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Happy Days | Study Guide

Samuel Beckett

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Happy Days | Themes


Time and Music

The repetitions with variations on the phrases happy day and to speak in the old style constitute the structure of the play. These phrases operate transitionally, separating past, present, and future in Winnie's prattle. The text achieves a momentum based on a series of turns and returns, all related to time. Winnie's talk turns toward memories, away from nostalgia, returns to her present state, and faces the future. "To speak in the old style" introduces a nostalgic moment, and "another happy day" marks the return to the present and a gesture toward the future.

Many critics have noted Beckett's talents as a musician, his keen interest in music, and the relation between the formal qualities of his work and musical form. In Happy Days the narrative has a structure made from Winnie's speech habits, her free associations, and her reversals. Most prominently, her narratives are structured by the professed need to keep talking, the importance of a witness, the movements of memory that provoke difficult emotions, and her reliance on the contents of the black bag for a return to the here and now from the excursions into memory and the questions her memories raise. The movement among these distinct categories of speech and thought record Winnie's mind weaving past and present with the projected reward of rest, the future when language fails. The symphonic quality of the work has to do with the repetitions of words and phrases as well as the interweaving of elements of past, present, and future—not necessarily in that order—that constitute a musical structure. This is not the improvisation of jazz but a more rigorously imposed structure on the wild forays of Winnie's monologue in which Willie's responses operate almost as pauses or a hesitant percussive instant—more the ping of a triangle than a drumbeat.

Both the repetitions of "another happy day" and its variations along with "to speak in the old style" separate Winnie's memories from the present time. In each case the distraction is necessary, often to avoid in Act 1 the pitfalls of complaint, physical distress, or emotional pain. These are the pauses between narratives, or in music, the rests.


Winnie finds peace in the notion that nothing is ever entirely lost. The memory theme is reinforced as Winnie recalls bits and pieces of poems and plays, which surface unbidden as she considers her life story. Winnie's remembered lines from literature may be viewed as gestures of the unconscious, a recall of an emotional history focused on the inextricable relation between love and loss, grief and gladness. Although Winnie's literary allusions are a manifestation of her unconscious, Winnie appreciates the joining of love and loss as predictably human, perhaps the only bit of existential certainty human beings have. In Act 1 she notes the sadness after song and after "intimate ... intercourse." She sees how the specter of death haunts the moments of joy. Winnie's acceptance of death and her appreciation for the rhythms of joy and sadness in life are at the center of the play. A sampling of allusions in the text confirms the certainty of heaven that sustains Winnie even as her imprisonment in the mound grounds her.

Happy Days: "Woe woe is me ... to see what I see."

Hamlet (William Shakespeare) Act 3, Scene 1: O, woe is me / T' have seen what I have seen, see what I see!"

Happy Days: "Oh fleeting joys ... oh something lasting woe."

Paradise Lost (John Milton) Book X: "O fleeting joys / Of paradise, dear bought with lasting woe."

Happy Days: "Ensign crimson ... pale flag."

Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare) Act 5, Scene 3: "Beauty's ensign yet / Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks, / And death's pale flag is not advancèd there."

Happy Days: "Fear no more the heat o' the sun."

Cymbeline (William Shakespeare) Act 4, Scene 2: "Fear no more the heat o' th' sun, / Nor the furious winter's rages; Thou thy worldly task hast done, / Home art gone and ta'en thy wages. / Golden lads and girls all must, / As chimney-sweepers, come to dust."

Happy Days: "something something laughing wild amid severest woe."

"On a Distant Prospect of Eton College" (Thomas Gray): "And moody madness laughing wild / Amidst severest woe."

Happy Days: "Eyes on my eyes." [Pause.] What is that unforgettable line?"

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (George Gordon, Lord Byron) Canto III, stanza xxi: "A thousand hearts beat happily; and when / Music arose with its voluptuous swell, / Soft eyes look'd love to eyes which spake again, / And all went merry as a marriage bell; / But hush! Hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!"

Happy Days: "Beechen green"

"Ode to a Nightingale" (John Keats): "In some melodious plot / Of beechen green and shadows numberless, / ... where but to think is to be full of sorrow."

Happy Days: "What are those exquisite lines ... Go forget me ... something shadow fling."

"Go Forget Me" (Charles Wolfe): "Go forget me—why should sorrow / O'er that brow a shadow fling? / Go forget me—and tomorrow / Brightly smile and sweetly sing. / Smile—though I shall not be near thee; / Sing—though I shall never hear thee."

Idea versus Reference

Beckett acknowledged to his biographer, Knowlson, his aesthetic of idea and his rejection of James Joyce's enterprise—to represent all of the human world in spreading the referentiality inherent in words. Beckett's opposition to Joyce may best be understood in Beckett's love of music, in the sense that the sound of a Beethoven quartet directly affects the heart. Nothing interferes in the initial appreciation of music. Music has its appeal to the novice as well as to the professional. Similarly, in art, Beckett appreciated the direct line between the visual experience and the heart of the viewer. The dilemma for the writer, unlike the natural responses to music and to painting or sculpture, is the stubborn matter of the referentiality of words.

Early in life, words come to children as an emotional experience or a feeling, an idea. Once language is acquired, words achieve relevance as a reference; that is, words acquire dictionary definitions. They become a representation rather than an idea—or better yet, a spreading pool of associations, of references. For example, the infant settled on her mother's lap may toy with her mother's imitation pearl necklace while taking in her mother's perfume, the softness of her lap, the smooth texture of her silk dress, the warmth of the maternal body. Pearls thereafter come to embody that individual's sense of well-being, of familiarity. If that same necklace worn by that same baby, now an adult, breaks on the subway at rush hour, and the imitation pearls cannot be retrieved, the sense of loss will prevail; for what is lost is a family treasure rather than an expendable cheap necklace.

Samuel Beckett's ideal then is the scrubbing of reference from the word, the intention to have the word serve as ideas as in the mode of the baby's imitation pearls. For Beckett, the more someone knows the less words mean. When the word achieves emotional complexity and a singularity of reference, say, of those imitation pearls for her owner, then the word has achieved the status of idea. That pearl is not a small plastic bead; the pearl is an idea of childhood security, of the sense of being loved and comforted. Neither is the word a symbol. It is a felt thing, an idea.

"No symbols where none intended," Beckett wrote at the end of Watt. A symbol operates at least twice removed from a presented reality. Thus, symbols fail to communicate in the typical Beckettian mode of expression and exploration of the potential for individual truth in words and things. A convenient aspect of theatre, the prop, operates in Happy Days, much the way the word does in the text of the play. A prop (property) becomes a material manifestation of an idea—usually something immaterial, such as a feeling. As in the case of the word, the spreading referential quality of the prop is replaced by the singularity of an idea: a matter in this play of when a toothbrush is less useful as a device of oral hygiene or Willie's pants no longer function as an article of clothing, when both come to serve as specific indications of Winnie's attitude toward Willie.

Props are neither symbols nor motifs. They do not represent anything. Instead, they function as ideas. In this play everyday objects appear, disappear, and reappear. The props, initially functioning in the play's present, have meaning pared to the essentials of Winnie and Willie's lives. In an ideal Beckettian universe words function on stage just as the props do: objects pared of spreading reference (thus, not symbols) and functioning only for the duration of the play and for the duration of the moment in which the players use them.

Winnie's toothbrush is an interesting example of a prop's—and by extension, a word's—usefulness, according to Beckett. A toothbrush is hardly a matter of attention in someone's daily routine—unless the person is, perhaps, a dentist or an ad writer for TV commercials. Winnie's toothbrush is not so much an implement for cleaning teeth as it is specific to Winnie's psyche. Winnie's situation, a hole in the ground, no water, makes her toothbrush absurd rather than unremarkable as an instrument of personal hygiene. The use tells the audience something initially about Winnie and her attempts to perform an ordinary life.

The audience is drawn to the toothbrush because of its exceptional circumstances in the plot. Winnie's attempt to find meaning in reading the label of the toothbrush is another example of situation—of tone, a Beckettian kind of irony with respect to the all-too-human necessity to search for meaning in reading or, in fact, in any encounter between two people. What Winnie finds rather than meaning is the name of a component of the toothbrush. And since there is no meaning to be had in the matter of bristles, the heavy-handed situational irony repeats as she attempts to discover meaning in the words hog's and setae.

Having been pulled away from their typical associations with the props in the play—the toothbrush, the simple tool—the audience enters the realm of ideas, of feelings. The feelings are made clear when close to the play's end and many lines past Winnie's initial reading of the toothbrush's label the audience hears Willie say, "Castrated male swine" and "Reared for slaughter." Winnie assumes a happy expression in response to Willie's definition—in the realm of the unspoken, what looks very clearly like Winnie's satisfaction, possibly her revenge, clearly terrible ideas that please her. The anger and disappointment—and sense of betrayal—Winnie has found in her marriage are summed up in those two phrases. The toothbrush is a prop. It has no special meaning in the text. But memory and human feeling, long past the introduction of the toothbrush, have taken over. The audience has been offered a quick glimpse of some bit of human reality and human feeling—not so much a slice of life, but a simple quiver of the life principle. This is Beckett's power.

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