Skip to main content
Select Source:

Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), the Irish novelist, playwright, and poet who became French by adoption, was one of the most original and important writers of the century. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969.

Samuel Beckett stood apart from the literary coteries of his time, even though he shared many of their preoccupations. He wrestled with the problems of "being" and "nothingness, " but he was not an existentialist in the manner of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Although Beckett was suspicious of conventional literature and of conventional theater, his aim was not to write anti-novels or anti-plays as some authors did. His work shows affinities with James Joyce, especially in the use of language; with Franz Kafka in the portrayal of terror; and with Fyodor Dostoevsky in the probing of the darker recesses of the human spirit. Beckett was inspired, rather than influenced, by literary figures as different as the Italian poet Dante (the Divine Comedy's circles of Hell and Purgatory); the French philosophers René Descartes (the cogito) and Blaise Pascal ("the wretchedness of man without God"); and the French novelist Marcel Proust (time). Beckett's own work opened new possibilities for both the novel and the theater that his successors have not been able to ignore.

Beckett was born in Dublin, Ireland, on April 13, 1906 of middle-class Protestant parents. He attended the Portora Royal boarding school in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, where he excelled in both academics and sports. In 1923 he entered Trinity College in Dublin to specialize in French and Italian. His academic record was so distinguished that upon receiving his baccalaureate degree in 1927, he was awarded a 2-year post as lecteur (assistant) in English at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.

Literary Apprenticeship

In France, Beckett soon joined the informal group surrounding the great Irish writer James Joyce and was invited to contribute the opening essay to the book Our Exagmination round his Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, a collection of 12 articles written as a defense and explanation of Joyce's still-unfinished Finnegans Wake by a group of Joyce's disciples. Beckett also moved in French literary circles. During this first stay in Paris he won a prize for the best poem on the subject of time in a competition sponsored by the Hours Press. His poem Whoroscope (1930) was his first separately published work and marked the beginning of his lifelong interest in the subject of time.

Beckett returned to Dublin in 1930 to teach French at Trinity College but submitted his resignation, after only four terms, saying that he could not teach others what he did not know himself. During the year he had obtained a master of arts degree. A penetrating essay on Proust, published in 1931, indicates how many of his subsequent themes Beckett was already beginning to consider at this time. After several years of wandering through Europe writing short stories and poems and employed at odd jobs, he finally settled in Paris in 1937.

First Novels and Short Stories

More Pricks than Kicks (1934), a volume of short stories derived, in part, from the then unpublished novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1993), recounts episodes from the life of Belacqua, a ne'er-do-well Irish reincarnation of Dante's Divine Comedy procrastinator of the same name who lived beneath a rock at the Gates of Purgatory. A blood brother of all Beckett's future protagonists, Belacqua lives what he calls "a Beethoven pause, " the moments of nothingness between the music. But since what precedes and what follows man's earthly life (that is, eternity) are Nothing, then life also (if there is to be continuity) must be a Nothingness from which there can be no escape. All of Belacqua's efforts to transcend his condition fail.

Although Beckett's association with Joyce continued, their friendship, as well as Joyce's influence on Beckett, has often been exaggerated. Beckett's first novel, Murphy (1938), which Joyce completely misunderstood, is evidence of the distance between them. Deep beneath the surface of this superbly comic tale lie metaphysical problems that Beckett was trying to solve. As Murphy turns from the repugnant world of outer reality to his own inner world, always more and more circumscribed until it becomes a "closed system"—a microcosm where he finds a mystical peace—Beckett ponders the relationship between mind and body, the Self and the outer world, and the meaning of freedom and love.

When World War II broke out in 1939, Beckett was in Ireland. He returned immediately to Paris, where, as a citizen of a neutral country, he was permitted to stay even after German occupation. He served in the Resistance movement until 1942, when he was obliged to flee from the German Gestapo into unoccupied France, where he worked as a farmhand until the liberation of Paris in 1945. During these years he wrote another novel, Watt, published in 1953.

Watt, like each of his novels, carries Beckett's search for meaning a step further than the preceding one, or, as several critics have said, nearer the center of his thought. In many respects Watt's world is everyone's world, and he resembles everyone. And yet his strange adventure in the house of the mysterious Mr. Knott—whose name may signify: not, knot, naught, or the German Not (need, anxiety), or all of them—is Beckett's attempt to clarify the relationship between language and meaning. Watt, like most people, feels comfort when he is able to call things by their names; a name gives a thing reality. Gradually Watt discovers that the words men invent may have no relation to the real meaning of the thing, nor can the logical use of language ever reveal what is illogical and irrational: the infinite and the Self.

Writings in French

After the Liberation Beckett returned to his apartment in Paris and entered the most productive period of his career. By 1957 the works that finally established his reputation as one of the most important literary forces on the international scene were published, and, surprisingly, all were written in French. Presumably Beckett had sought the discipline of this foreign, acquired language to help him resist the temptation of using a style that was too personally evocative or too allusive. In trying to express the inexpressible, the pure anguish of existence, he felt he must abandon "literature" or "style" in the conventional sense and attempt to reproduce the voice of this anguish. These works were translated into an English that does not betray the effect of the original French.

The trilogy of novels Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnamable (1953) deals with the subject of death; however, here it is not death which is the horror or the source of absurdity (as with the existentialists), but life. To all the characters, life represents an exile from the continuing reality of themselves, and they seek to understand the meaning of death in this context. Since freedom can exist only outside time and since death occurs only in time, the characters try to transcend or "kill" time, which imprisons them in its fatality. Recognizing the impossibility of the task, they are finally reduced to silence and waiting as the only way to endure the anguish of living. Another novel, How It Is, first published in French in 1961, emphasizes the solitude of the individual consciousness and at the same time the need for others; for only through the testimony of another can one be sure that one exists. The last of his French novels to be published was Mercier and Camier. This work demonstrates Beckett's interest in wordplay, especially in its use of French colloquialisms. Written in 1946, it was not published until 1974.

The Plays

Beckett reached a much wider public through his plays than through his difficult, obscure novels. The most famous plays are Waiting for Godot (1953), Endgame (1957), Krapp's Last Tape (1958), and Happy Days (1961). The same themes found in the novels appear in these plays in more condensed and accessible form. Later, Beckett experimented successfully with other media: the radio play, film, pantomime, and the television play.

Later Works

Beckett maintained a prolific output throughout his life, publishing the poetry collection, Mirlitonades (1978), the extended prose piece, Worstward Ho (1983), and many novellas and short stories in his later years. Many of these pieces were concerned with the failure of language to express the inner being. His first novel, Dreams of Fair to Middling Women was finally published, posthumously, in 1993.

Although they lived in Paris, Beckett and his wife enjoyed frequent stays in their small country house nearby. Tall and slender, with searching blue eyes, Beckett retained the shy and unassuming manner of his younger days. Unlike his tormented characters, he was distinguished by a great serenity of spirit. He died peacefully in Paris on December 22, 1989, and was buried, as he had wished, in a small, quiet ceremony.

Further Reading

Near the end of his life, Beckett authorized a biography by James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (1996). Another good source of biographical material on Beckett is Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (1959). Of the tremendous volume of critical studies, the two most penetrating are Hugh Kenner, Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study (1962; 2d ed. 1968), and Richard N. Coe, Samuel Beckett (1964). Ruby Cohn, Samuel Beckett: The Comic Gamut (1962), and the chapter on Beckett in Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (1961; rev. ed. 1969), are also recommended. Various critical approaches to the many aspects of Beckett's work can be found in Martin Esslin, ed., Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays (1965). Recommended for background are Claude Mauriac, The New Literature (1959); John Cruickshank, ed., The Novelist as Philosopher: Studies in French Fiction, 1935-1960 (1962); and Jacques Guicharnaud, Modern French Theatre: From Giraudoux to Genet (1967). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Samuel Beckett." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Samuel Beckett." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/samuel-beckett

"Samuel Beckett." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/samuel-beckett

Beckett, Samuel

Samuel Beckett

Born: April 13, 1906
Dublin, Ireland
Died: December 22, 1989
Paris, France

Irish novelist, playwright, and poet

Samuel Beckett, the Irish novelist, playwright, and poet was one of the most original and important writers of the twentieth century, winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969.

Early life in Ireland

Samuel Beckett was born in Dublin, Ireland, on April 13, 1906, to middle-class parents, William and Mary Beckett. Mary Beckett was a devoted wife and mother, who spent good times with her two sons in both training and hobbies. His father shared his love of nature, fishing, and golf with his children. Both parents were strict and devoted Protestants.

Beckett's tenth year came at the same time as the Easter Uprising in 1916 (the beginning of the Irish civil war for independence from British rule). Beckett's father took him to see Dublin in flames. Meanwhile, World War I (191418) had already involved his uncle, who was fighting with the British army. Here was the pairing of opposites at an early age: Beckett wrote of his childhood as a happy one, yet spoke of "unhappiness around me."

He was a quick study, taking on the French language at age six. He attended the Portora Royal boarding school in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Ireland, where he continued to excel in academics and became the light-heavyweight boxing champion. He also contributed writings to the school paper. His early doodles were of beggar women, hoboes, and tramps. Schoolmasters often labeled him moody and withdrawn.

In 1923 he entered Trinity College in Dublin to specialize in French and Italian. His academic record was so distinguished that upon receiving his degree in 1927, he was awarded a two-year post as lecteur (assistant) in English at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, France.

Literary apprenticeship

In France Beckett soon joined the informal group surrounding the Irish writer James Joyce (18821941) and was invited to contribute the opening essay to a defense and explanation of Joyce's still unfinished Finnegans Wake (1939). Beckett also moved in French literary circles. During this first stay in Paris he won a prize for the best poem on the subject of time. Whoroscope (1930) was his first separately published work and marked the beginning of his lifelong interest in the theme of time.

Beckett returned to Dublin in 1930 to teach French at Trinity College. During the year he earned a Master of Arts degree. After several years of wandering through Europe writing short stories and poems and being employed at odd jobs, he finally settled in Paris in 1937.

First novels and short stories

More Pricks than Kicks (1934), a volume of short stories derived, in part, from the then unpublished novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1993), recounts episodes from the life of Belacqua. Belacqua, similar in character to all of Beckett's future heroes, lives what he calls "a Beethoven pause," the moments of nothingness between the music. But since what comes before and what follows man's earthly life (that is, eternity) are nothing, then life also (if there is to be continuity) must be a nothingness from which there can be no escape.

Beckett's first novel, Murphy (1938), is a comic tale complete with a philosophical (the search for meaning in one's life) problem that Beckett was trying to solve. As Murphy turns from the ugly world of outer reality to his own inner world, Beckett reflects upon the relationship between mind and body, the self and the outer world, and the meaning of freedom and love.

During World War II (193945; a war in which France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States fought against and defeated the combined powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan) Beckett served in the French Resistance movement (a secret organization of Jews and non-Jews who worked against the Nazis, the political party in control of Germany from 1933 until 1945). In 1953 he wrote another novel, Watt. Like each of his novels, it carries Beckett's search for meaning a step further than the preceding one, or, as several critics have said, nearer the center of his thought. In many respects Watt's world is everyone's world and he resembles everyone. Gradually Watt discovers that the words men invent may have no relation to the real meaning of the thing, nor can the logical use of language ever reveal what is illogical or unreasonable, the unknown and the self.

Writings in French

By 1957 the works that finally established his reputation as one of the most important literary forces on the international scene were published, and, surprisingly, all were written in French. Presumably Beckett had sought the discipline of this foreign language to help him resist the temptation of using a style that was too personally suggestive or too hard to grasp. In trying to express the inexpressible, the pure anguish (causing great pain) of existence, he felt he must abandon "literature" or "style" in the conventional sense and attempt to reproduce the voice of this anguish. These works were translated into an English that does not betray the effect of the original French.

The trilogy of novels Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnamable (1953) deals with the subject of death; Beckett, however, makes life the source of horror. To all the characters life represents a separation from the continuing reality of themselves. Since freedom can exist only outside time and since death occurs only in time, the characters try to rise above or "kill" time, which imprisons them. Recognizing the impossibility of the task, they are finally reduced to silence and waiting as the only way to endure the anguish of living. Another novel, How It Is, first published in French in 1961, emphasizes the loneliness of the individual and at the same time the need for others, for only through the proof of another can one be sure that one exists. The last of his French novels to be published was Mercier and Camier.

Plays and later works

Beckett reached a much wider public through his plays than through his novels. The most famous plays are Waiting for Godot (1953), Endgame (1957), Krapp's Last Tape (1958), and Happy Days (1961). The same themes found in the novels appear in these plays in a more condensed and accessible form. Later Beckett experimented successfully with other media: the radio play, film, pantomime, and the television play.

Beckett maintained a large quantity of output throughout his life, publishing the poetry collection, Mirlitonades (1978); the extended prose (writing that has no rhyme and is closest to the spoken word) piece, Worstward Ho (1983); and numerous novellas (stories with a complex and pointed plot) and short stories in his later years. Many of these pieces were concerned with the failure of language to express the inner being. His first novel, Dreams of Fair to Middling Women, was finally published after his death in 1993.

Although they lived in Paris, Beckett and his wife enjoyed frequent stays in their small country house nearby. Unlike his tormented characters, he was distinguished by a great serenity of spirit. He died peacefully in Paris on December 22, 1989.

Samuel Beckett differed from his literary peers even though he shared many of their preoccupations. Although Beckett was suspicious of conventional literature and theater, his aim was not to make fun of it as some authors did. Beckett's work opened new possibilities for both the novel and the theater that his successors have not been able to ignore.

For More Information

Cronin, Anthony. Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.

Dukes, Gerry. Samuel Beckett. New York: Penguin, 2001.

Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Beckett, Samuel." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Beckett, Samuel." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beckett-samuel-0

"Beckett, Samuel." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beckett-samuel-0

Beckett, Samuel

Samuel Beckett (bĕk´Ĭt), 1906–89, Anglo-French playwright and novelist, b. Dublin. Beckett studied and taught in Paris before settling there permanently in 1937. He wrote primarily in French, frequently translating his works into English himself. His first published novel, Murphy (1938), typifies his later works by eliminating the traditional elements of plot, character, and setting. Instead, he presents the experience of waiting and struggling with a pervading sense of futility. The anguish of persisting in a meaningless world is intensified in Beckett's subsequent novels including Watt (1942–44); the trilogy Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnamable (1953); How It Is (1961); and The Lost Ones (1972). In his theater of the absurd, Beckett combined poignant humor with an overwhelming sense of anguish and loss. Best known and most controversial of his dramas are Waiting for Godot (1952) and Endgame (1957), which have been performed throughout the world. Beckett was awarded the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Beckett's other works include a major study of Proust (1931); the plays Krapp's Last Tape (1959) and Happy Days (1961); a screenplay, Film (1969); short stories, Breath (1966) and Lessness (1970); collected shorter prose in Stories and Texts for Nothing (tr. 1967), No's Knife (1967), and The Complete Short Prose: 1929–1989 (1996, ed. by S. E. Gontarski); volumes of collected writings, More Pricks than Kicks (1970) and First Love and Other Shorts (1974); and Poems (1963). His Collected Works (16 vol.) was published in 1970 and a comprehensive centenary edition (5 vol.) was published in 2006. Beckett's first works of fiction and drama were both published posthumously, the novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1932) in 1992 and the play Eleuthéria (1947) in 1995.

See S. Lawlor and J. Pilling, ed., The Collected Poems of Samual Beckett (2014); M. D. Fehsenfeld et al., ed., The Letters of Samuel Beckett (3 vol., 2009–14); J. and E. Knowlson, Beckett Remembering/Remembering Beckett: A Centenary Celebration (2006); memoir by A. Atik (2006); biographies by D. Bair (1980), J. Knowlson (1996), and A. Cronin (1997); studies by H. Kenner (1968 and 1973), R. Cohn (1972 and 1973), S. Connor (1986), P. Gidal (1986), R. Pountney (1988), L. Gordon (1996), C. C. Andonian (1998), J. D. O'Hara (1998), A Uhlmann and S. E. Gontarski, ed. (2006), and S. Watt (2009); S. E. Gontarski, ed., A Companion to Samuel Beckett (2010).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Beckett, Samuel." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Beckett, Samuel." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beckett-samuel

"Beckett, Samuel." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beckett-samuel

Beckett, Samuel

Beckett, Samuel (1900–89). Irish novelist and playwright, whose Waiting for Godot (1952) was to the 1950s what The Waste Land was to the 1920s. A play in which ‘nothing happens, twice’, it was followed by others paring away character and action in a reductio ad absurdum raised to the level of metaphysical inquiry. Not I (1972) lasts only fifteen minutes and all we see is a shadowy auditor and a woman's mouth from which words stream, expressing, in Beckett's words, ‘that there is nothing to express … together with the obligation to express’. From 1937 settled in Paris and writing in French, his affinities were with Sartre and Heidegger, though an earlier Cartesian dualism often shaped his work. As a story-teller and novelist he was indebted to James Joyce, and his trilogy, completed in 1953 with The Unnameable, though not for the faint-hearted, is redeemed by touches of the master's sly humour.

John Saunders

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Beckett, Samuel." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Beckett, Samuel." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beckett-samuel

"Beckett, Samuel." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beckett-samuel

Beckett, Samuel

Beckett, Samuel (1906–89) Irish playwright and novelist. One of the most influential writers of the 20th-century, Beckett wrote in both French and English. He emigrated to Paris in the 1920s and became an assistant to James Joyce. His first published work was a volume of verse Whoroscope (1930). His first novel was Murphy (1938). Beckett's reputation is based largely on three full-length plays – Waiting for Godot (1952), Endgame (1957), and Happy Days (1961) – which explore notions of suffering, paralysis and endurance. His work is often linked to the Theatre of the Absurd with its repetitive, inventive language and obsession with futility and meaninglessness. His short plays include Krapp's Last Tape (1958), Not I (1973), and Footfalls (1975). Other novels include the French trilogy Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnameable (1953). He was awarded the 1969 Nobel Prize in literature.

http://english.ucsb.edu

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Beckett, Samuel." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Beckett, Samuel." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beckett-samuel

"Beckett, Samuel." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beckett-samuel