needs and wishes. This essay will seek to compare and contrast these two separate treatments of time by focusing solely on the works themselves, rather than looking to contextualise them in the timeframe of Beckett’s own life (“his life was separate from his art” ); the understanding of the interpretation of time in each of these works is so uniquely different that an entirely new essay would be needed to explore the manner in which Beckett himself went from one presentation of time to the other. Thus, this essay will explore the presentation of time relative to the work in which it is portrayed.
The opening scene of Waiting for Godot immediately introduces the idea of the cyclicality of time. Estragon, we are told, “is trying to take off his boot. […] He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again. As before.” The first spoken words of the play become the simple, thoroughly Beckettian phrase: “Nothing to be done.” The play’s second character, Vladimir, whilst “musing on [Estragon’s] struggle”, remarks that he, too, is “beginning to come round to that opinion.” The emphasis here is on the recurrent and repetitive nature of the passage of time, the cycle of struggling, giving up, and trying again, “as before.” That Vladimir is “beginning” to come “round” to this idea offers a paradoxical view of time, for there is no beginning nor end of a circle, just as there is no real beginning or end to Vladimir and Estragon’s struggle (of waiting for Godot). Thus, this very first concept of the play is not merely an observation of the cyclical perception of time, but that this cyclical notion is based solely on the endless suffering of humanity, seen by Estragon’s problem with his boot. Several lines later, there is an intriguing exchange between the pair, seemingly mimicking each other:
Estragon: [Feebly.] Help me!
Vladimir: It hurts?
Estragon: Hurts! He wants to know if it hurts!
Vladimir: [Angrily.] No one ever suffers but you. I don’t count. I’d like to hear what you’d say if you
had what I have.
Estragon: It hurts?
Vladimir: Hurts! He wants to know if it hurts!
This mirroring of words seems to portray the same idea of perpetual suffering; Vladimir up until this point is unconcerned with Estragon’s endeavour, instead offering his companion something of a conceited conviction: “all these years . . . but for me . . . where would you be . . .? […] You’d be nothing more than a little heap of bones.” Vladimir seems to emerge, briefly, from his supercilious obliviousness to ask Estragon if the boot is hurting him, but quickly retreats when he ignorantly (almost childishly) declares “I’d like to hear what you’d say if you had what I have.” Vladimir is manipulative, orchestrating his interaction with Estragon in such a way as to ensure the attention of his companion remains on Vladimir’s struggle, rather than offering assistance to a fellow man who not only needs it but repeatedly asks for it. When Estragon enquires “Why don’t you help me?”, the present tense of the question ‘why do you not’ rather than the future tense ‘why won’t/will you not’ draws the audience in to the present moment of time, where there is no looking to the future for relief or aid, but rather remaining in the current and existing distress and hardship. Vladimir repeats Estragon’s initial line, “Nothing to be done,” once again affirming the repetition of life’s struggle(s), whilst facing his own hindrance in the form of his hat: “He takes off his hat, peers inside it, feels about inside it, puts it on again”, reproducing the moment of Estragon’s original boot struggle. Both characters are trapped inside of their own issues, and their individual perceptions of life and the manner in which they spend their time stem directly from these issues. The same idea echoes in the title of the play, wherein its characters and audience remain trapped in the endless experience of ‘waiting.’ In making conscious efforts to focus in on the present moment throughout most of the play, Beckett appears to exhibit the continuous and perpetual strife of humanity.
Similarly, Molloy makes use of a present tense narrative, of which the namesake character states: “I speak in the present tense, it is so easy to speak in the present tense, when one is speaking of the past.” Molloy’s use of the present tense, however, is to fortify his “adamant refusal to believe that any sequence of events is causally connected.” Molloy disrupts his own narrative timeline, denying his own recollections: “Don’t talk to about the chambermaid. I should never have mentioned her, she was long before, I was sick, perhaps there was no chambermaid, ever, in my life. Molloy, or life without a chambermaid.” Of this unreliability of Molloy’s timeline, Brian Richardson claims:
Molloy’s fusion of recounting and invention ensures that we will never know what actually transpired and points to the tenuous foundations of any purported representation of events: it presupposes a causal connection between past actions and present narration that, as we see in this text, can easily be disrupted. […] Without causality, there can be no fidelity of representation.
Molloy’s treatment of time is irregular and erratic, and for this very reason it is near impossible to form an accurate understanding of his timeline. Molloy’s manner of perceiving time is very different from that of Vladimir and Estragon, who seem to accept the cyclicality of their time; for both Molloy and Moran, their existence lies within their own narrative: “If I go on long enough calling that my life I’ll end up believing it.” By writing their own lives, these characters render themselves completely unreliable as narrators. The time in their narrative changes as and when they decide it does; the laws of nature within their individual existence do not parallel or reflect those of the reader’s. They aren’t even certain that their own inventions hold any truth in their existence:
And truly it little matters what I say, this or that or any other thing. Saying is inventing. Wrong, very rightly wrong. You invent nothing, you think you are inventing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out your lesson.
This treatment of time means that they, too, are perpetually suspended in an endless form of suffering (“For in describing this day I am once more he who suffered it, who crammed it full of futile anxious life”); only when they cease to write do they cease to live and only then may they terminate their own suffering.
This idea is echoed in Waiting for Godot, when Vladimir and Estragon contemplate hanging themselves from the tree in the stage background. I will not attempt to argue for any Biblical allegory in the play, but I will postulate that Beckett assimilated Biblical references into Waiting for Godot perhaps to juxtapose the idea of eternal salvation with a meaningless existence. The tree is the only background prop in the play, and immediately invokes connotations of the crucifixion, whereby Jesus died for the sins of mankind. On the one hand, if Vladimir and Estragon were to ‘crucify’ themselves on the tree, it would mean that they gave their lives for nothing, parodying the story of the death of Jesus; it would also mean that where Jesus, the Son of God, was the only person that could take on all of the sins and suffering of the world, Vladimir and Estragon, two nobodies, could end their own suffering (and, subsequently, enter a state of non-suffering, which may or may not be paradisiacal) by ending their repetitive timelines. However, they decide against it, much like they decide against parting ways at the end of Act One; even though Estragon claims that they “weren’t made for the same road,” Vladimir replies that “it’s not certain”, and Estragon agrees that “nothing” is. The ‘nothingness’ could be interpreted as death, or the unknown; certainly, it must partly refer to the direction of the single road that leads to a place of uncertainty next to which the entire play takes place. In this moment, they know what they are doing –
Vladimir: […] What are we doing 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.
Beyond that, to follow the road they can’t be sure of where it will lead to, is to look beyond what they know and attempt to exist beyond what the unsubstantiated and unreasonable authority of Godot will allow. Their entire existence, confined to this specific setting, will forever be encompassed by the theatricality of a stage setting, signifying the meaningless of their timelines.
On the other hand, the tree is alluded to in Act One when Vladimir attempts to recall Proverbs 13:12: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” In Act Two, the next day, Vladimir acknowledges that “things have changed since yesterday” and continues to explain that the tree has been “covered with leaves” “in a single night.” According to the proverb, then, the unexpected fruitfulness of the tree would suggest that a desire has been fulfilled—of course, no desires have, as they find out that they are to wait another day for Godot’s arrival, making Vladimir’s declaration that something has changed nothing but an ironic one. This renders some of Beckett’s allusions and references without truth, sense or reason; they are completely spontaneous, as Vladimir and Estragon are not, and provide superficial or ostensible hope and relief in a world that ensnares humanity in a relentless cycle of time that does nothing but pass. It is as if they are content to continue their lives in passive waiting. That Estragon is aware that time “would have passed in any case” makes it all the more frustrating that even though he “can’t go on like this,” he is bound to the first line of the play that he utters: there is nothing to be done about their struggle. The passage of time in Waiting for Godot follows a cyclical timeline, and so does its logic. Beckett seems to mock the character of both Vladimir and Estragon, writing in Molloy: […] there have always been two fools, among others, one asking nothing better than to stay where he is and the other imagining that life might be slightly less horrible a little further on.
Vladimir and Estragon are these two fools: Estragon, proposing to part ways or leave their waiting place, and Vladimir, persistent in his refusal to admit that there might be something “slightly less horrible” in life than waiting for Godot. Contrastingly, Molloy decides “Molloy could stay, where Molloy happened to be.” In making this decision for himself, based upon nothing but whim, Molloy decides his own future, whereas Vladimir and Estragon are constrained to a future of perpetually waiting.
Beckett also makes use of the cyclical motif in the logic, rather than the direct time, of Molloy. Of course, to follow logic is an action that will take time. He writes: Having heard […] in the days when I thought I would be well advised to […] kill time, that when a man in a forest thinks he is going forward in a straight line, in reality he is going in a circle, I did my best to go in a circle, hoping in this way to go in a straight line […] and if I did not go in a rigorously straight line, with my system of going in a circle, at least I did not go in a circle, and that was something.
Although here Molloy is speaking of physically being lost in a forest, it follows that he himself refuses to allow the constraints of a consecutive, linear timeline to dictate his life by ensuring that his version of his life is something that is changeable and reflexive. However, in spite of Molloy’s everchanging life story, he does acknowledge the beginning of his life by acknowledging his mother. Beckett’s work is well known for the revulsion his characters feel at the idea of sexuality, reproduction, and the body in general. In Molloy, there is a sense of disgust at the sin of being born, something Beckett is known to have spoken about: “I know she did all she could not to have me, except of course the one thing.” For Molloy, the beginning of his life is where it all went wrong, and he takes his repugnance out on his mother for giving birth to him in the first place by treating her rather unkindly: “I got into communication with her by knocking on her skull,” and when his original method of administrating a certain number of knocks is lost on her, he decides instead to “[replace] the four knocks of my index-knuckle by one or more (according to my needs) thumps of the fist, on her skull.” Molloy states that he forgives her for having “spoiled the only endurable, just endurable, period of my enormous history” but clearly his treatment of his mother says otherwise. This shows that Molloy finds the passing of his time unendurable, and since Molloy is the narrator of his life, guarantees that his audience is aware of it.
Molloy’s mother appears to have at least a partial visual impairment, if not completely blind, and this could be said to be an indication of her incapability of looking beyond what she knows. Molloy states that “To know nothing is nothing, not to want to know anything likewise, but to be beyond knowing anything, to know you are beyond knowing anything, that is when peace enters in, to the soul of the incurious seeker.” Molloy’s mother, according to him, seems quite happy in her state of unawareness: “She knew it was me, by my smell. Her shrunken hairy old face lit up, she was happy to smell me. She jabbered away with a rattle of dentures and most of the time didn’t realize what she was saying.” Time, for Molloy’s mother, passes by peacefully for her, because although she may come across as being in a state of despair or suffering, she is in fact almost blissfully unaware of her own state and in this way perhaps understands that she is “beyond knowing anything.” Molloy himself has spent his time in search of peace, but he believes that the only way to reach this peace is to know that ‘knowing’ is nothing. Wolfgang Iser explains: “This knowledge in turn is directly relevant to those experiences which we know exist, but about which we also know that insight into their very nature is denied us. One of these is, of course, the end.” Iser continues that Molloy is incapable of reaching the peace he is searching for because he is incapable of not visualising ‘the end’ without images, which in turn become his “obstacles to peace, for one only creates images in terms of one’s own human reality, and it is exactly this reality of which one seeks to be free.” Where Molloy’s mother can spend her time tranquilly, Molloy cannot reach the same level of peacefulness because the notion of not-knowing is something that Molloy cannot achieve in the passage of his lifetime.
Sightlessness or impaired vision in Waiting for Godot can also be construed as an inability to look forward, to the future; again, confining the characters of the play in their present state of suspense. In Act Two, Pozzo becomes dependent on his servant, Lucky, because his eyesight has mysteriously deteriorated overnight. Perhaps this is to indicate that Pozzo can only see himself in life and is too selfish to look beyond himself. At the same time, Lucky himself also appears to show the signs of physical aging; Pozzo states that he has become “dumb. He can’t even groan” despite having launched into an extended monologue of nonsense and creating entertainment by dancing for Pozzo, Vladimir and Estragon the day before. This would indicate that there has been a further worsening of the communication between the pair, though they do remain interdependent. In fact, the laws of duality surface several times in the play. Pozzo and Lucky embody, of course, the Hegelian model of a master-slave relationship. Vladimir and Estragon are opposites, and dependent on each other; Estragon needs Vladimir to help him with mundane tasks such as removing a boot, whilst Vladimir relies on Estragon’s presence to give himself some kind of feeling of fulfilment, telling Estragon he should be happy:
Estragon: Happy about what?
Vladimir: To be back with me again.
Estragon: Would you say so?
Vladimir: Say you are, even if it’s not true.
And, later, Estragon invokes the story of Cain and Abel when mocking Pozzo. The play is full of opposites who are co-dependent of one another. Plato, when speaking on the unity and struggle of opposites, stated that “Existence is singular and plural, it is permanent and transitory, it is static and changeable, and it rests and moves. Contradiction is a necessary condition for the soul’s stimulus to thinking.” Both of these pairs, Pozzo and Lucky and Vladimir and Estragon, are necessary for each pair’s continued existence: Pozzo needs Lucky, even if he “can’t bear it . . . any longer” because the duality of their relationship requires them to stay together to sustain their meaningless existence. Similarly, Vladimir and Estragon, in spite of the several attempts to part ways, will continue their existence together because each of them requires the other in order to survive:
Vladimir: We can still part, if you think it would be better.
Estragon: It’s not worth while now.
Vladimir: No, it’s not worth while now.
Estragon: Well, shall we go?
Vladimir: Yes, let’s go.
[They do not move.]
The passing of time is limited to the relationship itself; Vladimir and Estragon, like Pozzo and Lucky, are destined to spend the rest of their lives together. That they are consistently annoyed, irritated and distressed by each other, yet they cannot live without each other. These characters must pass their time in struggle. Again, Beckett’s idea of human suffering is incorporated into the idea of opposites and the binary existence of which they are predetermined.
This essay has looked at the ways in which the passage of time is presented in both Waiting for Godot and Molloy. Beckett employs many different techniques to ensure that the portrayal of time becomes something unique for each of his works; for Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, their time is a meaningless cycle of suffering, whereby these two characters are forced to share their existence together because of the duality of their relationship. For the characters of Molloy, Beckett relies heavily on writing the meaning of both Molloy and Moran’s existence on the terms of both individual characters. All of Beckett’s works are individual and unique to their own degree, but the importance Beckett places on the ideas of the cyclicality of time and human suffering are relevant to each piece of literature he has produced.
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