Existentialism In ‘Waiting For Godot’ By Samuel Beckett

Source: Goodreads

“Nothing happens. Nobody comes. Nobody goes. It’s awful.”

First premiered in 1953, Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting For Godot’ continues to gain popularity as time goes on. The play begins with Vladimir and Estragon, our main characters, waiting for Godot, whose identity not even the writer knew, and the play ends with them still waiting. The play is written in such a way that the message that Beckett is trying to convey is never actually directly said. 

Though the language used is very easily understood and simple. You can understand the meaning of the word but the reader has to search for the message behind them. The readers have to make their own assessment and conclusion because the writers provide us with nothing but utter nonsense.

Ironically, for a play where literally nothing happens, there’s a whole mountain of themes and underlying meanings to decipher. In this article, I’ll be discussing one specific theme i.e. Existentialism. But before that, I‘d like to discuss a bit about what Nihilism says because one must look at the question first to answer it.

The Philosophy of Nihilism

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It's a super pessimistic philosophy. It rejects everything there is about life- morality, knowledge, objective truth, values, meaning, and basically just live itself. Nihilism says that everything is set in stone and that we don't have any actual choice. We, humans, are just complex machines that are part of this bigger and more complex machine that we call the universe. 

The system is in motion and we are just a tiny part of it; our choices don't matter, our thoughts don't matter, our lives don't matter, nothing does. Borrowing a line from a Pink Floyd song "we're just another brick in the wall". All in all, there is no purpose to life. 

Such a theory is naturally difficult to digest, not many people would simply accept it or would be able to endure such a harsh view of life and of the world. So, to give a little bit of metaphorical sunshine and hope to this relatively dark and hopeless world that nihilism created, Existentialism was born.

Existentialism: Questioning the Purpose of Life

Existentialism enters the picture and says that no, we can make meaning in this irrational and absurd world. It supports subjectivity; the meaning that it talks about isn't objective nor does it come from objective reality. It emphasizes that every being that is put on this earth is on the quest of finding meaning in its life.

Source: Quote Master

It also often claims that existence has no purpose or explanation at its heart, carrying an unsettling feeling with it. The entire perception of meaning is constructed to hide the truth that there’s no genuine meaning, a way to mask the nothingness in our lives. Persistence through encounters with the absurd is a common subject in existentialist philosophy.

We can see this in Albert Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942) which is about a Greek myth where Sisyphus, as his punishment, is condemned to roll a giant boulder to the top of a mountain only to have it roll back down again and again for eternity. Essentially, Camus uses this myth to illustrate the absurdity of life but also says that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy” because he ultimately finds meaning and purpose in this absurd task.

Two Perspectives of Existentialism

Soren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre were two key philosophers in the field of Existentialism. Sartre gave the philosophy of Atheistic Existentialism and Kierkegaard gave the philosophy of Theistic Existentialism. Sartre’s philosophy begins by agreeing that the world is in fact completely absurd. 

It’s a machine but I'm not a part of it, I have free will, I make my own identity. It says "existence precedes essence"- man first exists, and then after that, he freely creates his own essence, he is what he makes himself to be. This is based on the traditional philosophical view of “essence precedes existence” (the essence of the nature of the thing precedes its existence).

Source: YouTube

Plato said that the world that surrounds us is of the essence- ideas, thoughts, values, ideals, etc. and the goal of life is to discover these essences. They are already there and precede existence. But Sartre says the opposite. He believes that in the absence of existence, essence can’t possibly be manifested. Man creates his own essence.

Kierkegaard introduced 3 stages of existence/consciousness in his philosophy, which become the foundation to manifest one's true self: the aesthetic stage, the ethical stage, and the religious stage. The aesthetic person is more taken to sensuous experiences and isn’t concerned about the effects of his actions on others. 

Source: YouTube

The ethical person is above the aesthetic as he moves on from selfish ways and becomes concerned about the effects of his actions. The religious person believes in God and waits on him to provide him the meaning of his existence. This is the highest stage of existence.

Existentialism in the Play

“Waiting for Godot” promotes the philosophy of existentialism. Estragon and Vladimir are existing in an absurd world, and they have defined meanings of their lives i.e. to wait for Godot. Assuming that Godot represents God, we can say that Vladimir signifies the part of humanity who leans on faith and religious views to direct them, whereas Estragon embodies the existentialist who decides to stop waiting and create the essence of life-based on his encounters. 

Source: The New York Times

Vladimir appears to be more ethical, whilst Estragon appears to be more aesthetic which can be supported by their interactions with Pozzo and Lucky. While Estragon pines for the chicken bones thrown by Pozzo, Vladimir is angered by the mistreatment of Lucky.

Furthermore, Estragon is the more aggressive of the two, shaking the little messenger boy, whereas Vladimir is in control of his physical urges and does the actual talking, being more able to utilize his head. Vladimir also emerges as the pair's obvious leader, confirming Kierkegaard's preference for the ethical above the aesthetic domain.

They are unhappy because they are free, not because life is full of sorrow. Humans' ability to exercise free will is also concerning. Lucky is satisfied with his life as opposed to Estragon and Vladimir.  His master has given him his purpose i.e. to follow his orders. Estragon and Vladimir, on the other hand, have no purpose. Their issue is one of free will.

They even contemplate suicide as a solution to end the nothingness that fills their life, paradoxically. If Godot doesn’t come, then they don’t have any purpose left and so, death seems like the only and more liberating choice. But they never go through with it because they are uncertain of the result: they might die, they might not. 

They are so free that they don’t know what to choose- life or death, so they choose not to choose anything. Suicide could also be interpreted as a way to confirm their existence since something that doesn't exist can't possibly die. If they attempted suicide and didn’t die, that’d mean they didn’t exist in the first place, that their existence is a mere dream.

Written By - Sanjana Chaudhary

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