Happy Days | Study Guide

Samuel Beckett

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Happy Days | Act 2 | Summary



Act 2 opens with Winnie "imbedded" up to her neck in the mound. She is wearing her hat with the rumpled feather, and her eyes are closed. She can't turn or bow her head. Her eyes move, surveying the extent of her abbreviated world. She smiles, hailing the new day. As she speaks she alternates smiling and not, as though a switch is being thrown sentence by sentence.

She believes Willie is dead, but she notes that he is "there." That is true for all of her possessions and all she has seen. She lists them: her bag, the sunshade Willie gave her, the reeds, and the lake. Even sound remains: "things have a life," she notes, a life without us. That is, much of what she knows and has seen remains. What seems to hurt most is the bell that wakes her and calls her to sleep.

In recognizing the freedom of sleeping and waking without the bell, she recalls Mildred, a child who, at age four or five, slipped downstairs for a solitary adventure once the household was asleep. Winnie says, "Beginning in the womb ... Mildred has memories," and she "will have memories, of the womb, before she dies."

She begins to tell more of Mildred's story, but it makes her think of Willie, and in a bit of a panic she calls out to him. Fearing that she cannot hear his cries for help, she recognizes that her head has always been "full of cries." She thinks about singing, rejects the notion, and recalls, in an address to the absent Willie, the matter of feeling sadness after singing—the same as after "intimate sexual intercourse." Free-associating, she returns to thoughts of Mr. and Mrs. Cooker or Shower, the curious couple, last of humankind to pass by. She particularly thinks of Mr. Cooker's sexualized questions about her, remarking on her bosom, her shoulders, and the overriding question, "Is there any life in her legs?" He wants his wife to ask. Winnie returns to the story of Mildred and how she screamed after a mouse ran up her thigh. Winnie screams twice. She complains that her neck hurts and then recalls her wedding day.

At that Willie appears, dressed in wedding—or mourning—finery. He crawls on all fours to the base of the mound where Winnie can see him. He attempts to climb the mound to reach her, and he fails. She wonders if he wants to kiss her. She recalls the days when she could have given him a hand, did give him her hand, and that he was always in dire need of a hand. He calls her name, "Win," and she proclaims it a happy day and breaks into song. She sings a part of "The Merry Widow Waltz." She closes her eyes. The bell rings, and she opens them. She smiles and turns to Willie, who is still on his hands and knees. She and Willie stare, unsmiling, at each other, and the curtain drops.


Winnie's Power to Recall

In acknowledging physical pain for the first time, Winnie seems to recognize a world outside of herself. Assuming Willie is dead and thus recalling her earlier sentiment that nothing is ever lost, she begins a list of what remains. She moves from memory and the things of her world to the larger world, including, so her point isn't missed, the earth's atmosphere, and the "earthball" itself. She recalls what she cannot see any longer and thus establishes the power of the mind and of memory. Nothing is lost because she can conjure it. She admits she is irritated by the bell that does not allow her to close her eyes and recalls the freedom of the child, Mildred, although the tale doesn't end well as Mildred is terrified by a mouse running up her leg. Winnie's screams, imitating Mildred's, initiate the sexualized questions asked about her by Mr. Cooker or Shower or whatever his name was. Her physical pain brings her back to her wedding day, and Willie appears dressed for an occasion, wedding or death or the two conflated, perhaps.

Beckett's Use of Freudian Dreamwork in Happy Days

It is worth noting that Beckett, during a long period of trauma after his father's death, was analyzed by Wilfred Bion (Indian-born British analyst, 1897–1979), a second-generation Freudian psychoanalyst who wrote on memory and desire. Winnie's memories and observations in Act 2, taken together in sequence, sound very much like a sequence of free-associations by the patient in a psychoanalytic session or a dream susceptible to analysis. Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), an examination of dream symbols and a method for approaching dreamwork (how the unconscious mind conceals the meaning of dream content from the dreamer), deeply influenced the task of the psychoanalytic session, to which Beckett, of course, was no stranger.

To list the progression of small events here is to recognize, with the inclusion of instances of physical pain and emotional discomfort quite absent from the "happiness" narrative of Act 1, that a free-associative event is happening. Each of Winnie's observations emerges not merely as a moment of memory but, taken in their associated order, the list becomes a matter of what has been termed earlier, an idea or revelation about Winnie rather than a simple description of a moment or an object. In the progression named above, for example, she finds herself recognizing a larger world; her irritation at the bell that, unbidden, organizes her time. Then Winnie's mind leaps to thinking of Mildred's freedom aborted by family concerns and Mildred's attempt at independence, including her sexual curiosity and the trauma of the mouse—also a sexual allusion—on her bare leg. Then Winnie's mind moves on to the curious Cookers' (or Showers'), Winnie's physical pain, and her wedding. Taken together, the audience gleans an idea of Winnie herself, with more clarity than she, freely associating, has. Each event becomes an emotional "thing," an experience that expresses an irritation or anxiety that becomes the occasion of a surfacing memory. In the summing up of these instances, an emotional map of Winnie's life emerges quite distinct from the Pollyanna version of Act 1. The audience may find Winnie's happiness suspect in Act 1, but it is in Act 2 that they have a reading of the discomforts of her life: matters of her independence, her sense of privacy, her sexuality, her unsatisfying marriage—a catalog of memory and desire.

Why Winnie Sings "The Merry Widow Waltz"

Finally, in the end, Winnie sings only one-half of "The Merry Widow" duet, just as she seems to have managed one-half of the marriage entirely on her own. The conclusion to the play contains a finalizing linguistic trope with the repetition of the word hand. Just before her song, Winnie, on her own behalf, explains her worth and her connection to Willie with respect to the marriage: "There was a time when I could have given you a hand ... And then a time before that again when I did give you a hand ... You were always in dire need of a hand, Willie." In Beckett's idiom, these repetitions are important as they demonstrate, in fact, a word cleansed of reference. This repetition of hand has nothing to do with a literal appendage with five fingers but, instead, is a matter of an authentic idea that supersedes, in the sense of Winnie's identity, the simple reference attached to the word. Yes, this usage is elemental (not metaphysical, not philosophical), a simple, human truth. Hand does not mean hand but registers as a dynamic, an exchange, a part of a relationship between two people, a summation of Winnie's role in the marriage. This play on the word hand seems more than simple metaphor as it becomes an emblem of the relation between Winnie and Willie, an articulation of the specific exchange that evolved once Winnie had given her hand in marriage.

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