Literature Study GuidesWaiting For GodotAct 1 Estragon And Vladimir Summary

Waiting for Godot | Study Guide

Samuel Beckett

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Waiting for Godot | Act 1 (Estragon and Vladimir) | Summary

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Waiting for Godot has two acts without scenes. For the purpose of analysis, the acts have been further divided into sections based on character entrances and exits and significant events.

Summary

Estragon sits on a mound under a leafless tree, unsuccessfully trying to remove his boot. Vladimir arrives and greets him as an old friend, learning that Estragon was beaten up, apparently again, as he slept. Vladimir also suffers, apparently from some ailment that involves groin pain and urinary symptoms. Estragon asks for help with his boot, but Vladimir ignores him and tries to remember a quote about "hope deferred" while looking for something in his hat. Estragon finally gets his boot off and seems to search it as well. Both find nothing.

Vladimir suggests that they repent, but they don't know what of—perhaps being born. Vladimir states that one of the two thieves crucified with Christ was saved, but according to only one of the four Gospels of the Bible. Why believe only that one? Confused and bored, Estragon suggests they go, but Vladimir reminds him they are waiting for Godot. Uncertain whether this is when and where they are supposed to wait, they examine the tree, debate the day of the week, and wonder if they waited here yesterday. During a lull, Estragon falls asleep. Vladimir soon wakes him because he is lonely but then refuses to hear about Estragon's nightmare or tell a story he requests. When Estragon persists, Vladimir leaves angrily. However, he returns shortly, and they make up.

To pass the time, the two consider hanging themselves. They are excited that hanging can cause an erection but worry that the branch will break, leaving one of them alive alone, so they decide to ask Godot when he comes. Vladimir reminds Estragon that they asked Godot "a kind of prayer," and Godot has to think it over. Vladimir suggests they should bow down to Godot because they have gotten rid of their rights. Distracted by hunger, Estragon eats a carrot, which is satisfying at first but then loses its appeal. Vladimir says he experiences the opposite, getting "used to the muck" as he goes. Estragon wonders if they are tied to Godot. Vladimir says yes, for the moment, but there is nothing to be done about it.

Analysis

Estragon's first words in the play, "Nothing to be done," sum up the play as a whole: nothing meaningful ever happens, and nobody ever takes any meaningful action. At first, it seems Estragon is simply talking about his boot, but Vladimir's response that he is "beginning to come round to that opinion" but hasn't "yet tried everything" makes it a broader philosophical statement. "Nothing to be done" expresses a major theme of the play—life is essentially without purpose. That doesn't stop the two men from holding out intermittent hope that they might find something worthwhile if they keep trying, or waiting. However, their fruitless searches of their hat and boot illustrate the folly of seeking meaning in life.

The characters are left purposely undefined. Vladimir and Estragon are described as shabby and no longer respectable, but they are never called tramps, as they are often depicted. Most other details are left to the director's and the audience's imaginations. Both characters are Everymen, representing all of humanity, and they are also, in a sense, representing two different aspects of humanity. Estragon is more in tune with bodily concerns—pain, hunger, and the senses. His boots are his primary prop, showing his more grounded nature. He has intuitive insights, such as understanding that the lighter person must hang himself first, but he has great difficulty expressing his ideas in words. Vladimir is more intellectual and philosophical, examining big ideas, which Estragon has trouble understanding. He is more concerned with his and others' hats, which are, of course, worn on the head. This mind/body parallel is confirmed in Act 2 when Estragon explains that Vladimir "has stinking breath and I have stinking feet."

The setting is equally undefined. As the characters are Everymen, characters who represent ordinary individuals with whom the audience may easily identify, the setting is every place. A few details tie Vladimir and Estragon to France at some time in the past, but their present location could be anywhere. The leafless tree gives a feeling of barrenness that symbolizes the lack of purpose and meaning in life.

The characters' enthusiastic consideration of suicide is simultaneously comic and disturbing. They seem most interested in the temporary benefit of sexual gratification, but underneath it is a sense that they are seeking a way out of the never-ending waiting they are trapped in. However, they decide against hanging themselves because neither of them wants to risk being left waiting alone. It is later revealed that they also have no means to hang themselves.

Virtually nothing in the play is certain. Estragon remembers very little of past events, absurdly demonstrating the human tendency for self-serving, selective memory. Vladimir often seems more definite (or over-definite, insisting that everyone he encounters is someone he and Estragon have met before), but when questioned, his certainty often breaks down as well. Beckett himself expressed no definite idea about the meaning of his play, saying, "All I knew I showed. It's not much, but it's enough for me, by a wide margin." The only certainty is they are waiting for Godot.

Suffering in the play is often met with indifference. From the very beginning, Estragon's boot causes him pain. However, Vladimir is indifferent to his repeated requests for help, focusing instead on his own pain. Estragon is repeatedly beaten as he sleeps, but he and Vladimir seem to accept it as an unpleasant given, suggesting that suffering is inevitable and the cause isn't significant because Estragon can't even remember who beat him. There are hints of human connection—the two men clearly depend on each other, and Estragon often wants to embrace Vladimir. However, as soon as Estragon does so, he is disgusted by Vladimir's smell, distancing and isolating the characters from each other.

Religion clearly plays some role in the play, but the nature of the role is, again, debatable. Vladimir ponders the story of two thieves from the New Testament of the Bible, pointing out inconsistencies in the accounts of different Apostles. This calls into question the validity of religion. If a single religious text can't agree on a single story, how can religion be relied upon? The quote about hope Vladimir cannot remember is also from the Bible: Proverbs 13:12, "Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life." It is unclear whether the characters want such a hope or fear it. The barren tree can be seen as an allusion, or indirect reference, to Christianity because the cross is sometimes called a tree. That the two consider hanging themselves on their tree perhaps equates them to the two crucified thieves in Vladimir's story.

There are also religious overtones in the pair's references to Godot. They seem to remember that their request to him was possibly a prayer, and they seem to think he should be approached on hands and knees, traditional for a ruler or a deity. Certainly they view him as some sort of authority. Many extend these religious references to conclude that Godot is God. Beckett, however, denied this, saying, "I don't know who Godot is. I don't even know (above all don't know) if he exists. And I don't know if they believe in him or not—those two who are waiting for him."

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