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Happy Days | Study Guide

Samuel Beckett

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Happy Days | Act 1 | Summary



A bell rings for 10 seconds. It rings for another five seconds and then stops. Winnie, despite the difficulties of her situation—she is under a scorching sun and buried to her waist in a mound of scorched earth—greets the day with praise and a prayer. She addresses herself in a manner that indicates she habitually talks to herself: "Begin, Winnie" followed by "Begin your day, Winnie." From the black bag at her side, she withdraws the day's essentials, including her toothbrush and toothpaste, her spectacles, lipstick, and health tonic. She takes up and drops her parasol, which magically disappears and reappears.

She wakes Willie, none too gently, by trying to prod him with her parasol, and she drops it behind her. Willie's hand, which Winnie cannot see, reaches out, and he returns the parasol back to her. Eventually she retrieves her spectacles, what's left of some health tonic in a bottle, and lipstick from her bag. She extracts a revolver, kisses it, and returns it to her bag. Winnie takes the medicine and then tosses the empty tonic bottle behind her—the audience hears the sound of breaking glass—and Willie appears, facing away from Winnie. His bald head is bleeding; apparently, the bottle has struck him. Next, his hand appears, first with a handkerchief, which he places on his head, and then over the handkerchief a straw boater (hat). Winnie instructs him to put his pants on before he gets "singed." She also tells him how to apply the Vaseline he uses—on both sides—for protection from the brilliant sun. Briefly, Winnie strains to see Willie and, appreciating his awakening, turns to the audience to announce the arrival of "another happy day."

Willie reads the obituaries and want ads from his old newspaper to Winnie, and the mention of a particular person inspires Winnie's memories of youthful encounters, amid which she tries to read the label on her toothbrush, using a magnifying glass. (Willie appears, disappears, and reappears throughout Act 1. Most often only the back of his head or an arm and hand are visible.) Finally, Winnie makes out the words hog's setae on her toothbrush. Shortly thereafter, Willie hands Winnie, at her request, a pornographic postcard he has been studying. She examines it and, offended, sends it back to him. While Willie savors the postcard, Winnie asks him what a hog is. Willie doesn't answer her.

Adaptable Willie, less than savory in his habits, uses his handkerchief to blow his nose and replaces it on his head. Winnie explains how important it is to have Willie as a witness to her speech as opposed to "talking to [herself] ... in the wilderness." His presence is what enables her to go on. She even seeks his advice as she thinks about combing her hair, asking if the hair on the head should be referred to as the (English) singular, "it," or the (French) plural, "them." Willie chooses "it." His response elicits Winnie's pleasure and her celebration of "[a]nother happy day."

Thinking of hair, Winnie remembers their wedding day when Willie called her hair golden. The memory is painful, and she shifts to practical concerns such as combing her hair or trimming her nails. She orders Willie back into his hole and directs him to crawl backward. He is not happy with the advice but complies.

Winnie delivers a monologue sporadically interrupted by a word or two from Willie as she moves from the importance of being heard to that of being seen. Here her language takes a metaphorical turn when she notes that even in a long-married couple, it is not necessarily the case "that because one sees the other the other sees the one." She sees Willie as a small animal, his face visible at the mouth of his hole, his chin in his hands, and his "old blue eyes like saucers in the shadows." She notices that her hole in the mound is growing tight and explains to Willie that if she were not held tight this way, she might simply "float up into the blue." She moves from metaphorical modes of seeing—in the invocation to Willie to "look into your heart"—to the sighting of an emmet (ant) carrying a round white ball, an egg.

Willie makes up a word-joke when he says formication, and they laugh together. Then Winnie begins to question the joke and puts Willie down by suggesting the made-up word (formication, a play on fornication but replacing the n for an m to evoke Formicidae, or ants) is a mistake rather than an intentional joke. Her prattle resumes. She free-associates her guilt at doubting him and asks if he ever found her to be lovable. As she had done at an earlier moment when an emotional moment occurs, she refers to the black bag and practical concerns, this time warning herself not to "overdo the bag." "Cast your mind forward," she insists, thinking of the "time when words must fail." At this she removes the revolver from the bag and recalls Willie's insistence she keep it lest he do himself in. The talk of death brings sorrow, and she quickly returns to the joy of his presence.

Winnie opens her parasol and twirls it as she speaks. Her speech moves between reminiscence of a happy past, some sadness over what has been lost, and the invocation of a "happy day" in her return to a practical present and a view of a happier future in the end to life's suffering. Willie's life has assumed a sort of stasis. Winnie says she does not blame him "because he cannot speak" and she "is in tongue again," which she finds to be something "so wonderful" about her "two lamps," that "when one goes out the other burns brighter." Winnie's parasol catches on fire, flaming and smoking. She throws it behind the mound and cranes her neck to watch it burn. She assumes this has happened before but cannot remember, so she asks Willie. He doesn't answer, but Winnie gets him to raise all five fingers. Winnie continues her monologue with thoughts about how each waits in their own way for death. She mentions how all the items in her bag will return again, how they always come back. Then she uses her mirror to reflect some light on a nearby stone. Next she plays "The Merry Widow Waltz" on a music box and is delighted when this elicits a "[b]rief burst of hoarse song" from Willie.

While she is filing her fingernails, Winnie recalls seeing a married couple, the "last human kind," Winnie notes, "to stray this way." The husband worries about the meaning of Winnie's situation, while his wife criticizes his need to find meaning. A matter of "[t]he old style" again makes a person wonder what the new style might be. At this point Winnie gets ready for the evening, placing items back in the bag. Toothbrush in hand, she encourages Willie as he crawls back to his hole in the ground and says she wishes she could see him or he could crawl to her so she could see him. Winnie reads the label of the toothbrush, remembering that it is made of "hog's setae." She asks Willie again, "What is a hog exactly?" This time Willie replies, "Castrated male swine ... Reared for slaughter." At his response, the stage directions say, a "[h]appy expression appears on Winnie's face." Willie returns to the newspaper, reading the want ads aloud. "Opening for smart youth," he says, and then he says, "Wanted bright boy." Winnie's smile broadens. She gets the last word as Act 1, twice the length of Act 2, concludes: "Pray your old prayer, Winnie."


Unique Use of Words in Happy Days

A visual pun opens the play. The stage direction is "[gazing at zenith]," and as Winnie gazes directly overhead she speaks her first words: "Another heavenly day." Thus the tone is set as language is brought to the literal level, the level of reference as well as the contrasting level of idea. The speaker awakens under heaven's dome, and her first words come into focus, not as cliché (which constitutes her world of experience), but as the literal situation. Besides the narrative, the story of a marriage of two people growing old, side by side but not together, the play explores the nature of an authentic discourse in which language operates out of the core aspects of individual feeling. Words that have authentic meaning can only do so in relation to the speaker's physical and emotional experience. Winnie's question about whether hair is "it" or "them" toys with the concern for authentic speech: French hair, of course, is plural, les cheveux, while English hair is singular—and the matter of hair or hairs is arbitrary—that is, it is arbitrary whether the speaker chooses French or English, unless the individual is bald but for a single hair.

Winnie and Willie's Different Perspectives

Winnie tips her hand nearly immediately, declaring "so much to be thankful for." In this instance her gratitude is directed toward her toothbrush, her spectacles, and the general absence of pain, though she acknowledges occasional migraines. Winnie and Willie's differences are on display as she dwells on happy memories, which, in her retrospection, make her sad before she turns to a rationalized happy present, which is not happy at all, while Willie reads aloud phrases of defunct want ads from the presumably ancient newspaper in his possession. Willie, who lives in the past, reads stale ads for a "smart youth" and a "bright boy" while Winnie entertains romantic dreams of the smart boys of her youth. Their differences persist. Winnie manages to read the very small print on the label of her toothbrush, learning that the bristles are made of "hog's setae." She declares a wonderful day in which she once again has learned something new. Her pleasure takes a turn, however, as she considers a day when all pain ends. The response is to "just close the eyes ... and wait for ... the happy day to come ... when flesh melts at so many degrees and the night of the moon has so many hundred hours." Winnie's reverie on death is interrupted by the distraction of a pornographic postcard Willie has been studying. When Winnie returns to her meditation on the toothbrush label, she finds she has forgotten the meaning of hog. What she finds wonderful then is the reassuring sense that "all comes back."

Winnie's Literary Allusions

The phrase all comes back also refers to the literary lines Winnie quotes without necessarily recalling the source but unconsciously choosing lines that refer to whatever else is buried in her mind at the moment she recites the lines. Included are variously complete and part phrases from Shakespeare (16th-century poet and playwright), Milton (17th-century poet), Thomas Gray (18th-century poet), Omar Khayyam (11th-century poet and astronomer), Lord Byron (18th-century poet), Keats (early 19th-century poet), and Herrick (17th-century poet)—to name some. These lines function to represent ideas about Winnie, her mood, her present state, and her past. The quoted lines are no longer operating within their original contexts. They have escaped their origins and entered Winnie's memory where they serve as markers of incomplete repression on which Winnie's happy days depend. These quotations are "objects" of the disorder of her past in the same sense that the contents of her black bag are objects of both past and present order.

Winnie and Willie and the Past, Present, and Future

Winnie's speech acts, quotations as well as everyday prattle, are all about time. Throughout the first act, Winnie's thoughts meander between past and present as she often reassures herself with the advent of "another happy day." The phrase becomes, in fact, a marker for time in this memory text, the recognition of a past memory helping to sustain the illusion of her present happiness. There is also a matter of the future: she holds death at bay as she continues to speak and at the same time sees death as deliverance. Willie, on the other hand, seems to live in an impractical and impersonal present with old, everyday objects. He reads an old newspaper, blows his nose, and uses his soiled handkerchief as a sun shield for his bald head, or he eats his snot in infantile fashion despite Winnie's objections. He is stuck in old and often childish behaviors. Winnie's use of everyday objects functions as preparation for the inescapable present: she brushes her hair and her teeth, applies lipstick. Her everyday habits recognize present time. For example, her nearly destroyed parasol demonstrates her attempt to cope with the glare and heat of an irascible sun while Willie's habits are designed only to pass the time or to make do in the most utilitarian of ways. When asked about hair being singular or plural in expression, Willie prefers the English and nonspecific pronoun, it, while Winnie's engagement with speech and language has distinguished her thought by questioning the difference between the French and English words for hair.

The human comedy persists as Winnie thinks about everyday hygiene and order. Brushing her hair, she is carried to her romantic past and her wedding day while Willie, attempting to return to his hole, crawls forward into darkness. Winnie sensibly reminds him to back in. Thus Winnie moves between present and past with an occasional glimpse toward a future that holds her death while Willie does a sort of silent seesaw, moving in and out of his hole in the ground and answering his wife's questioning prattle monosyllabically. For the most part, she claims only to fear a future when Willie will not be there to hear her. In the meantime, he is nearly mute in response, while Winnie goes on talking. Conventional differences between husband and wife resonate in a couple Winnie remembers as passers-by. Winnie recalls that the woman disparages the man's need to pursue meaning and complains about being dragged "up and down this fornicating wilderness." Winnie prays, thankful she is in a fixed position, not being dragged around. Up to her waist in dirt, she has no need to be wary, moreover, of the "fornicating wilderness."

As the act ends Willie defines "hog" in two phrases for Winnie: "Castrated male swine" and "Reared for slaughter." Winnie's happiness, increased presumably by Willie's definitions, ends in prayer while Willie, long past a time of youthful possibility, retreats to the memory of a lost opportunity in old news and a want ad for a "bright boy."

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