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. 18 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Samuel Beckett." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/samuel-beckett

"Samuel Beckett." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved September 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/samuel-beckett

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

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. 18 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Beckett, Samuel." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beckett-samuel-0

"Beckett, Samuel." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved September 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beckett-samuel-0

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

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. 18 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Beckett, Samuel." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beckett-samuel

"Beckett, Samuel." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved September 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beckett-samuel

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

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. 18 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Beckett, Samuel." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beckett-samuel

"Beckett, Samuel." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved September 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beckett-samuel

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

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. 18 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Beckett, Samuel." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beckett-samuel

"Beckett, Samuel." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved September 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beckett-samuel

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Beckett, Samuel

Beckett Samuel

BORN: 1906, Dublin, Ireland

DIED: 1989, Paris, France

NATIONALITY: Irish

GENRE: Fiction, drama, poetry

MAJOR WORKS:
Waiting for Godot (1953)

Happy Days (1961)

Breath and Other Shorts (1972)

Not I (1973)

Overview

Samuel Beckett stood apart from the literary circles 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 antinovels or anti-plays as some authors did. His work shows affinities to James Joyce's, especially in the use of language; to Franz Kafka's in the portrayal of terror; and to Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 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 French philosophers René Descartes and Blaise Pascal; and the French novelist Marcel Proust. Beckett's own work opened new possibilities for both the novel and the theater that his successors have not been able to ignore.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Stellar Student Beckett was born in Dublin, Ireland, on April 13, 1906, to 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 two-year post as lecteur (assistant) in English at theÉcoleNormale Supérieure in Paris.

James Joyce 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 twelve 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. His penetrating essay on novelist Marcel 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 working odd jobs, he finally settled in Paris in 1937.

First Attempt at Playwriting At the beginning of his career, Beckett spent his time in Dublin reading, in his own word, “wildly.” From Johann Goethe to Franz Grillparzer to Giovanni Guarini, he finally settled into a single-minded concentration upon the life and work of Samuel Johnson. He began to collect information about Johnson, filling page after page in a large three-ring notebook with miscellaneous facts and quotations. Quite possibly this exercise was a means to keep his mind off Murphy, his first novel, which had recently been refused by the twenty-fifth publisher to see it, but also it represented a means to engage in a form of agreeable activity that counterbalanced his unpleasant circumstances.

Something convinced Beckett that he must turn all the material he had collected about Dr. Johnson into a play, and by early summer 1936, he was calling it his “Johnson Fantasy.” He claimed to have the entire play outlined in his head and that he only needed to commit it to paper. His original idea was to write a long four-act play to be called “Human Wishes,” after Johnson's poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes.”

Beckett wrote a ten-page scene of the play, but the rest of the material remains unwritten and the notes are unedited. His work was halted by the realization that he could not accurately capture the eighteenth-century English language as Johnson and his contemporaries spoke it.

Despite his early failures at playwriting, Beckett would later return to the art form to create some of his best-received work, including the play Waiting for Godot.

World War II: Writing in French 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 remain even after Nazi German occupation. He served in the Resistance movement until 1942, when he was obliged to flee from the German Gestapo, the Nazi secret state police, into unoccupied France, where he worked as a farmhand until the liberation of Paris by Allied troops in 1944. During these years he wrote another novel, Watt, published in 1953. By 1957, the works that finally established Beckett's reputation as one of the most important literary forces on the international scene were published. Surprisingly, all were written in French.

Other Media Beckett reached a much wider public through his plays than through his difficult, obscure novels. The most famous plays are Waiting for Godot (En Attendant Godot) (1953), Endgame (Fin de partie) (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.

Works in Literary Context

Beckett's work is best seen as a refinement of the French existentialist thinkers who were his contemporaries. Existentialists primarily concern themselves with the problem of the meaning of life, specifically as it is viewed in terms of its inevitable ending. That is, existentialists are perplexed by the problem of enjoying life while knowing that death is just around the corner. Beckett's own take on this problem forces him down roads that other existentialists had not traveled—for example, into a discussion of the disconnect between the language one uses and the world one tries to describe with it and how this disconnect reflects the absurdity of life.

French and the Absurd Beckett's work often tries to express the pure anguish of existence. In order to do this, he felt he must abandon “literature” or “style” in the conventional sense and attempt to reproduce the voice of this anguish. Indeed, these concepts—that existence is a kind of anguish—was widely expressed in French by authors Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. These philosophers were called “existentialists,” and concerned themselves with the evaluation of the quality of human life, about whether life had meaning at all, and if so what that meaning was. Like Beckett, Camus felt that there was something essentially “absurd” about the lives humans live, in which they hope for so much but ultimately know that they must and will die, a reality that, in a way, diminishes the joy of life itself. Not surprisingly, then, Beckett utilized the French language to express his own feelings about the absurd.

The trilogy of French novels Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnamable (1953) deals with the subject of death. In a twist on the existentialists' thoughts of the time, in these novels it is not death that is the horror or the source of absurdity, but life itself. To all the characters, 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 (Comment c'est), first published in French in 1961, emphasizes the solitude of the individual consciousness and at the same time the need of every individual to have others he or she cares for; after all, it is only when one is with another human being that one can know one exists. The last of Beckett's French novels to be published was Mercier and Camier (Mercier et Camier) in 1970. This work demonstrates Beckett's interest in wordplay, especially in its use of French colloquialisms.

Language and Meaning 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, which would imply that the language one uses cannot help one in communicating truth. Language is separate from the world it tries to describe, an idea that feeds into the concept of the “absurd.” After all, what kind of meaning can one's life have if one cannot even express one's experiences accurately?

A Play with No Action ? When Beckett worked on his Samuel Johnson play, he tried to conform his talents to the traditional form of the play—including the use of five acts to tell his story. Waiting for Godot, however, broke the tradition. Additionally, in this relatively short play, Beckett throws action out the window. Unlike the plays of Shakespeare in which action is as crucial to the telling of the story as the words of the play, in Waiting for Godot, audiences are asked to watch two characters wait for a third person, Godot, whom they were each supposed to meet. Aside from the dialogue, very little happens. This minimalist approach to playwriting paved the way for so-called one-man acts, in which a single character does little more than talk to the audience.

Lasting Legacy A vast range of contemporary authors have expressed their admiration of the work of Beckett, including seminal Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs and Nobel Prize-winner J. M. Coetzee, whose Waiting on the Barbarians is an homage in form to Waiting for Godot. Coetzee has also spent a good part of his career writing essays about the work of Beckett.

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Beckett's famous contemporaries include:

James Joyce (1882–1941): By far the most popular of Irish authors. Until Ireland switched over to the euro, Joyce's portrait appeared on the country's currency—evidence of the important role the author played in his home country.

Albert Camus (1913–1960): This French author is credited with examining the “absurdity” of life in his novels and plays.

Margaret Thatcher (1925–): Thatcher was the first female Prime Minister in the United Kingdom. She held the office from 1979 until 1990.

Fidel Castro (1926–): Castro led Cuba, either as president or prime minister, for the better part of fifty years. He held the office of president from 1976 to 2008.

William Faulkner (1897–1962): American novelist whose dense and complex work, like Beckett's, has been applauded by scholars but has yet to find a popular readership.

Irmgard Keun (1905–1982): German novelist whose works were banned by the Nazis in 1932.

Influences A close examination of Beckett's work reveals several literary influences. There is a likeness to James Joyce, especially in Beckett's use of language; with Franz Kafka in Beckett's portrayal of terror; and with Fyodor Dostoyevsky in the author's tendency to probe the darker side of the human spirit. The author was also

obviously inspired by a range of literary figures as different as Dante; the French philosophers René Descartes and Blaise Pascal; and the French novelist Marcel Proust. Regarding Beckett's influence on literary tradition, his work opened new possibilities for both the novel and the theater.

Works in Critical Context

Critical and popular response to Beckett has always been divided. Some find Beckett's unique plays and complicated novels fascinating and brilliant, while others find them simply frustrating. Although Beckett's plays will probably never qualify as long-running Broadway hits, his reputation remains strong while his works have become staples of literature classes.

The critical response to Beckett's most famous play, Waiting for Godot, perhaps best exemplifies the way the author has been reviewed through the years.

Waiting for Godot Waiting for Godot contains two acts in which two men, Vladimir and Estragon, both down-and-out, wait for someone named Godot, who is supposed to keep an appointment with them. Critical attitudes toward the play were positive from the premiere, when Sylvain Zegel wrote in the very first review that “The audience understood this much: Paris had just recognized in Samuel Beckett one of today's best playwrights.” Armand Salacrou wrote, “An author has appeared who has taken us by the hand to lead us into his universe.” More than a decade later, however, author Martin Esslin described the “succes de scandale” the play had become: “Was it not an outrage that people could be asked to come and see a play that could not be anything but a hoax, a play in which nothing whatever happened! People went to see the play just to be able to see that scandalous impertinence with their own eyes and to be in a position to say at the next party that they had actually been the victims of that outrage.”

Responses to Literature

  1. Read or watch a production of Waiting for Godot. How does Beckett use time elements in this play? What effect does the passing of time have on you as the reader (or audience)? How does this effect differ from the effect achieved in The Persistence of Memory?
  2. Beckett's work is marked by peculiar and, at times, playful uses of language. Often, though, readers find this wordplay difficult to follow. As you read Beckett, pick out a few instances of wordplay and analyze what Beckett achieves with them.
  3. Beckett once wrote a play in which the only character was a pair of disembodied lips. How do you think such a play would be received today?
  4. Beckett's interest in time and its passage in his plays is tremendous. Compare Beckett's representation of time with the representation of time in a contemporary movie like Memento, which also plays with time. Which representation of time is more engaging and why?

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Much of Beckett's work is directly or indirectly concerned with time and its representation on the stage and in novels. Many of Beckett's plays, in fact, have a sense of timelessness, a feeling that the actions in the plays do not occur in any particular time at all but stand outside of time itself. Other works that attempt to capture a feeling of being outside of time include:

Invisible Cities (1972), a work of fiction by Italo Calvino. Calvino's book is set up as Marco Polo's dreamlike recollection of his travels to Kublai Khan, but there is no linear path through the story or the travels.

Hopscotch (1963), a novel by Julio Cortázar. Cortázar offers multiple paths through his novel about self-discovery, as well as multiple endings, including one that would set readers on an infinite loop.

“The Library of Babel” (1941), a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. One of Borges's most famous stories, “The Library of Babel” speculates about the existence of an infinite library in which all books ever written and all books that could possibly be written exist.

Groundhog Day (1993), a film directed by Harold Ramis. This comedy tackles the interesting question of what would happen if a person was forced to relive the same day over and over again.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Abbott, H. Porter. The Fiction of Samuel Beckett: Form and Effect. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1973.

Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett: A Biography. New York: Summit, 1990.

Baker, Phil. Beckett and the Mythology of Psychoanalysis. London: Nick Hern, 1996.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Samuel Beckett: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea, 1985.

Cochran, Robert. Samuel Beckett: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1991.

Connor, Steven. Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory, and Text. London: Blackwell, 1988.

Fletcher, John. Samuel Beckett's Art. London: Chatto & Windus, 1967.

Gussow, Mel. Conversations with and about Beckett. London: Nick Hern, 1996.

McMullan, Anna. Theatre on Trial: Samuel Beckett's Later Drama. New York: Routledge, 1993.

O'Hara, J. D. Twentieth Century Views of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980.

Robinson, Jeremy. Samuel Beckett Goes into the Silence. Kidderminster, U.K.: Crescent Moon, 1992.

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

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Beckett, Samuel." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Beckett, Samuel." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beckett-samuel

"Beckett, Samuel." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature. . Retrieved September 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beckett-samuel

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Beckett, Samuel

Beckett, Samuel

The acclaimed author of Waiting for Godot, Samuel Barclay Beckett (1906–1989) was born in Foxrock, Co. Dublin, on Friday, 13 April 1906. Close to his father and brother but periodically at odds with his pious Protestant mother, Beckett was at school in Dublin during the 1916 Rising, and in Eniskillen, in his second year at Portora Royal School, when Ireland was partitioned.

In 1923 Beckett went to Trinity College, where he completed an arts degree. In 1928 he became an exchange lecturer at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he met a number of artists and writers, including James Joyce. Upon his return to Ireland in 1930, he quarreled with his mother over his writing and his unwillingness to pursue a normal career, and in 1931 he abruptly left a teaching position at Trinity College.

He started his first novel in Paris in 1932. A short story collection, More Pricks than Kicks, was published in 1934. He completed his novel Murphy in 1935. Beckett was active in the French Resistance throughout World War II, fleeing Paris to Roussillon when his cell was betrayed (Knowlson 1997), and rejoining the Resistance in Roussillon. In the years following the war Beckett produced "a torrent of work" in French (Knowlson 1997, p. 355), writing (in French) and translating (into English) the novels Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable.

Beckett became famous with the first performances of his plays Waiting for Godot (1952) and Endgame (1957) in 1953 and 1957, respectively. In 1959 he completed the comparatively lyrical Krapp's Last Tape. Thereafter, he honed his minimalism, producing short plays and prose works in which the boundaries between life and death, reality and the imagination, are annihilated. These include Eh Joe (1967), Not I (1972), That Time (1977), Footfalls (1977), Company (1979), Ill Said, Ill Seen (1981), and Rockaby (1982).

Beckett hated publicity—he went into hiding upon receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969. Although he refused interviews, he was nonetheless willing to make political statements. He withheld the performance rights to his plays in apartheid South Africa, but endorsed a 1976 production of Waiting For Godot by a black cast before nonsegregated audiences (Knowlson 1997, p. 637). He also opposed censorship in the Soviet bloc countries, and he dedicated his 1979 play Catastrophe to fellow playwright Vaclav Havel, Czechoslovakia's foremost dissident (and later president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic). Because Beckett insisted, at times irrationally, on his work's apolitical and asocial character, his recurring interest in Manichean social relations and power dynamics—as in the case of Molloy—in a clearly Irish context has yet to be elucidated fully.

SEE ALSO Arts: Modern Irish and Anglo-Irish Literature and the Arts since 1800; Drama, Modern; Fiction, Modern

Bibliography

Harrington, John P. The Irish Beckett. 1991.

Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. 1997.

McCormack, W. J. From Burke to Beckett: Ascendancy Tradition and Betrayal in Literary History. 1994.

Mercier, Vivian. Modern Irish Literature: Sources and Founders. 1994.

Margot Gayle Backus

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

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Beckett, Samuel." Encyclopedia of Irish History and Culture. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Beckett, Samuel." Encyclopedia of Irish History and Culture. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/international/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beckett-samuel

"Beckett, Samuel." Encyclopedia of Irish History and Culture. . Retrieved September 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/international/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beckett-samuel

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.