Dante and the Lobster by Samuel Beckett, 1934

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by Samuel Beckett, 1934

One of the first pieces to be published by the great novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett, "Dante and the Lobster" is regarded as one of the author's best short stories from the 1934 collection More Pricks Than Kicks. Beckett would go on to write short fiction that would test the limits of the genre. He was still experimenting with this form at the very end of his life. Even in the More Pricks collection he penned wilder and weirder stories than "Dante and the Lobster," but here, at the start of his publishing career, he writes a fairly straightforward story in the mold of Joyce's Dubliners.

Beckett, part of the Joyce circle in Paris at the time this story was written, had Irishness, iconoclasm, erudition, and other qualities in common with the elder writer. "Dante and the Lobster" is set in Dublin, where its hero, Belacqua Shua, is a student, apparently of Italian, with great erudition and a misanthropic view of the world. Like the hero of Beckett's first published novel (Murphy), Belacqua is evidently torn between body and mind. The story moves confidently between the physical and mental or even spiritual levels. Its language reflects this interplay most accurately.

Initially we appear to be reading about Belacqua's deep studies, but then noon strikes and "at once he switched his mind off its task." The body begins to take over as his mind "subsides," and we witness the making of a bizarre lunch. Belacqua burns toast and spreads it with mustard and Gorgonzola specially purchased for the purpose. The result ("it was like eating glass") is an eye-watering sandwich for which, however, his hunger is "more of mind, I need scarcely say, than of body." While drinking beer after this gastronomic exploit, Belacqua hears of the imminent execution of the murderer McCabe. A petition for mercy has been rejected. Next Belacqua takes delivery of a lobster for his aunt. He then goes for his Italian lesson, where he brings up as a linguistic topic the translation of a line in Dante that puns on the two meanings of pietà: pity and piety. His teacher refuses to translate it, and in due course Belacqua takes the lobster on to his aunt's, where he discovers that it is still alive and that his aunt is about to boil it in that condition. The story ends: "Well, thought Belacqua, it's a quick death, God help us all. It is not."

The narrator here is very close to the actions and thoughts of his protagonist. The focus of the story moves in and out of Belacqua's head, sometimes as his thoughts expressed directly, sometimes as a free indirect speech that echoes his thoughts, and sometimes as the narrator's external thoughts. Thoughts expressed directly can be relatively simple: "he ventured to consider what he had to do next." Free indirect speech is very effectively handled; it is hard to say exactly where Beckett is quoting Belacqua's thoughts and where the omniscient narrator is talking to us in a passage such as the following:

It was now that real skill began to be required, it was at this point that the average person began to make a hash of the entire proceedings. He laid his cheek against the soft of the bread, it was spongy and warm, alive. But he would very soon take that plush feel off it, by God but he would very quickly take that fat white look off its face.

Most of the story is like this, an amalgam of narration from a third person perspective and the thoughts of Belacqua expressed in his idiosyncratic language. Thus "the average person" is a colloquial expression; "by God but" is likewise unusual in written prose, even in Ireland; and the conditional "he would" when first used sounds like the narrator's voice until we realize, when it is repeated, that it is a pedantic version of a colloquial "I'll take that look off your face" and comes from Belacqua's own thoughts.

The clues to Belacqua-Beckett's concerns are readily identifiable: the bread is "alive" and "warm" but must be "vanquished"; the lobster, already cold, will become dead by being heated to the maximum; McCabe, in spite of the mercy petition, will "swing at dawn" in the appallingly named Mountjoy prison, but first he will "relish one more meal." The dilemma is that of Hardy's Arabella Don and Jude Fawley when they kill their pig: Jude cannot bear the cruelty but Arabella points out that "poor folks must live." On the one hand, there are physical necessities (lunch, lobsters) and ethical requirements (piety, justice); on the other, there is mercy, pity, and the life—warm or cold—of those as yet unsacrificed to either of these things.

Beckett is unusually direct in this story; it is probably the best example of his least experimental short fiction. He states his theme quite openly. The dilemma is clearly expressed in the Italian pun on pietà and then made even more explicit in the narrator's comments (they are Belacqua's thoughts as well): "Why not piety and pity both, even down below?" But things are as they are: "'Where are we?' said Belacqua…. 'Where are we ever? Where we were, as we were."' cries his Italian teacher.

—Lance St. John Butler