Dec 21, 2010

AgentQuery :: Find the Agent Who Will Find You a Publisher

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Dec 5, 2010 The Stone: Navigating Past Nihilism

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OPINION   | December 05, 2010
The Stone: Navigating Past Nihilism
Thirty years before Nietzsche pronounced God dead, a great American novelist was charting a course out of the abyss.

Nov 29, 2010

Northrop Frye - The Anatomy Of Criticism

Northrop Frye - The Anatomy Of Criticism
Full etext online. Frye, one of the great critics of the 20th century maps out his architecture of literary modes, symbols, myths, and genres.

Nov 25, 2010

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)
The Luminarium has a useful set of web pages on Christopher Marlowe with links to his works online.
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Oct 19, 2010

Notes on Antigone

Antigone is a tragedy of clashing personalities. Creon, the dictatorial leader of Thebes, is intoxicated with his own authority. His word is law, and the state is embodied in his person. Athenian audiences would have understood Creon as an illegitimate, unwise, impious ruler; the antithesis of the Athenian democratic ideal. In the wake of the attack of the Seven Against Thebes, the Thebans have won the day, but at great cost to Oedipus's sons. Eteiocles, ally of Creon, has died in battle in the arms of his inimical brother Polyneices. Because Polyneices was allied with the enemy, Creon has decreed that he shall not be buried, left to rot outside the city gates, while his brother will be given a state funeral with the highest honors. Creon has his political reasons for issuing this edict. He is trying mightily to right the ship of state, to reinstate law and order in Thebes. He needs to consolidate power around him, even if it requires the institution of martial law. Thebes has been cursed for too long. It requires a strong man like Creon to get it set right again. The refusal to bury Polyneices would have been regarded as a rash, extreme act on his part, but in Creon's mind, extreme times demand extreme measures. Anyone attempting to bury the body will be executed.

Creon's main rival in the play is Antigone, Oedipus's daughter and fiancee of Creon's son Haemon. Antigone is a force to be reckoned with. She has promised her brother Polyneices that she will give him a proper burial, and she has no intentions of quitting now. Nothing can stop her, not even the bullying Creon. Sophocles uses the character of Ismene in this play as a foil to Antigone. Ismene is reluctant to defy the law, much to Antigone's chagrin. Later in the play, when Creon suspects Ismene has also played a role in the crime, she lies to him, admitting she did help. She wants to be at Antigone's side, to share her culpability, but Antigone steps in to take all credit for herself. In part, this might be driven by a sisterly love to spare Ismene, but there's also the sense that Antigone is proud of her solo act, and wants to be martyred for this cause. No one is going to steal the show from her.
Fundamentally, the play dramatizes the thematic clash between one's duty to the state and loyalty to the family. Sophocles wants us to think about how far a citizen will bend following orders, even if it means denying the close kinship bonds of sisters, brothers, fathers, and sons. Antigone is willing to be martyred for her cause, for her close blood ties to her brother. We also witness an inverted loyalty of Creon to his state, for his family is sacrificed in the process. Antigone honors her broken family; Creon's family is broken by his honor to the state.

The play's plot moves swiftly, economically. When the play opens, Antigone is plotting to violate Creon's unfair decree. In her conversation with Ismene, we discover her fortitude, her singleminded purpose: death with honor. The chorus of Theban senators sings of the recent victory in battle and of the wish for peace. Creon marches onto the scene declaring his political philosophy: he will not rest in the face of brewing mischief. His role as leader is to restore order, even if it means ruling with an iron fist. A sentinel reports that someone has thrown dirt on the body of Polyneices. Creon assumes a man has performed the deed, and threatens death to the guards if they don't capture the perpetrator. After the first stasimon, the sentinel returns with the captured Antigone, who has been caught in the act. The second episode centers on the dialogue of Antigone in Creon. He asks her why she did it. She is defiant. Creon feels his manhood has been called into question, and he shows himself to be quite the male chauvenist. How dare a woman defy his man power. He will not show mercy. He will not back down. He will make an example of this girl. After the second stasimon, we have the third episode, which contains the intense dialogue between Creon and Haemon, his son. Haemon approaches his father with respect, but he wants to persuade him to change his mind. His plea is eminently sensible, rational, and with the best interests of his father at heart, and yet Creon turns a deaf ear to the appeal. In fact, he goes ballistic. The converation devolves into a shouting match, bitter with generational conflict. After this scene, Antigone comes on stage to deliver her farewell address to the chorus. She wears her punishment like a badge of honor. We have one final exchange before she leaves to be buried alive in a cave. In this play the time is out of joint. The dead go unburied and the living are buried alive. It is not until Tiresias takes the stage that Creon will be swayed to change his mind. And it does not happen instantly. Basically, the blind prophet tells him that the altars have been defiled by the birds and dogs who have feasted on Polyneices' rotting corpse. The gods are frowning again upon Thebes. Creon resists this advice, until Tireias hurls the prophecy at him that his child will pay the price for this unjust death sentence. Creon finally relents, but it is too late. Antigone has hung herself, Haemon discovers the body, spits in his father's face, draws a sword and attacks his father, who runs away, whereupon Haemon kills himself. ON hearing the news, Creon's wife Eurydice silently goes to her room and kills herself.

One question suggested by the play is this: in what cases is civil disobedience acceptable? Are there instances when it is fitting to defy authority? To break the rules? To disobey?

Lest we think Antigone to be the pure, righteous, and courageous heroine of this drama, lets remind ourselves that she too is a tragic figure. If Creon's hamartia was excessive authority, Antigone has her hamartia too. It can be found in the chorus's observation that her self sufficiency has been her undoing. Her error has been self-righteousness, so sure that she is right that she cuts herself off from human contact, from her sister, her fiancee, leaving her alone and leaning away from the living, towards the dead. She is a law unto herself. By the play's end, Creon has proved to be open to reason; he does change his mind (too late, alas). But Antigone is never open to deliberation. She knows she's right. Is she over confident? Although we probably take her side in the argument, she fails to recognize that there are other options. Perhaps by allying herself with Ismene, Haemon, and Tiresias, that they collectively can move Creon to relent, thus saving her life, her marriage, and continuing her lifeline. By being so certain of her mission, she guarantees a tragic outcome. She never really doubts herself, and because of this, she never hesitates and loses the opportunity of being rescued. There is a little bit of the suicide bomber in Antigone, isn't there? It's a dangerous thing to be so sure you're right.

As for Creon, there's a bit of George W. Bush in him. He's the decider, the man whose certainty in authority has disastrous consequences. At least with Creon, we can say that he admits the error of his ways.

What makes this play a tragedy? I think it has something to do with the characters of Antigone and Creon. The two strictly hold their views; both are inflexible, unshakeable, stubborn, and immoderate. There is no middle ground for them to come to terms. Each is an extreme – opposite poles repelling the other. Antigone represents the commitment to blood ties, the call of family and personal conscience. She cares little for the edicts of the state and appeals to a higher power (the gods), divine law, which says that the dead must be given proper burial. On the other side, Creon is the man of politics, the representative of state power. He has political reasons for refusing to bury Polyneices. He wants to send a stern message to the people of Thebes: you better not think about fomenting any more civil wars or this could happen to you. This is a thoroughly political strategy. To the Greeks, who were a political people, they also would have recognized this policy as being unwise— it shows an unhealthy disrespect for the gods. Man usurps the power over the dead; moreover, Creon has taken lawmaking into his own hands. He is a budding tyrant. His word becomes law. This is also a problem. He overreaches and pays the price. 

So when we have these two strong forces opposing each other, neither of them budging an inch, we have a tragedy in the making. The tragic plot will unfold inevitably, springing straight out of the characters in the play. There is no turning back in this sort of tragedy. Creon refuses to listen to his son Haemon's reasonable and emotional appeals, even if his adherence to the letter of the law means the destruction of his own family (and ultimately destabilizing the state, for the state afterall is composed of so many families); Antigone's self righteousness and stubborn will leads her to sacrifice her life for her family, even if it means ostracizing herself from the very family she has left (Ismene and Haemon). These opposing forces are locked in a death grip. When Creon finally relents, it is too late. 

There are some other conflicts worth discussing too:  the battle of the sexes – male vs. female (Creon is quite misogynistic); old vs. young (experience vs. naïve idealism); life vs. death.  

Creon Antigone
old  / young
realist idealist
male / female
political religious / domestic

Questions raised by this tragedy:
To whom do you owe more allegiance, the state or your family, or the civil authority or your personal authority (conscience)?

Are you as an individual willing to do things that the state tells you to do, even if you don't believe they're right? What kind of society will that sort of acquiescence lead to?

Should religious tradition and strongly held personal beliefs be able to supersede the civil law? Won't this lead to anarchy, civil disturbance, social unrest, factionalism, even civil war? 

Is law and order more important than moral righteousness?  

Are some causes worth dying for? 

What modern analogues are there for these characters? 
Transpose Creon and Antigone to the Iraq war. Creon as Saddam or Bush. Creon "supports the troops," opposes protestors, calls them anti-patriotic, wants them put in jail. Antigone is the anti-war activist – opposing the war on moral grounds. She would be a human shield. She would suffer the consequences for proclaiming her personal morality as more just than the political situation. 

What makes these characters tragic heroes?
Creon's tragic flaw is his inflexible and austere approach to power, represented by his extremist edict. He is a strong leader, but not a good one. He's blind to the "beyond the pale" nature of his rule. His punishment fits the crime. By denying the rights due to family, he loses his own family. The tragedy with him is that he recognizes his weakness too late. We witness his tragic pain. His strength is a sign of weakness. 

Antigone's tragic flaw is her self-righteous extremism. Although her cause is just (one can argue the justness of her cause at least), her pride and commitment to the cause makes her feel superior to her sister and fiancee. She has a martyr complex. When she's walled in the cave, she hangs herself because she has a death wish, an ironclad will to "make her point." It will not do to have the edict repealed. She must die the martyr, even though this means depriving herself of her fiancee and remaining family. There is an irony here – by championing the cause of her family, she alienates herself from that family forever. She dies with dignity, but it is a death that ultimately was unnecessary. But she can't see that Creon would ever change his mind, just as she would never give an inch herself. That's a bit of blindness in action. 

Haemon is tragic because he is caught in the middle between father and fiancee. His father won't listen to reason, won't pity him either. His fiancee doesn't love him enough to dissuade her from her death wish. He kills himself because he can't go on living without Antigone, and he can't go on living with such a father. 

The play is a political parable, isn't it? What is it telling us about the right way to lead a state? The laws should be followed, but not when they're unjust? 

Why is Antigone willing to give up her life for her cause? Would you do the same? Is her sacrifice worth it?

See Patricia Line's "Antigone's Flaw" for a perceptive analysis of Antigone's hamartia.
See also Richard Jebb's commentary at Perseus.

Notes on Toni Cade Bambara's "The Lesson"


Sylvia: the narrator and protagonist, a sassy, defiant African-American girl who resists the educational overtures of Miss Moore. The story's plot centers on a "teaching moment" or pedagogical breakthrough, where Sylvia is disturbed out of her complacency, having been exposed to the other side of the social ladder.

Sugar: one of Sylvia's better friends, a sidekick if you will. Sugar noticeably picks up on Miss Moore's lesson faster than Sylvia, and she even defies Sylvia's authority in the process, which contributes to Sylvia's feelings of disruption.

Flyboy, Fat Butt, Mercedes, Rosie, Junebug, Q.T.: other children who accompany Miss Moore on the field trip to F.A.O. Schwartz

Miss Moore: college educated woman who "gives back" to her community by volunteering to assist with the children's education. Ostensibly, or at least viewed from the narrator's perspective, Miss Moore is the antagonist of the story. She is preventing the children from having fun on their own terms, saddling them with boring, pointless instruction. When we step back with the understanding that Sylvia's point of view is limited and unreliable, we recognize that Miss Moore is an actual ally to the children; her mission is to raise their consciousness, to teach them to recognize the social inequality endemic to America. She adopts techniques reminiscent of Paulo Freire's problem posing methods, as discussed in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Instead of teaching the children knowledge in the abstract, e.g. arithmetic, Miss Moore forces them to apply their math skills to real world, practical situations: paying a cab fare and calculating the 10% tip, pricing the items in the toy store, which serves as the basis for a larger life lesson about equal opportunity, thus making the children understand their disadvantaged position on the social scale. Her toughest sell is Sylvia. At the end of the story, Miss Moore has triumphed, in that Sylvia is determined to think the problem through and moreover do something about it.

The plot of the story takes the form of a journey from the Harlem ghetto to downtown Manhattan (F.A.O. Schwartz) and back. The cab ride to the store helps to build the dramatic tension (can Sylvia calculate the tip?, will the children behave?). The crux of the action takes place at the store, from the outside looking in, and then inside the store proper. We see the children taken out of their comfort zone. They experience an alienation effect. What are these poor kids doing in a store with toys that they could never afford? Bambara evokes their growing awareness primarily through dialogue and descriptions of their reactions.

Bambara leaves little doubt as to the meaning of the lesson, and some critics might accuse her of being overly dogmatic; however, what rescues the story from heavy-handedness is the telling of the story. Putting it in the saucy words of the stubborn, bossy Sylvia, we get to share in an intimate way the sea change occuring within her. Imagining the story told in the third person would likely result in a pedantic exercise. Told in the first, the lesson feels like the beginning of a personal transformation.
Bambara makes effective use of imagery, especially in the toy store. The microscope, paper weight, and sail boat all have lessons to teach. The microscope has symbolic value, for in its ability to reveal what cannot be seen with the naked eye, the microscope objectifies what Miss Moore would have the children discover in themselves, their unseen, unnoticed, blindness to their own oppression. The paper weight helps them to realize that they have no papers worth holding down. And the $1000 sailboat makes them acutely aware of their economic deficits. "Where we are is who we are," the teacher says. And now the children realize what she means.

Notes on A Lover's Discourse

In A Lover's Discourse, Roland Barthes compiles a (non-exhaustive) list of "fragments" pertaining to the discourse oflovers. Barthes calls them "figures" -- gestures of the lover at work. I've listed them all below.  [source: A Lover's Discourse by Roland Barthes. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.]

"I am engulfed, I succumb ..."

s'abîmer / to be engulphed

Outburst of annihilation which affects the amorous subject in despair or fulfillment.

The Absent One

absence / absence

Any episode of language which stages the absence of the loved object -- whatever its cause and its duration -- and which tends to transform this absence into an ordeal of abandonment.


adorable / adorable

Not managing to name the specialty of his desire for the loved being, the amorous subject falls back on this rather stupid word: adorable!

The Intractable

affirmation / affirmation

Against and in spite of everything, the subject affirms love as value.

The Tip of the Nose

altération / alteration

Abrupt production, within the amorous field, of a counter-image of the loved object. According to minor incidents or tenuous features, the subject suddenly sees the good Image alter and capsize.


angoisse / anxiety

The amorous subject, according to one contingency or another, feels swept away by the fear of a danger, an injury, an abandonment, a revulsion -- a sentiment he expresses under the name of anxiety

To Love Love

annulation / annulment

Explosion of language during which the subject manages to annul the loved object under the volume of love itself: by a specifically amorous perversion, it is love the subject loves, not the object.

To Be Ascetic


Whether he feels guilty with regard to the loved being, or whether he seeks to impress that being by representing his unhappiness, the amorous subject outlines an ascetic behavior of self-punishment (in life style, dress, etc.).


atopos / atopos

The loved being is recognized by the amorous subject as "atopos" (a qualification given to Socrates by his interlocutors), i.e., unclassifiable, of a ceaselessly unforseen originality.


attente / waiting

Tumult of anxiety provoked by waiting for the loved being, subject to trivial delays (rendezvous, letters, telephone calls, returns).

Dark Glasses

cacher / to hide

A deliberative figure: the amorous subject wonders, not whether he should declare his love to the loved being (this is not a figure of avowal), but to what degree he should conceal the turbulences of his passion: his desires, his distresses; in short, his excesses (in Racinian langauges: his fureur).

Tutti Sistemati

casés / pigeonholed

The amorous subject sees everyone around him as "pigeonholed," each appearing to be granted a little practical and affective system of contractual liaisons from which he feels himself to be excluded; this inspires him with an ambiguous sentiment of envy and mockery.


catastrophe / catastrophe

Violent crisis during which the subject, experiencing the amorous situation as a definitive impasse, a trap from which he can never escape, sees himself doomed to total destruction.


circonscrire / to circumscribe

To reduce his wretchedness, the subject pins his hope on a method of control which permits him to circumscribe the pleasures afforded by the amorous relation: on the one hand, to keep these pleasures, to take full advantage of them, and on the other hand, to place within a parenthesis of the unthinkable those broad depressive zones which separate such pleasures: "to forget" the loved being outside of the pleasures that being bestows.

The Heart

coeur / heart

This word refers to all kinds of movements and desires, but what is constant is that the heart is constituted into a gift-object -- whether ignored or rejected.

"All the delights of the earth"

comblement / fulfillment

The subject insistently posits the desire and the possibility of a complete satisfaction of the desire implicated in the amorous relation and of a perfect and virtually eternal success of this relation: paradisiac image of the Sovereign Good, to be given and to be received.

"I have an Other-ache"

compassion / compassion

The subject experiences a sentiment of violent compassion with regard to the loved object each time he sees, feels, or knows the loved object is unhappy or in danger, for whatever reason external to the amorous relation itself.

"I want to understand"

compendre / to understand

Suddenly perceiving the amorous episode as a knot of inexplicable reasons and impaired solutions, the subject exclaims: "I want to understand (waht is happening to me)!"

"What is to be done?"

conduite / behavior

A deliberative figure: the amorous subject raises (generally) futile problems of behavior: faced with this or that alternative, waht is to be done? How is he to act?


connivence / connivance

The subject imagines himself speaking about the loved being with a rival person, and this image generates and strangely develops in him a pleasure of complicity.

"When my finger accidentally ..."

contacts / contacts

The figure refers to any interior discourse provoked by a furtive contact with the body (and more precisely the skin) of the desired being.

Events, Setbacks, Annoyances

contingences / contingencies

Trivialities, incidents, setbacks, pettinesses, irritations, the vexations of amorous existence; any factual nucleus whose consequences intersect the amorous subject's will to happiness, as if chance conspired against him.

The Other's Body

corps / body

Any thought, any feeling, any interest aroused in the amorous subject by the loved body.


déclaration / declaration

The amorous subject's propensity to talk copiously, with repressed feeling, to the loved being, about his love for that being, for himself, for them: the declaration does not bear upon the avowal of love, but upon the endlessly glossed form of the amorous relation.

The Dedication

dédicace / dedication

An episode of language which accompanies any amorous gift, whether real or projected; and, more generally, every gesture, whether actual or interior, by which the subject dedicates something to the loved being.

"We are our own demons"

démons / demons

It occasionallly seems to the amorous subject that he ispossessed by a demon of language which impels himto injure himself and to expel himself -- according to Goethe's expression -- from the paradise which at other moments the amorous relation constitutes for him.


dépendance / dependency

A figure in which common opinion seesthe very condition of the amorous subject, subjugated to the loved object.


dépense / expenditure

A figure by which the amorous subject both seeks and hesitates to place love in an economy ofpure expenditure,of "total loss."

The World Thunderstruck

déréalité / disreality

Sentiment of absence and withdrawal of reality experienced by the amorous subject,confronting the world.

Novel / Drama

drame / drama

The amorous subject cannot writehis love story himself. Only a very archaic formcanaccommodate the event which he declaims without being able to recount.


écorché / flayed

The particular sensibility of the amorous subject, which renders him vulnerable, defenseless to the slightest injuries.

Inexpressible Love

écrire / to write

Enticements, arguments, and impasses generated by the desire to "express" amorous feeling in a "creation" (particularly of writing).

The Ghost Ship

errance / errantry

Though each love is experienced as unique and though the subject rejects the notion of repeating it elsewhere later on, he sometimes discovers in himself a kind of diffusion of amorous desire; he then realizes he is doomed to wander until he dies, from love to love.

"In the loving calm of your arms"

étreinte / embrace

The gesture of the amorous embrace seems to fulfill, for a time, the subject's dream of total union with the loved being.

Exiled from the Image-repetoire

exil / exile

Deciding to give up the amorous condition, the subject sadly discovers himself exiled from his Image-repetoire.

The Orange

fâcheux / irksome

Sentiment of slight jealousy which overcomes the amorous subject when he sees the loved being's interest attracted or distracted by persons, objects, or occupations which in his eyes function as so many secondary rivals.


fading / fade-out

Painful ordeal in which the loved being appears to withdraw from all contact, without such enigmatic indifference even being directed against the amorous subject or pronounced to the advantage of anyone else, world or rival.

At Fault

fautes / faults

In various contingencies of everyday life, the subject imagines he has failed the loved being and thereby experiences a sentiment of guilt.

"Special Days"

fête / festivity

The amorous subject experiences every meeting with the loved being as a festival.

"I am crazy"

fou / mad

It frequently occurs to the amorous subject that he is or is going mad.

"Looking embarrassed"

gêne / embarrassment

A group scene inwhich the implicit nature of the amorous relation functions as a constraint and provokes a collective embarrassment which is not spoken.


Gradiva / Gradiva

This name, borrowed from Jensen's book analyzed by Freud, designates the image of the loved being insofar as that being agrees to enter to some degree into the amorous subject's delirium in order to help him escape from it.

Blue Coat and Yellow Vest

habit / habiliment

Any effect provoked or sustained by the clothing which the subject has worn during the amorous encounter, or wears with the intention of seducing the loved object.


identification / identification

The subject painfully identifies himself with some person (or character) who occupies the same position as himself in the amorous structure.


image / image

In the amorous realm, the most painful wounds are inflicted more often by what one sees than by what one knows.

The Unknowable

inconnaissable / unknowable

Efforst of the amorous subject to understand and define the loved being "in itself," by some standard of character type, psychological or neurotic personality, independent of the particular data of the amorous relation.

"Show me whom to desire"

induction / induction

The loved being is desired because another or others have shown the subject that such a being is desirable: however particular, amorous desire is discovered by induction.

The Informer

informateur / informer

A friendly figure whose constant role, however, seems to be wound the amorous subject by "innocently" furnishing commonplace information about the loved being, though the effect of this information is to disturb the subject's image of that being.

This can't go on

insupportable / unbearable

The sentiment of an accumulation of amorous sufferings explodes in this cry: "This can't go on ..."

Ideas of Solution

issues / outcomes

Enticement of solutions, whatever they may be, which afford the amorous subject, despite their frequently catastrophic character, a temporary peace; hallucinatory manipulation of the possible outcomes of the amorous crisis.


jalousie / jealousy

"A sentiment which is born in love and which is produced by the fear that the loved person prefers someone else" (Littré).

I Love You

je-t'-aime / I-love-you

The figure refers not to the declaration of love, to the avowal, but to the repeated utterance of the love-cry.

Love's Languor

langeur / languor

Subtle state of amorous desire, experienced in its dearth, outside of any will-to-possess.

The Love Letter

lettre / letter

This figure refers to the special dialectic of the love letter, both blank (encoded) and expressive (charged with longing to signify desire).

The Loquela

loquela /

This word, borrowed from Ignatius of Loyola, designates the flux of language through which the subject tirelessly rehashes the effects of a wound or the consequences of an action: an emphatic form of the lover's discourse.

The Last Leaf

magie / magic

Magic consultations, secret rites, and votive actions are not absent from the amorous subject's life, whatever culture he belongs to.

"I am odious"

monstreux / monstrous

The subject suddenly realizes that he is imprisoning the loved object in a net of tyrannies: he has been pitiable, now he becomes monstrous.

No Answer

mutisme / silence

The amorous subject suffers anxiety because the loved object replies scantily or not at all to his language (discourse or letters).


nuages / clouds

Meaning and employment of that darkening of mood which overtakes the subject under various circumstances.

"And the night illuminated the night"

nuit / night

Any state which provokes in the subject the metaphor of the darkness, whether affective, intellective, or existential, in which he struggles or subsides.

The Ribbon

objets / objects

Every object touched by the loved being's body becomes part of that body, and the subject eagerly attaches himself to it.

Love's Obscenity

obscène / obscene

Discredited by modern opinion, love's sentimentality must be assumed by the amorous subject as a powerful transgression which leaves him alone and exposed; by a reversal of values, then, it is this sentimentality which today constitutes love's obscenity.

In Praise of Tears

pleurer / crying

The amorous subject has a particular propensity to cry: the functioning and appearance of tears in this subject.


potin / gossip

Pain suffered by the amorous subject when he finds that the loved being is the subject of "gossip" and hears that being discussed promiscuously.


pourquoi / why

Even as he obsessively asks himself why he is not loved, the amorous subject lives in the belief that the loved object does love him but does not tell him so.


ravissement / ravishment

The supposedly initial episode (though it may be reconstructed after the fact) during which the amorous subject is "ravished" (captured and enchanted) by the image of the loved object (popular name: love at first sight; scholarly name: enamoration.


regretté / regretted

Imagining himself dead, the amorous subject sees the loved being's life continue as if nothing had happened.

"How blue the sky was"

rencontre / encounter

The figure refers to the happy interval immediately following the first ravishment, before the difficulties of the amorous relationship begin.


retentissement / reverberation

Fundamental mode of amorous subjectivity: a word, an image reverberates painfully in the subject's affective consciousness.


réveil / waking

Various modes by which the amorous subject finds upon waking that he is once again besieged by the anxieties of his passion.

Making Scenes

scène / scene

The figure comprehends every "scene" (in the household sense of the term) as an exchange of reciprocal contestations.

"No clergyman attended"

seul / alone

The figure refers, not to what the human solitude of the amorous subject may be, but to his "philosophical" solitude, love-as-passion being accounted for today by no major system of thought (of discourse).

The Uncertainty of Signs

signes / signs

Whether he seeks to prove his love, or to discover if the other loves him, the amorous subject has no system of sure signs at his disposal.

E lucevan le stelle

souvenir / remembrance

Happy and/or tormenting remembrance of an object, a gesture, a scene, linked to the loved being and marked by the intrusion of the imperfect tense into the grammar of the lover's discourse.

Ideas of Suicide

suicide / suicide

In the amorous realm, the desire for suicide is frequent: a trifle provokes it.


tel / thus

Endlessly required to define the loved object, and suffering from the uncertainties of this definition, the amorous subject dreams of a knowledge which would let him take the other as he is, thus and no other, exonerated from any adjective.


tendresse / tenderness

Bliss, but also a disturbing evaluation of the loved object's tender gestures, insofar as the subject realizes that he is not their privileged recipient.


union / union

Dream of total union with the loved being.


vérité / truth

Every episode of language refers to the "sensation of truth" the amorous subject experiences in thinking of his love, either because he believes he is the only one to see the loved object "in its truth," or because he defines the specialty of his own requirement as a truth concerning which he cannot yield.

Sobria Ebrietas

vouloir-saisir / will-to-possess

Realizing that the difficulties of the amorous relationship originate in his ceaseless desire to appropriate the loved being in one way or another, the subject decides to abandon henceforth all "will-to-possess" in his regard.

Commentary on "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

A close reading of Joyce Carol Oates's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" reveals many layers of possible meaning, which makes it a fine example of literary ambiguity. You can read Oates's story as a crime story: a fictionalized account of a historical character (Charles Schmid, the Pied Piper of Tucson), or as moral parable: a cautionary tale for young girls (stay away from deceiving stalker types), or as a cultural document of the 1960's, in which the innocence of America (think Howdy Doody, the mouseketeers, teeny-boppers) was giving way to the more hard-edged, troublesome, turbulent, violent and unpredictable times (post-Kennedy assassination, the era of the civil rights movement, anti-war protests, sexual liberation, drug experimentation, and revolutionary politics) - an era that was being prophesied, announced, heralded, ushered-in by none other than Bob Dylan (among others), to whom the story is dedicated. You could also read the story from a feminist perspective (another social movement gaining credibility in the sixties) as an expression of the powerlessness and vulnerability of women trapped by their vanity (which is imposed on them by the cultural expectation that women must always be pretty), women who make easy prey for predatory males like Arnold Friend and Ellie Oscar. "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is all of these things and more.

Four primary themes overlap in the story.

1. The theme of youthful, romantic fantasy. The illusory dreams of adolescence blind them to the harsh, dangerous world of maturity. We see Connie separating from the world of living under her mother's wing and breaking through to the other side of sexual maturity, adulthood and independence. Sexual desire can be deadly serious stuff. It takes this experience for Connie learn that. Until Friend pulls up the driveway, she has been flirting with sexuality. Now she will confront its harsher face.

2. The victimization of women is explored, and how men act as predators in our society. The story intensifies the fear and suspense associated with this power differential by putting Connie in an untenable, vulnerable situation from which she has no choice but to leave the house with Arnold Friend. So this story heightens our awareness of this problem. The story asks us: is Connie really independent? Has she left the mother's nest only to live under the protection of the domineering man?

3. The story represents a case study in manipulative psychology. Friend coerces Connie through intimidation and identification. He's tracked his prey, understood it, disoriented it, and is now prepared to go in for the kill. A true crime serial killer named Charles Schmid, the Pied Piper of Tucson served as the inspiration for Oates's tale. She makes Arnold Friend into a smooth talking, play acting, and ultimately menacing suitor. When interpreted from this angle, the story becomes a cautionary lesson: "don't let this happen to you!"

4. Dream allegory of death and the maiden. An allegory is a narrative with at least two layers of meaning: the literal and the symbolic. The story, when read as allegory, becomes a a kind of coming of age dreamscape where evil (or death) arrives to corrupts what is innocence. Death escorts the woman away from her childhood self. You might interpret this death literally or symbolically.

Joyce Carol Oates, in writing about her own story, has admitted to being inspired by Bob Dylan's music (songs like "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue") and the Life magazine account of Charles Schmid's crimes. She has also expressed a fondness for Nathaniel Hawthorne's allegorical fiction - works such as "Young Goodman Brown," The Scarlet Letter, and others. She has said that in writing this story, she was writing a kind of allegory verging on parable, so this is as good a time as any to introduce the literary terms symbol and allegory. The two are closely allied, and it makes sense to discuss them together. A symbol is a person, place, or thing in a text that suggests meanings beyond its literal sense. Symbols can suggest many associative meanings, which makes them ambiguous by definition. The white whale in Melville's Moby Dick, for instance, is a classic literary symbol. Symbols are also distinctive in that their associative power is unique to the work of art at hand. They are not prefabricated symbols; they only work symbolically within the context of the story or poem. Writers invest ordinary things with symbolic value when required by the demands of their art.

Allegory is a lot like symbol; however, an allegory takes a person, place, or thing and gives it a single consistent symbolic value. Allegory is often used to set up moralistic fables or teach lessons (we call this didactic literature). There are always two levels of meaning in allegory: the literal, and the symbolic. In "Young Goodman Brown" by Hawthorne, the name of the protagonist is pretty obviously symbolic of the young, good, everyman. His wife "Faith" is, symbolically, his religious belief. Another example would be the book Pilgrims Progress by John Bunyan, an allegory about the Christian's journey from sin to redemption. In "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" you might interpret allegorical significance to Arnold Friend, the ironically named old fiend who represents the Devil or Death personified. If Arnold is death, then you must stitch together more allegorical symbols: Connie then assumes allegorical significance as the innocent youth being tempted by the Devil, or the young maiden being seized at the peak of her beauty by the old ravager, Death. The basic distinction to remember with symbol and allegory is that allegory is a more restricted, consistent, almost mechanistic use of symbolic representation, whereas symbol is a more ambiguous and suggestive usage.

Another kind of symbolic language we need to introduce at this point is the term archetype, which is a recurring symbol, character, landscape, or event found in myth, fable, art, music, and literature across many cultures and spanning many historical eras. One example of an archetype that applies to our Oates story is the Death and the Maiden theme. Representations of death seizing a young woman became quite popular during the Renaissance, but we find earlier examples of this archetype in mythology, such as the story of the abduction of Persephone (aka. Proserpine) by Pluto (aka. Hades or) Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, or Mother Earth. Persephone was abducted by Hades against her will and taken to the underworld in his golden chariot (cf. Arnold Friend's gold car), where he married her. Demeter was so sad at having lost her daughter that she lay a curse on the earth and a great famine ensued. Demeter appealed to Zeus for assistance, but Hades deceived Persephone into eating four pomegranate seeds, which meant that she couldn't leave the underworld even with the help of Zeus. Persephone persuaded Hades to let her return to the land of the living, on the condition that she would stay with him for 4 months; one month for each pomegranate seed she ate. Each year Hades fights his way back to the land of the living with Persephone in his chariot. Spring and summer follow. Come autumn and winter, he takes her back to the underworld, and the earth gets cold and barren. So this archetype of death abducting the young woman is as old as the oldest myths. Psychological and anthropological critics see archetypes as evidence that human beings share a "collective unconscious" or a reservoir of memories, symbols, and patterns common to the entire human race, and they have a fundamental meaning at a very deep level: they express our desires, our fears, our beliefs. Sweet-talking, smooth operator Devil figures like Arnold Friend are also archetypal: the serpent in the Adam and Eve story, the Devil in Milton's Paradise Lost, Mephistopholes in Goethe's Faust, and countless demonic villains from film and popular culture - there is something fundamentally common to them all. This is not to say that artists consistently use archetypes in exactly the same way every time. You should understand archetype more as a recycling of images and patterns from our common mythic heritage.

Finally, we might also interpret "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" as a classic example of a "coming of age" story, also known as an initiation story. In such stories, the protagonist undergoes an important rite of passage, transformation, an experience of transition, usually from childhood to adulthood, or from innocence to experience. The story focuses on that turning point, that trial, or the passage from one state to the other. Reading the last page of Joyce Carol Oates's story, one can't miss the coming of age happening before our very eyes. Connie splits into two persons: one (the childhood Connie) watches the other (the grown woman) depart with Arnold Friend.

Even poems such as "On Turning 10" by American poet Billy Collins and "To a daughter leaving home" by Linda Pastan can capture smaller yet meaningful transition points in life. Life is filled with rites of passage, big and small: your 10th birthday, the day you first rode a bicycle without training wheels, the day you got your driver's license, your first job, the sweet sixteen party, the confirmation, the bar mitzvah, graduation, initiation into a secret society, marriage, the loss of virginity, your first car, your first apartment and first house, giving birth to your first child - all of these and more are transitional moments in your life where you pass from one stage of being to a new one. And literature is especially good at zooming in and magnifying those moments to find the drama and meaning in them.

Questions for discussion:
Start with the questions posed by the title. Where has Connie been (in her life)? Where is she going now? What makes this a coming of age story?

Do you detect any irony in name of our antagonist? (Irony is figurative language that says one thing while meaning its opposite). Arnold Friend is anything but a friend. Take the "r's" out of his name and you get "an old fiend".

Do you see Friend as being a symbolic character? The Devil? The violent side of American male identity? Death personified? Is he a projection of Connie's repressed desires for fast cars, loose morals, rock and roll, cruising, sexual liberation?

Why does Connie submit to Arnold Friend? Does she have any choice in the matter? Is Oates making a thematic point here, as in, Connie must enter the world of adulthood, sexual maturity, even the threatening world of male dominated society, no matter what? Is her leaving a sacrifice? A selfless act to protect her family from certain death?

In what ways was Connie "asking for it"? Is it fair to accuse the victim of culpability in her own seduction? 

There are many patterns of imagery worth noting. Look for descriptions of breath and breathing, of musical atmosphere, or ever present flies, of dreaminess.

Oates even offers some fascinating puzzles for us to ponder. What is the meaning of Arnold's numeric code on the car door? 33 19 17. Got a bible? Work your way backwards in the Old Testament to the 33rd book, 19th chapter, and 17th verse. Then read the story surrounding that verse and look for thematic links. Another interpretation is based on Connie's age of 15. Is she the next number in line?
Why is the story dedicated to Bob Dylan? (It's All Over Now, Baby Blue has been mentioned by Oates as an inspirational source). What role did Dylan's music play in the early and mid 60's? What was Dylan tapping into in songs such as "Hard Rain", "Mr. Tambourine Man", "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "Like a Rolling Stone"?

Secrets in the Sand ( profile of serial killer Charles Schmid)
Smooth Talk: Joyce Carol Oates reviews the 1985 film adaptation and discusses her own story. Very useful.

Oct 10, 2010

Notes on Oedipus at Colonus


Sir Richard Jebb's commentary at

Segal, Charles. Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. [Primarily covers Oedipus the King, but useful nonetheless] [amz link]

Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays trans. Robert Fagles. Penguin Classics. [amz link]

Setting: Colonus, on the outskirts of Athens, at the Sacred grove of the Erinyes, also known as the Eumenides (in Roman nomenclature, the furies). The Erinyes were female goddesses of the underworld. They persecuted violators of oaths and natural laws. They were agents of mad vengence and severe retribution. You did not want to mess with the Erinyes. So feared were they that they were named "The Kindly Ones" so as not to offend and incur their wrath.

In the prologue, Oedipus transgresses the space of chtonic deities (recall how he unwittingly transgressed the laws of kinship by murdering his father and marrying his mother) by wandering into the sacred grove and resting upon a rock. Oedipus, now an old man at the end of his life, has been reduced to a wandering, blind vagabond. A stranger approaches him and his daughter Antigone, who has been tending to his needs. The stranger hails him with alarm, saying you're trespassing Oedipus. Get out of there. When informed that he has wandered into the shrine for the "daughters of Earth and Gloom", Oedipus recognizes that he has reached his final resting place, and immediately he asks for mercy. He asks for Theseus to be sent for. Theseus is the legendary king of Athens. Oedipus wants to exchange a gift for a small act of kindness: sanctuary at Colonus.

The theme of finding one's way home is central to the play. Oedipus, born of Thebes, has no desire to go back there at the end of this life, with good reason, as we will soon discover. For years, Oedipus has been homeless, an unwelcome pariah, driven out of every land. Destiny has called him to this place. Phoebus foretold that, in addition to his many woes, he would find asylum at this place. He wishes for death, a merciful end to his suffering.

The parados ushers in the chorus of citizens of colonus, who express alarm about the presence of the intruder. Who is this man? Upon seeing that he is blind and old, they take pity on him. They insist that he move out of the sanctuary while promising not to drag him away. When the chorus demands that he name himself, Oedipus reluctantly tells them the truth. They recoil in horror: get away! But what of your promise, Oedipus asks. Antigone pleads with them to have mercy.

In the first episode, Oedipus reminds them of Athens' reputation for religiosity, for tolerance, as the harbor for strangers in distress. He also staunchly defends his innocence, saying in effect, I am a man more sinned against than sinning, that the crimes I committed were done out of ignorance; moreover, I have suffered to the point of holiness and righteousness, and that I bring good tidings to your city. The citizens are persuaded to let Theseus decide the case. Here we have a glimpse of what Athens represents for Sophocles. It is the city of civilization, of reasoned debate, tolerance, sanctuary for victims, a city of laws. This is decidedly at odds with the city state of Thebes, which is rife with chaos, broken kinship bonds, plagues, civil war, authoritarianism, and disloyalty. In Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge, Charles Segal writes
Athens often functions in classical tragedy as the place for the recovery and reintegration of a conflicted personality and for the successful resolution of familial conflict, whereas the pace for disastrous confusions of identity and unresolved family conflicts. Thus at Thebes...Oedipus is pulled back into his family's self-destructive, accursed past, and can only repeat it, even though he is under the illusion that he is finding a new identity. At Athens... he begins with full clarity about the relations of past and present, wanderer and citizen, weakness and strength, and he escapes all the attempts to drag him back to Thebes. (44)
Oedipus's daughter Ismene approaches with news from Thebes. Oedipus, Antigone and Ismene have an emotional reunion, where Oedipus indicates that he is closer to his daughters, who have been his supporters, than to his treacherous sons Eteiocles and Polyneices, who were responsible for expelling him from Thebes. Antigone has been his caretaker, and Ismene has been his eyes on the ground in Thebes, watching out for his interests. Oedipus's sons on the other hand, had colluded with Creon in a power sharing arrangement. Initially, Creon was the regent of Thebes. When the boys came of age, they were going to share the throne by taking turns. The younger boy Eteiocles drove Polyneices out of the city. Polyneices meanwhile has cemented an alliance with other cities and has planned an invasion.
Ismene has other news of great interest to Oedipus. A new oracle has revealed that the dueling factions will seek to bring Oedipus back to them for safety. He has new powers of protection bestowed on him by the gods. Creon is on the way to entice him back, but there is a catch. They will station Oedipus (or his body once dead) at the border of Theban land, since he remains "damaged goods" due to the taboos he once violated. Oedipus is firm in his defiance. He will not return home under any circumstances. When they banished him, they severed a sacred father/son bond. Oedipus is bitterly resentful at the betrayal. Moreover, Oedipus is heeding the prophecies, unlike his behavior in Oedipus Rex, where he attempted to outflank his destiny. At this point in the play, the citizens instruct Oedipus that he must atone for his trespassing onto the sacred ground of the Erinyes. They tell him how to do it: pour holy water into carved bowls garlanded with wool from yearling ewe, pour the libations. And pour a bowl of honey and water, no wine (wine was never drunk by the Erinyes). Then strew nine olive boughs and say a prayer. Ismene is assigned the task of performing the rite, since Oedipus is too blind and feeble to accomplish it. (We do not have confirmation that Isemene was able to complete this task. Later in the play, she may have been abducted by Creon's henchmen before getting to the designated spot.)
Next comes another choral interlude in the form of what the Greek theater called a Kommos, which is a lyrical dialogue between the actors and the chorus. The subject of the kommos involves the citizens' need to hear the story of Oedipus's life. Oedipus painfully recounts his tragic fate and maintains his legal innocence.

Next comes the entrance of Theseus, the legendary king of Athens. Theseus is the "good guy" in the play. He is the model of a great leader: wise, shrewd, patient, poised, ready to act quickly when the situation warrants, magnanimous, civilized, and rational. Oedipus asks him for protection and sanctuary and promises to confer a blessing on Athens upon his death. Theseus promises him and publically adopts Oedipus as a citizen of Athens. This is an important moment in the play, and it is a reversal from the attitudes expressed by the citizen chorus not too many lines before. Athens represents the higher aspirations of civilization. It combines a reverence for the gods with a level of humane empathy for the suffering.

The chorus now sings an ode to Colonus, Oedipus new and final home. They celebrate the beauty of the land, the honorableness of Attica, their excellence in horsemanship, and the bounty provided by Poseidon, god of the sea.

The second episode begins with the entrance of Creon, who has come to persuade Oedipus to return to Thebes. He has come, he says, to take Oedipus back to where he belongs and to preserve the honor of Thebes and the royal household.

In reply, Oedipus rips into Creon with indignation. He says, 'now you want me back, but where were you when I wanted to stay? You had me cast out. And now you don't really want me back, you want to keep me on the border for protection. You don't care about me at all. You want to use me like a guard. In conclusion, he curses the land and his sons.

Having failed to argue his case, Creon shows his true colors, an violently seizes Ismene and Antigone, taking them hostage. And he is on the verge of seizing Oedipus himself. Theseus enters to prevent the abduction. Theseus acts swiftly, dispatching his men to intercept Creon's soldiers and return the girls to Oedipus. We see here a stark contrast between Theseus and Creon. The one is righteous, pious, and follows the rule of law. The other is cunning, cynical, and uncivil. This sets the stage for how his character will be depicted in Antigone. In this scene Oedipus's delivers a powerful defence of his innocence, how he was helpless against fate.

In the second stasimon, the chorus imagines the swift recapture of Ismene and Antigone, and they call upon the gods to come to their aid.

The third episode begins with the reunion of Oedipus and his daughters. Oedipus gives thanks to Theseus for his help. He wants to kiss him on the cheek but remembers that this would be inappropriate, given his "polluted" identity. Theseus informs Oedipus that a relative of his is making offerings to Poseidon and wishes to speak with him. Oedipus realizes that it is his son Polyneices and he'd prefer not to speak to him. Antigone pleads on her brother's behalf, and Theseus sends for Polyneices to come.

The third stasimon is a sober, tragic ode on old age and death. They turn our thoughts to Oedipus approaching end. Not to be born is best of all, they say, and death is the final deliverer for those who have outlived their life's joy.

The fourth episode centers on the interview between Polyneices and Oedipus. He is crying. He pities his father's suffering and he reproaches himself. Oedipus gives him the silent treatment. Polyneices is on a mission though. He wants to persuade Oedipus to join his side in the struggle for Thebes. The oracles have decreed that Oedipus's endorsement will ensure their victory. He promises to reestablish Oedipus in his home at Thebes.

Oedipus launches into a bitter condemnation of Polyneices. He curses both of his sons, dooming them to die in battle at each other's hands. My interpretation of this scene (and of all Oedipus's curses in the play) is that Oedipus has become the human mouthpiece for the Eumenides. He has suffered and earned the right to speak on their behalf. The old blind man has the righteous indigination of truth and retribution on his side. The scene closes with an intimate conversation between Antigone and her brother. She implores him not to attack Thebes. He insists he must go into battle and asks her to give him proper burial rites, which foreshadows the play Antigone, wherein Antigone will defy the state decrees to honor her blood tie duties.

We now have another Kommos section in which the chorus comments on the dreadful curse just pronounced, when suddenly, a peal of thunder is heard. The presence of Zeus announces that Oedipus's end is near. Oedipus is ready to get on with it and asks Antigone to bring Theseus quickly. He tells Theseus that his time has come, and he, without assitance, will lead Theseus to the place where death will take him. Only Theseus will be shown the spot. It is a secret to all others. After Oedipus dies, so long as the spot is protected, Attica will be protected from invaders, and Thebes will pose no threat. He leads them into the sacred grove.

The fourth stasimon chant a hymn to the soul passing from Oedipus.

In the exodos, a messenger tells of what he saw before Oedipus died. The narrative captures the sense of great mystery surrounding Oedipus's passing. We are left with the impression that a kind of salvation for Oedipus's spirit has been bestowed on him. He vanished into thin air or into the earth. We are not sure. But something mystical happened, and the secret will be preserved. The daughters appear, grieving and desirous of seeing their father's grave. Theseus reminds them of his promise to Oedipus (he, unlike the Thebans, is a man of his word). Antigone then asks him to let her and Ismene return to Thebes. She intends to prevent the death of her brothers. Though this play ends with the merciful and mystically benevolent death of a pariah turned protector, Sophocles leaves off with the gravitational pull of Thebes. The tragic cycle will be continued.

So what is this play about? It's about old age, death, the sufferings incurred in a long life. Remember, this was probably Sophocles's final play, and it was performed posthumously. It's about learning to accept one's death with nobility. It's also about the definition of home. Home is the death, the non-being you were born out of and to which you will return. It is also, for the living, not necessarily the physical place of origin, but the place where you are accepted by others. Oedipus has suffered the plight of the scapegoat his whole life. He's been the exile, doomed to wander for the sins of his father, his mother, and his sons. At Colonus, Oedipus finally achieves a state of grace, in the sanctuary of those dark chthonic powers of retribution. There is a poetic justice at work here. I also think the play is about the way a society treats the suffering. The contrast between the Thebans and the Athenians is striking. Thebes represents chaos, violation of natural law, a lack of respect for family and for the gods, a place where momentary power is more important than tradition, loyalty and blood ties. Athens is the place of balance, righteous power, civilized debate, and tolerance. They refuse to exile Oedipus. They accept him into their sacred place. There is a historical bittersweetness here, though. Athens was about to lose the Pelopponesian war when this play was performed. Perhaps Sophocles was reminding his Athenian audience of what was in danger of being lost?

The plot of Oedipus at Colonus revolves around a series of persuasive speeches or pleas. Oedipus persuades the Athenians to accept him at Colonus. Creon attempts to persuade Oedipus to come back to Thebes. Polyneices attempts to persuade Oedipus to join his side in the civil war against his brother and Creon. Oedipus is pulled at from both sides of the struggle, but now that he has found a new home at Colonus, he has the power to defend his innocence and to curse his enemies, even his own sons. The play culminates in the mysterious death of Oedipus. In effect, the play's main conflict centers on what to do with Oedipus's body. Who will benefit from his powers of protection? Creon and Eteiocles, Polyneices, or Theseus (Athens). The winner is Athens, not because they argued successfully for it, but because they showed mercy and acceptance towards an old, feeble, pariah.

Jun 4, 2010

Back to Life on the Mississippi

In A RIVER RUNS THROUGH HIM | More Intelligent Life, Laura Barton explores what's left of Twain's river.
In later life, when he had moved far away to Connecticut, the river would return to Twain. He found that its silty waters seeped into his writing, providing the inspiration not only for “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and those of Tom Sawyer, but also for “Life on the Mississippi”, which began as a series of sketches for Atlantic Monthly, but was finally published as an account of his time working as a riverboat pilot. Both a homage to the beauty of the river and an opportunity to recount some outlandish tales, it allowed him to pay some dues and to acknowledge that it was the Mississippi that had lubricated his imagination: “When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography I generally take a warm personal interest in him,” he wrote, “for the reason that I have known him before—met him on the river.”
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Apr 10, 2010

Analyzing Waiting for Godot


Although audiences had already been introduced to modernist, experimental modes of theater before Beckett’s Waiting for Godot appeared in 1953, this is the play that had the most profound and wide-ranging impact. This is the play that started a trend which became known as “theater of the absurd.” Before this play, audiences could expect the “well-made” play—life-like, psychologically realistic characters, witty dialogue, and well-crafted, causal plots with neatly tied up beginnings, middles, and ends. But the theater of the absurd subverts these expectations at every turn. The characters are unfamiliar, weirdly motivated; their dialogue is filled with non-sequitors and “blather,” seeming nonsense. The movement of the plot is arbitrary; there’s no identifiable beginning, middle, and end—no “Freytag’s pyramid” to help us get a grip on the plot.

Most strikingly, Beckett, like other dramatists working in this mode, is not trying to “tell a story.” He’s not offering any easily identifiable solutions to carefully observed problems; there’s little by way of moralizing and no obvious “message.” The circularity of Waiting for Godot is highly unconventional. Even today, it’s not what we expect at all. But it’s very common in the tradition of the theater of the absurd.

Martin Esslin writes very lucidly about how the theater of the absurd works like poetry rather than narrative. Traditional narrative drama tells a story, develops dynamically. The characters grow and change before our eyes, and that is the point of the story—to reveal that growth, that change. We reflect on why it happened, what it implies, how we relate to it ourselves, what it means. But the theater of the absurd doesn’t aim for traditional narrative because it rejects such narratives as too artificial, too contrived. The world isn’t really as neat and tidy as all that. Things happen by chance, at random. Chaos and irrationality describe reality better than rationality and order. So the aim is not to create artificially causal plots, but to reveal for audiences a powerful image, which can be literal, metaphorical, analogical, or allegorical—like poetry. The ambiguity of the poetic image, then, replaces the dynamic development of traditional narrative in theater of the absurd. The image Waiting for Godot evokes, then, is poetic and lyrical in essence rather than narrative; like a lot of theater of the absurd, it’s both tragic and comic in nature. The play is therefore referred to as a tragicomedy, or “black comedy.” The tragedy is the futility—Vladimir’s desperation, his growing awareness of the absurdity of his situation; Gogo’s frustrated desire to leave. The comedy is everything else.

In Beckett’s work, too, we are aware of how the imagery (everything from plot to character to dialogue to set) is characteristically stripped to bare essences. His plays take on an abstract quality which many compare to a kind of abstract expressionism for the theater.

So we come back around to the question: why are these artists so unconventional? Why be abstract? Why not tell a story in the traditional way? Martin Esslin takes up this question in Absurd Drama (Penguin, 1965):

Why should the emphasis in drama have shifted away from traditional forms towards images which, complex and suggestive as they may be, must necessarily lack the final clarity of definition, the neat resolutions we have been used to expect? Clearly because the playwrights concerned no longer believe in the possibility of such neatness of resolution. They are indeed chiefly concerned with expressing a sense of wonder, of incomprehension, and at times of despair, at the lack of cohesion and meaning that they find in the world. If they could believe in clearly defined motivations, acceptable solutions, settlements of conflict in tidily tied up endings, these dramatists would certainly not eschew them. But, quite obviously, they have no faith in the existence of so rational and well ordered a universe. The “well-made play” can thus be seen as conditioned by clear and comforting beliefs, a stable scale of values, an ethical system in full working condition. The system of values, the world-view behind the well-made play may be a religious one or a political one; it may be an implicit belief in the goodness and perfectibility of men (as in Shaw or Ibsen) or it may be a mere unthinking acceptance of the moral and political status quo (as in most drawing-room comedy). But whatever it is, the basis of the well-made play is the implicit assumption that the world does make sense, that reality is solid and secure, all outlines clear, all ends apparent. The plays that we have classed under the label of the Theatre of the Absurd, on the other hand, express a sense of shock at the absence, the loss of any such clear and well-defined systems of beliefs or values.

Bottom line: these artists have lost faith in a well ordered, rational universe. The world is a place where things happen randomly, by chance. You live or you die by chance. The conditions you endure, you endure by chance. There is no well-crafted plan, no scheme of justice by which the universe operates.

Recall the Dante we found in Canto I of the Inferno. He was lost in just such a dark wood of meaninglessness. Didi and Gogo are equally lost in a dark wood, but Godot, unlike Virgil, never arrives.


Nihilism is a radical philosophy of meaninglessness. Wikipedia tells us that it is a “belief in nothing.” The world and all the humans in it exist without meaning, purpose, truth, or value. Any system of belief, or artistic expression, that denies or drains away meaning can be described as “nihilistic.” Nietzsche famously accused Christianity of being a nihilistic religion because it drained meaning away from earthly life and kept its followers focused on a hope-for afterlife. His declaration that “God is dead” reverberated throughout the 20th century.

It’s not too hard to understand why nihilistic philosophy, which eventually gave way to a very un-nihilistic existentialism, threatened to overwhelm us in the mid-20th century. The waning of religious faith which really began in the Enlightenment and grew even stronger with the steady rise in our faith in the sciences was helped along by the brilliance of Nietzsche and the horrors of the Holocaust. The devastation of WWI put a huge damper on the liberal ideals of secular social progress, and revolutionary movements like communism lost a lot of steam in the wake of Stalin’s totalitarianism. Hitler had plunged Europe into barbarism and genocide, justifying mass murder as the “civilized thing to do.” Atomic bombs demonstrated how fragile and insignificant human life could be. In the prosperous West, a kind of spiritual emptiness descended. Under these conditions, nihilistic philosophy and art flourished.

Existentialism is a progressive step up from nihilism, because whereas the nihilist asserts meaninglessness out there and leaves it at that (justifying any behavior at all), the existentialist asserts meaninglessness (out there) but goes on to assert that it’s the responsibility of the individual to create meaning (in here)—that to create meaning, as Dante created The Divine Comedy to rescue his world from meaninglessness, is our human purpose. Of course it’s more complex than that, but that’s a bird’s eye view of their relationship.

A thoughtful question to ask of Waiting for Godot is whether it expresses a nihilistic or existentialist perspective. And to kick that into high gear, you could also ask whether or not Waiting for Godot is a postmodern play. Before we realize it, several more “-ism’s” have begun to invite our analysis.


EXISTENTIALISM: “Existence precedes essence” is Jean Paul Sartre’s infamous dictum. Nothing “out there” defines or determines us; instead it is our own actions and free will, our own choices, that are most “fundamental to human existence.” The universe and we human beings in it aren’t primarily meaningful, orderly, or rational; instead we exist in a primarily “indifferent, objective, often ambiguous, and “absurd” universe.” Although meaning is not “out there” we can create in “in here,” within ourselves.

NIHILISM: The world and human existence are “without meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value.” It is ideas, movements, or historical periods rather than people that are more likely to be described as nihilistic.

POSTMODERNISM: The cultural follow-up movement succeeding modernism, which was a period of rebellion, progressive innovation and change, a time when many cultural conventions and traditions were abandoned for new modes of expression. “Where modernists hoped to unearth universals or the fundamentals of art, postmodernism aims to unseat them, to embrace diversity and contradiction. A postmodern approach to art thus rejects the distinction between low and high art forms. It rejects rigid genre boundaries and favors eclecticism, the mixing of ideas and forms. Partly due to this rejection, it promotes parody, irony, and playfulness, commonly referred to as jouissance by postmodern theorists. Unlike modern art, postmodern art does not approach this fragmentation as somehow faulty or undesirable, but rather celebrates it. As the gravity of the search for underlying truth is relieved, it is replaced with ‘play.’”

ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM: A 20th century artistic movement that emphasized spontaneous personal expression in large paintings that are abstract or nonrepresentational, meaning “there’s no recognizable relationship to anything in nature. The style reflects the innermost feeling of the artist and usually results as an emotional release of the artist’s anger, fear or frustration. ...” ( The idea is that the artist needed no realistic or even surrealistic figures in order to evoke emotion. Feeling could be aroused using just lines, shapes, and colors alone. “Additionally, [this movement] has an image of being rebellious, anarchic, highly idiosyncratic and, some feel, rather nihilistic.” (

THEATER OF THE ABSURD: Althought this isn't an -ism, it's still an important concept! This is a term first used by critic Martin Esslin to describe the kinds of plays that explored the absurdity of the human condition. These plays are often characterized by their striking imagistic tableaus, their highly unconventional style of characterization, their nonlinear plots, spare or surreal sets, and seemingly irrational or nonsensical dialogue; they tend to explore the implications of a meaningless universe in which human values seem inconsequential or irrelevant. Existentialist themes often prevail.

What do we expect from a set when we go to the theater? How does Beckett’s set defy our expectations? What’s the purpose, do you think, of his unconventional approach to setting?

As precise as Beckett is in his set directions, and as spare as the stage is obviously supposed to be, there is still plenty of room for individual directors to interpret the setting in various ways. For instance, the following two sets are vastly different from the one you saw in the Beckett on Film production.

Here’s a set which appeared in a 1970 production at the Landestheater in Salzburg in Austria:

And here theater critic Joanne Klein describes the set used in the Studio Theater production in Washington, D.C. in 1998:

Russell Metheny’s set design situated Beckett’s vagrants in an environment that announced urban cataclysm ….In the sparsely articulated parking lot of a long abandoned drive-in movie site, Beckett's blasted tree shared the stage with a heap of shredded rubber (rubble?)…. Framed against the backdrop of a slightly askew, artfully corroded drive-in movie screen….

How important is setting to our understanding of the play? How do the different stages influence how we understand what’s happening in the play?
  • The Salzburg set suggests some kind of grand statement, because the setting seems grand. It’s a grand stage all set for a grand tragedy. You might find the play more than a little ironic in such a setting. The tragedy may seem more like tragicomedy. Notice the mirror at stage rear—what a great touch!
  • The Washington set brings the setting closer to home and makes it feel more “realistic.” It takes the play out of its surrealistic, dystopian, dream space and places us somewhere immediately identifiable. Suddenly we’ve seen these two tramps before; in fact we see them every day on East Market in downtown West Chester, by the Salvation Army shelter.
  • The “Beckett on Film” set is less grand than the Salzburg stage and less realistic than the Washington one; instead it opts for the sparseness of Beckett’s script: a country road, a tree. The road and the tree are surrounded by mounds of rubble on which little or nothing grows in the first act, and a little more green appears in the second. The set evokes a deadened, blasted landscape (War torn? Over-plowed? Desert? High altitude?), a weathered and beaten landscape that struggles for growth and renewal despite its devastation.
Each of these sets seeks to amplify some aspect of the play’s meaning, or reinforce its impact. Individual directors can pursue different interpretations of the play, which leads to each production being unique in its own right. That is the magic of the theater.


In the film as in the theater there is no musical accompaniment. You might have noticed that in the film there was no music soundtrack. That probably seemed very odd to you, even if you didn’t think about it consciously. What were some of the profound effects achieved by the lack of a music track?
  • The effect most evident is that we hear the silences, which are an important part of the play’s imagery. The characters are always trying to fill the silence, which seems to represent some kind of intolerable void. Silence as void, as nothingness, is too disturbing, so they talk and talk ceaselessly to cover up their awareness of this scary, soul-crushing silence. There’s no music of the spheres to attend to in Waiting for Godot. But although the characters battle the silence again and again, Beckett seems intent for us, the audience, to hear it, experience it, think about it, feel it. The play creates several vivid images of silence and stillness.
  • Michael Worton, in “Waiting for Godot and Endgame: Theater as Text” observes the multifaceted silences in Waiting for Godot, noting the “silences of inadequacy, when characters can’t find the words they need; silences of repression, when they are struck dumb by the attitude their interlocutor or by their sense that they might be breaking a social taboo; and the silences of anticipation, when they await the response of the other which will give them a temporary sense of existence.” In all of these ways, Beckett makes “silence communicate.”

The one lighting effect is when day turns rapidly to night and the moon rises. The surrealistic, dreamlike effect of this heightened change from day to night amplifies the theme of uncertain time.


Several biblical references enter the play, but some of the allusions that are less obvious are the play’s literary ones. For commentary on the biblical allusions, you can go to the file “Critical Commentary on Waiting for Godot,” also in the Virtual Notebook. Here I’d like to discuss the play’s more prominent literary allusions.

At the end of ACT I, Gogo (who claims to have once been a poet) recites a fragment from a Shelley lyric. The full poem is included below:

“To the Moon” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

AND, like a dying lady lean and pale,
Who totters forth, wrapp'd in a gauzy veil,
Out of her chamber, led by the insane
And feeble wanderings of her fading brain,
The moon arose up in the murky east,
A white and shapeless mass.

Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?

Shelley’s poetry continues to reverberate in ACT II. These allusions are some of the play’s very few external references. Macbeth later echoes faintly, but distinctly, in Pozzo’s speech about the brevity and apparent meaninglessness of existence; are we suspended for one flickering instant between the birth canal and the grave? These references let us know that Gogo really was a poet, that these were educated men. Here’s the relevant passage from Macbeth (V,v:10-30):

MACBETH: I have almost forgot the taste of fears;
The time has been, my senses would have cool’d
To hear a night-shriek; and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in’t: I have supp’d full with horrors;
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts
Cannot once start me.

[Re-enter SEYTON]

Wherefore was that cry?

SEYTON The queen, my lord, is dead.

MACBETH She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
What are we to make of these allusions to some of the best in English poetry by these particular characters, in this strange situation?


In the typical drama, the main character or characters undergo some type of transformation, some significant growth or change. This was a theme we explored earlier in the semester in Ovid’s tales, in “Axolotl” and even in the Inferno. However, Beckett’s main characters, Didi and Gogo (Vladimir and Estragon), remain, annoyingly or amusingly depending on your sensibility, resolutely static and unchanging. While they remain static, the minor characters (Pozzo and Lucky) are dynamically transformed (Pozzo most obviously, Lucky more subtly). Addressing Pozzo, in recognition of his startling blindness and deep despair, Didi remarks melodramatically, “How you’ve changed!” (You may recall that Didi makes the same statement after Pozzo and Lucky leave in ACT I.) Other changes are evident in the second act, but the more we notice these the less important they seem. The dead tree has leaves. It still looks dead. Didi offers Gogo a radish rather than a carrot. Is it a case of the- more-things-change-the-more-they-stay-the-same? What happens to that old cliché when it is applied to character?


Traditional cause/effect plot development is abandoned in Waiting for Godot. The movement of the play is circular and symmetrical. The second act parallels the first. Nothing new happens except the tree grows leaves, indicating a surrealistic passage of time. The characters engage in ways that closely parallel the first act; the key difference seems to be an increased struggle in the second act to “pass the time,” which passed quickly in the first act because of Pozzo and Lucky, whose appearance is briefer in the second act. The dilemma intensifies in the second act because Gogo is more and more desperate to leave and Didi has to continually remind him why they mustn’t leave because they’re waiting for Godot. There is a kind of climactic thematic crescendo in Pozzo’s parting speech and another in Didi’s brief speech just before Godot’s messenger boy arrives for the second time. These brief speeches don’t necessarily provide much of a climax to the action as much as they deepen themes already established.

You can see how this play presents us with a non-traditional plot, although there is a dilemma: the characters want to go but feel “stuck” waiting for Godot. They want to commit suicide, but have grown either too apathetic or too helpless to act on their desires. Habit deadens their own cries as surely as it deadens the cries of others.


We can’t fail to miss the theme of uncertainty in Waiting for Godot. Uncertainty is pervasive throughout the play: the uncertainty of purpose, of time, place, emotion, relationships, truth, and hope. Existence is the only certainty the play allows. The Cartesian dictum that declares with such certainty “I think, therefore I am,” is challenged, but essentially holds true. Didi and Gogo are themselves vivid dramatic representations of the Descartes’ body/mind split. Didi is all mind, Gogo all body. Thinking and inexhaustible talking may not be the same thing, but in the absence of the one the other will do. Throughout the play thinking is associated with doubt, uncertainty, difficulty, weariness, or absurdity. Clearly, our ability to think is challenged in this play.

Related to this critique of our rational capabilities is the play’s critique of language as essentially meaningless, repetitive blather and chatter on the one hand and oppressive tyranny on the other. At times it is coercive; other times it’s rhetorically empty, full of hot air—worse than blather—hypocrisy, or mystification. Only rarely does it serve us well, leading us to truth or beauty, but we can’t sustain those functions very well. Pozzo’s poetic description of the twilight may be true and even beautiful, but it peters out—“And that’s how it is on this bitch of an earth.” Language fails us just when we most need it. Even when it hits home, our first impulse is to run away from the “melancholy truth” we’ve somehow managed to accurately express, a truth no longer buried in our subconscious awareness but given the full light of language, as Didi does near the end of the play when he empathizes with Pozzo’s despair. “What have I said?” he pulls back. However true, we don’t want to know.

VLADIMIR: I don’t know what to think anymore.

ESTRAGON: My feet! (He sits down again and tries to take off his boots.) Help me!

VLADIMIR: Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? To-morrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of to-day? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be? (Estragon, having struggled with his boots in vain, is dozing off again. Vladimir looks at him.) He’ll know nothing. He’ll tell me about the blows he received and I’ll give him a carrot. (Pause.) Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens.) But habit is a great deadener. (He looks again at Estragon.) At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. (Pause.) I can’t go on! What have I said? He goes feverishly to and fro, halts finally at extreme left, broods….

The critique here seems to stem from a deep, postmodern distrust of the efficacy or absoluteness of language. We place our trust in it, but should we? Language is the source of all our illusions, the source of all the mythic fictions we’ve invented to console ourselves from an awareness of our real condition. These fictions have blinded us to the reality, the essential truth of our existence. The only truth is this present moment, which we are free to spend wisely or waste away, and to waste it away by hoping for some future “salvation,” by waiting for a Godot that almost certainly will never come, is tragic and absurd. The misery of the characters as they wait is palpable. If they weren’t waiting what better thing might they think to do, might they actually do?

The language of the play is stripped bare, scaled down to its naked essence. You won’t find a writer more capable than Beckett in this regard. The beauty of Beckett’s language is in its absolute economy. It’s a tight little fist that punches hard. The language of this play forces us to reflect on how we use language, really—what our talk consists of, in essence. Are we really that concerned about thinking hard, or using our rationality? To what use do we actually put this “gift” of language and rationality?

In all of its aspects, including its language, Waiting for Godot confronts the absurdity of existence and challenges us to figure out who we are exactly and what we’re doing with our time. In this random universe, where who lives and who dies, who’s up and who’s down, is a matter of pure chance, and the odds aren’t necessarily in our favor, what do we do? What’s our purpose? The existentialist would say that our purpose is to confront our existence, our being, to be aware of and a part of every passing moment—to make choices, to act—to live authentically, in good faith, aware of our essential freedom and responsibility. This is what Didi can’t or won’t do, and he persuades Gogo to keep him company while he continues to wait for Godot, while he pins his hopes on a future that almost certainly will never arrive. His futile waiting is either absurd or heroic, depending on your own interpretation.

Beckett was interested, it seems, in the relationship between hope and despair. Are Didi and Gogo in despair? Or do they have a saving faith?

There’s quite a lot more we could observe in terms of theme, though having said so much already, I think meaning in this play is probably best approached subjectively—the way you individually choose to understand it. How do you talk about the meaning of a circle? My observation of the play and everything I’ve read about it leads me to conclude there is very little objective interpretation which will make this play mean much more than it means quite obviously on the surface. Two lowly tramps are waiting for someone they think will help them, but this person, Godot, never arrives. It seems reasonable to assume that Godot will never arrive, but Didi and Gogo go on waiting, perhaps because they hold out hope that he will, perhaps because they have nothing better to do, perhaps because they have no choice. Do they have a choice?

There are those who will still be asking, but what is this play really about? What does it all mean? What does it all have to do with us? Some audiences see immediately how they, like Gogo and Didi, are waiting, too. Maybe not for “Godot,” but for something. A little help, a little push, a little sunshine, a little windfall. The play takes pains not to be specific, to provide the space to read into it any way we want to. It does not preach a “message.” But when you think about it even a little bit, you realize that, just like Gogo and Didi, we’re waiting all the time, too. Think about it: aren’t we waiting for the war in Iraq to end, waiting for the oil to flow, waiting to win the war on terror? We’re waiting for nicer weather, the end of exams. We could be waiting for an end to racism, an end to poverty, drug abuse, domestic violence… We might be waiting for environmental disaster, the next world war, the next flu pandemic, the next school shooting, the next terror attack… we’re waiting for security, a better economy, more equality; we’re waiting for the good times, that great vacation, that better job, nicer clothes, a better car, a newer cell phone, more friends, better friends, a bigger house; we’re waiting for the perfect soul mate, the perfect body, the perfect moment… we’re waiting for our hopes to be heard, our prayers to be answered, our wishes to be granted… we’re waiting, and meanwhile, we’re….here.

Here’s a little story I can share with you to illustrate this point a little further. One semester not too long ago, I asked one of my classes what I thought was a simple question intended as a first day ice-breaker: what are you most looking forward to this term? This turned out to be a more profound question than I had bargained for based on the response I received. Many students answered: summer vacation. Spring break. The end of the semester. As you can imagine, this amused everyone each time and in every way students managed to state and restate it. In my inexcusable naiveté, which continues to defy my years of accumulated wisdom, I hadn’t expected that kind of jaded answer! To intensify the matter, I arrive on this scene as a confirmed idealist, a person who likes shiny bright ideas as opposed to bitter realities. Buried somewhere beneath my frequent disappointment with the real world, I’m deep down an optimist. I had an optimistic illusion that students would be curious about what the semester would hold, what classes would be like—probably not our class in particular since it was (and still is) a general education class, a requirement, therefore, and not entirely a free choice—but a curiosity and enthusiasm about the semester in general, which is why I thought that’d be a good first-day ice-breaker topic. And although that shiny illusion was popped right away, I still could appreciate the honesty of the answer given. It was the truth, and acknowledged as such on that day one with an offhand, lighthearted, friendly humor. Afterwards, despite the easygoing flippancy which meant no harm, I found myself thinking about it because it had struck me as somehow terrible. Those students were waiting for the end of the semester and the semester had only barely started! If they were already waiting for the end, then it was almost certain that whatever might happen along the way would be all but lost, or maybe even meaningless. They were looking past it. Through it. Beyond it. What they really would have liked was to be saved from it, delivered on a magic carpet from January straight to May. After I gave it some thought I began to realize why that lighthearted joke had made me a little uneasy: it introduced the possibility that we were about to enter into an absurd situation, that instead of learning together we’d be killing time together (like Didi and Gogo in this play)—waiting for an end instead of living in the moment. As lighthearted as that response seemed, there was also something disturbing about it, because, in its offhand (and rare) truthfulness, it indicated such a profound disengagement with the moment, such an habitual posture of rejection, such a dispirited boredom (and classes had barely even started). To arrive at something waiting for it to end is to forfeit all the possibilities of the present moment, to hand everything over to pointlessness, absurdity, tragicomedy, as Waiting for Godot so poignantly reveals. But unlike the play, the semester did come to an end. Time passed and summer did arrive. So there was an end to the waiting. This was life, not a play! But we can all imagine that flickering of an instant that brought that particular summer to an end, too, brought those particular students back to those same or similar classrooms once again. Would the repeat their absurd vigil, continue to tune out and “wait” once again? I hope not. I would hope they’d be fully engaged in whatever gift of a moment they find themselves in, appreciating the present, instead of waiting for some better end. That is a perspective that Waiting for Godot has to offer.

Waiting for Godot is a poignant play about such waiting, about the repetition, the meaninglessness, the absurdity of waiting, of feeling (and being) suspended in time instead of moving forward in a meaningful direction. It’s not necessarily about the absence of God, or about Christian salvation, or existential despair, or nihilistic meaninglessness, or postmodern critiques of language, though interpretation is a subjective enterprise, and we can interpret literature how we choose. One way of understanding this play is to see it as an abstract play about waiting, about waiting for the possibility of a better future that we are not quite fully convinced will never arrive.

How do we arrive in this seemingly absurd state of waiting? Laying an existential interpretation atop the play, we might say that this play confronts an unpleasant truth about the human condition. As human beings we’re all clinging to the hope of some kind of salvation, some kind of Godot to come and save us from our intolerable suffering—our poverty, our disease, our boredom, our quiet desperation. This hoping, this waiting, removes us from the potentially liberating awareness that the moment we’re actually suspended in, this moment between birth and death that glows so briefly, is ultimately more important than any vague “better future” we might desire. This waiting is what prevents our passages, our meaningful transformations, our growth.

Everything in the play points to suspension: suspension of time, suspension of progress, suspension of reason, suspension of purpose. As drama, every convention has been suspended; the characters and their dialogue dance around in the ether of a nearly empty stage. “There’s no lack of void,” as Gogo declares. It seems the only thing that’s not suspended is our disbelief. Are these characters supposed to represent us? We resist. But ultimately Beckett’s art prevails.