Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a play in two acts written in the genre called Theatre of the Absurd. Theatre of the Absurd primarily arose after World War II and mostly flourished in Paris. The use of the genre uses absurd, or bizarre, plots and settings. In the Theatre of the Absurd, there is no knowledge given to the situation the story begins with.
In Waiting for Godot, there are two men—Vladimir and Estragon—who are simply waiting for a man named Godot. During their alienating wait, they engage in conversation throughout the entire play, as well as two other characters interfering twice within the two acts, Pozzo and Lucky. Pozzo is an unknown individual and Lucky is his slave. Whilst Vladimir and Estragon’s conversations and Pozzo and Lucky’s interference take place, Beckett portrays the absurdity of human codependency, particularly how, if not properly guided, healthy interdependence can lead to codependency.
To fathom the portrayal Beckett is attempting to transfer, we must analyse it using formalism and historicism. In formalism, the focus will be on the text and what the text suggests of human interdependence and how Vladimir and Estragon are similar to us in a variety of ways. In historicism, the focus will be on the human interdependence Beckett is mimicking from the history of his country, Ireland.
Waiting for Godot portrays the absurdity of codependency that too much interdependence can lead to. Vladimir and Estragon illustrate this for the average human being, and Pozzo and Lucky illustrate how this takes place in history.
The Formalist Perspective
During the multiple conversations between Vladimir and Estragon and the interference of Pozzo and Lucky, they exhibit their dependence on one another. In act one, Estragon says coldly, “There are times when I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for us to part,” and Vladimir responds, “You wouldn’t go far” (Beckett, 11). This signifies the dependence Estragon has on Vladimir for not feeling alone and being alone.
Vladimir depends on Estragon for the same thing. At the beginning of the play, we read Vladimir saying, “I’m glad to see you back. I thought you were gone forever… Together at last! We’ll have to celebrate this” (7). We see that without Estragon there, Vladimir felt lonely and sad, and now that Estragon is present again, Vladimir is joyful and feels the need to celebrate this joyous occasion. Without Estragon’s presence, Vladimir feels lonely, and it leaves him in despair. There is a moment when Estragon is sleeping and Vladimir yells his name to wake him (“Gogo” is Vladimir’s nickname for Estragon):
Vladimir: Gogo! … Gogo! … GOGO! Estragon wakes with a start. Estragon: (restored to the horror of his situation). I was asleep! (Despairingly.) Why will you never let me sleep?
Vladimir: I felt lonely. (Beckett, 11)
Vladimir cannot stand to be lonely to the point that he will not allow his friend to sleep. Even though his friend is physically present, he feels lonely whilst he’s sleeping. The two are deeply connected to one another. There are several times in act two when Estragon says he’s going to leave—to stop waiting for Godot, but he never leaves, although Vladimir doesn’t do anything to stop him. The problem for Estragon is that this was an individual decision, and he couldn’t follow through with it because it was not made with the approval of his codependent partner, Vladimir.
In act two, Pozzo is mysteriously blind and he falls down and he cries for help to get up. Whilst Pozzo is crying for help, Vladimir moves to help pull him off the ground, but he fails and falls to the ground as well. Vladimir calls for Estragon to help him, but he says he’s leaving and Vladimir yells, “Don’t leave me! They’ll kill me” (52)! So, Estragon moves to help him, but he falls also. Whilst they were sitting on the ground, they didn’t know what action to move on to, and Estragon suggested, “Suppose we got up to begin with” (54)? Vladimir responds, “No harm trying.”
When thinking about all these characters falling to the ground, any one of them could have easily gotten up on their own, even a blind man. The man has presumably been blind for quite a while. Surely, he has fallen plenty of times in his life and knows how to get up! It’s not that hard to find the ground and push yourself up. They all depended on one another just to simply get off the ground, which is part of the absurdity and bizarre aspect of the play.
They all needed each other to be physically uplifted, which is absurd in itself because if one has fallen to the ground, he or she does not necessarily need help from another individual to get up on their feet again. It would be nice to receive that help, but by no means is it a necessity. Imagine how absurd we would all look if every time we fell down we sat for a while wondering who would be the first to suggest we try standing up on our own.
There is a comical role in Estragon saying, “Suppose we got up to begin with?” All this time, they wasted time trying to help one another get up when all they needed to do was simply get up themselves without using anyone else’s help. What Beckett might be implying here is that we really do not always need another person’s approval of our independent decision making, especially for such menial tasks of getting up when you’ve fallen down.
This can relate to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory. The highest level we can achieve, he postulated, is the level of self-actualisation where we realise our maximum potential, gaining independence and a having a grasp on reality. Vladimir and Estragon are obviously not on this level, as they cannot realise their maximum potential without each other. In this way, then, Vladimir and Estragon’s interdependence is more codependence, which is a relationship where neither person feels they can be their individual self without approval of the other(s).
Most of the play consists of large symbolism among the characters. Pozzo symbolises Godot, Lucky symbolises Vladimir and Estragon, and Godot symbolises the telos (end, goal). Many think Godot symbolises God, but if you asked Samuel Beckett, he would have scoffed at the idea (more on this later). Their waiting on Godot—for whatever reason—is their telos. This is all a metaphor of waiting, or depending on, a certain end.
Pozzo describes how his slave, Lucky, is attempting to impress him so he can keep him, “He imagines that when I see him indefatigable I’ll regret my decision. Such is his miserable scheme. As though I were short of slaves” (21)! Through this, we see Pozzo is not going to keep him. Lucky is waiting for acceptance from Pozzo, but it will never come because Pozzo is selling him, and Pozzo has plenty of slaves as it is. The telos, for Lucky, will never come.
Lucky is waiting for Pozzo’s acceptance. In the same way, Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for Godot’s arrival. Lucky is waiting for Pozzo’s acceptance, but his expectations will never occur. In the same way, Vladimir and Estragon’s waiting for Godot’s arrival will never occur either. Their telos, too, will never come. Lucky’s predicament, then, is a foreshadow of Vladimir and Estragon’s waiting. Ironically, neither Lucky nor Vladimir or Estragon realise the pointless effort in their waiting. Just as Pozzo never intended to accept Lucky, it is just as likely that Godot never intended to show up.
Thus, even though Godot is not present, Godot is also a dependent figure for Vladimir and Estragon. They are waiting on him to do something, namely, to show up. Without Godot’s arrival, Vladimir and Estragon do not know what to do with themselves.
There is a moment in act one when Estragon suggests they hang themselves (12). They were deciding on who should be hanged first. Estragon rationalised he should be hanged first, since he is the lightest. Vladimir considers the proposition and realises the following syllogism (“Didi” is Vladimir’s nickname): “Gogo light—bough not break—Gogo dead. Didi heavy—bough break—Didi alone” (12). If Estragon hanged himself, then Vladimir would not succeed at hanging himself since he is heavier, and he would be alone. Vladimir was more concerned with being alone than he was with his friend killing himself! This, too, is absurd befitting the genre.
Vladimir and Estragon could not decide what to do and Vladimir suggested they should wait to see what Godot says. Without another figure to depend on, they did not know what to do with themselves. This suggests we depend on more than one figure in order to continue our lives. In a personal decision, we often ask for advice from more than one person—we depend on more than one person to point us in the right direction. For Vladimir and Estragon, they needed another figure to tell them what to do in this situation, only to an absurd extent (codependency). Should they hang themselves, or should they not hang themselves? Who should go first? Never mind the impracticality (i.e. absurdity) of waiting on Godot to show up and tell them what to do—the very reason for their predicament!
Formalism: Godot = God?
One interpretation of many scholars is that Godot symbolises God. Whilst Beckett loathed this interpretation and I, too, disagree with this interpretation, it is still one worth discussing since it is popular among literary critics. Whilst waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon did nothing but engage in multiple desultory conversations. They attempt to make conversation and even speak of hanging themselves from the tree just to pass time.! This could symbolise that merely waiting and doing nothing will not bring Godot’s—or God’s—arrival. In act one, Vladimir tells the story of the two thieves:
Two thieves. One is supposed to have been saved and the other … (he searches for the contrary of saved) … damned… How is it that of the four Evangelists only one speaks of a thief being saved? The four of them were there—or thereabouts—and only one speaks of a thief being saved. (Beckett, 9)
All four Evangelists account for the presence of the two thieves, but Luke is the only one who records that one of them was saved when he confessed his faith in the Christ. Thus, Vladimir’s question is a theological one: Why is Luke the only gospel writer who records that one of the thieves was saved? Much exegesis can be done on this to cover another entire essay, but it should suffice to say that Luke had a different purpose in writing than the other gospel writers.
From my previous exegetical work on Luke, Jesus as Lord is prominent throughout his gospel account. Particularly in Luke, Jesus shows Himself to be Lord of creation, Lord over sin, Lord of the Sabbath, and Lord over death. Thus, for Luke, it was more important to him than the other gospel writers that he show Jesus’ lordship over death even whilst on the cross.
That is the short answer to a deep theological question, but neither Vladimir nor Estragon provide an answer. Thus, since we are dealing with the formalist perspective here, what does the text itself imply?
The four Evangelists could represent each of the four characters who are actually present in the play: Pozzo, Lucky, Vladimir, and Estragon. Of these four, Vladimir is the only one who is speaking of the story of the two thieves (like Luke). This story is about the two thieves who were beside Jesus when He died on the cross—one saved, the other damned. So, what might this story be saying about Vladimir and Estragon?
As Luke’s gospel suggests, confessing faith in Christ rather than mocking him like the other thief is the right choice to make. (Yes, this is decision theology, which we do not confess as Lutherans; but remember, this is the formalistic perspective—what the literary text is saying—which is not always congruent with our Lutheran confession.) Thus, as we play out this metaphor, either Vladimir or Estragon will confess their faith in Godot’s arrival. However, Godot never arrives, which is why Godot as God does not work and why, I think, Beckett scoffed at the idea.
However, both Vladimir and Estragon finally agree to stop waiting for Godot and leave, but as the curtain closes, you never see either of them leave. Still, though, I do not think this is a story about waiting for God, but a story on the absurdity of codependency that ultimately leaves the group with hopeless indecision. Every sign points to Godot’s not coming. Vladimir and Estragon have to leave eventually; they cannot stand there forever.
The Historic Perspective
In Waiting for Godot, Beckett portrays the dependence Britain had on Ireland during Ireland’s times of oppression. In 1937, the Irish gained their independence from Britain. During the time this play was written (1948-1949), eleven years later, the Irish were struggling to find their identity. For hundreds of years, the British oppressed the Irish, taking advantage of their land and lowering the worker classes. The Irish were called names such as “Patty” (this will be explained later) and they were to work the land, doing farm work in bad conditions.
Pozzo and Lucky have yet another representation. Pozzo symbolises Britain and Lucky symbolises Ireland. On page sixteen when Pozzo and Lucky first interact with Vladimir and Estragon, Vladimir and Estragon tell them they are waiting for Godot and Pozzo says, “Here? On my land?” He says this as if what Vladimir and Estragon are doing is intrusion and illegal. This signifies Britain’s taking advantage of Ireland’s land.
Britain owned Ireland, much like Britain once owned the American colonies. Pozzo representing Britain shows how defensive he is about his land, and is probably taking advantage of the land, which is ultimately Ireland’s land.
Pozzo’s treatment toward Lucky represents the low working classes and Britain’s mistreatment toward the Irish working class. Lucky, as a slave, gives the portrayal as if the lower working classes of Ireland were in bondage of the British, illustrated in Pozzo’s calling Lucky a pig, hog, and dumb:
Vladimir: Before you go, tell him to sing.
Pozzo: To sing?
Vladimir: Yes. Or to think [philosophise]. Or to recite.
Pozzo: But he is dumb.
Pozzo: Dumb. He can’t even groan. (Beckett, 57)
From Beckett’s perspective, the British considered the Irish to be utterly dumb—to use a crude word: retarded. This is exemplified in the British calling the Irish “Patties.”
Patrick was a common name in Ireland, so they would say, “Hey, Patty,” as if they were all the same and stupid. We can see this through Pozzo’s name calling toward Lucky: “(He jerks the rope.) Up pig! (Pause.) Every time he drops he falls asleep. (Jerks the rope.) Up hog” (16)! Pigs and hogs are considered to be lesser intelligent beings and the dirtiest of animals, hence symbolising Britain’s treatment toward the Irish and how they had thought of them.
This is the result of the dependence a tyrannical oppressor has on the lesser population. Through these portrayals, Beckett shows Britain was completely dependent on Ireland to work the land. The British depended on the Irish for manufactured goods, farming, etc. so that the British could go about their daily business without having to worry about themselves. We see this tyrannical dependence take action again in Pozzo:
(To Lucky.) Coat! (Lucky puts down the bag, advances, gives the coat, goes back to his place, takes up the bag.) Hold that! (Pozzo holds out the whip. Lucky advances and, both his hands being occupied, takes the whip in his mouth, then goes back to his place. Pozzo begins to put on his coat, stops.)… Whip! (Lucky advances, stoops, Pozzo snatches the whip from his mouth, Lucky goes back to his place.)… Stool! (Lucky puts down bag and basket, advances, opens stool, puts it down, goes back to his place, takes up bag and basket.) Closer! (Lucky puts down bag and basket, advances, moves stool, goes back to his place, takes up bag and basket…). (Beckett, 16-17)
Pozzo was tyrannically—and ridiculously—dependent on Lucky to bring his basket and stool over and hold his whip; he was too lazy to move and to these things himself. This portrays the tyrannical dependence Britain had on Ireland—that the British were too lazy and dependent on the Irish to work the land.
Lucky symbolising Ireland, what he was commanded to do was not entirely that difficult. Pozzo could have easily done all those things himself. Indeed, Lucky’s assistance was superfluous. In the same way, Beckett is implying that what the Irish were doing—working the land—was not entirely that difficult. Britain could have easily had their own workers do the same work. It was not necessary that the Irish do it exclusively. Whether or not this is true is not the point. Rather, the point is Beckett’s perception of this history between Britain and his country, Ireland.
Under the formalist perspective, the text of Waiting for Godot tells the tale of the absurd extent that human interdependence can take. There is nothing inherently wrong with depending on other people; we all depend on one another every day. We depend on cooks to cook good food, we depend on national security not to let our traffic systems get hacked, husband and wife depend on one another every day, friends depend on one another, co-workers depend on one another, and so on.
Vladimir and Estragon’s interdependence show the absurdity it can lead to, which is codependence—dependence in a relationship that is so unhealthy that individual decisions cannot be made unless the other agrees. Even then, it can lead to hopeless paralysis, as indicated in their not moving at the close of the play.
Vladimir and Estragon’s absurd relationship shows the absurdity of codependency. It is good to have healthy interdependence in our relationships with one another, but it is equally important to have some independence in every relationship where we depend on another person.
Historicism serves to show the effect our place in history has on us, especially writers. Samuel Beckett was born in 1906, so he lived through Ireland’s achieved independence from Britain. This affected how he wrote. As Vladimir and Estragon illustrate the absurdity of human codependence, so Pozzo and Lucky show the absurdity of tyrannical codependence.
Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. New York: Grove Press Inc. 1954.
Here’s a fun, short clip on a few scenes from Waiting for Godot starring the brilliant minds of Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen.