he fiction author, George Saunders, recently spoke about qualities inherent in the short story: efficiency, escalation, and even transcendence. Some literary works do not adhere to this pattern, he said, such as Waiting for Godot, but that the play’s author deliberately thwarts those expectations, not randomly or accidentally.
So, my question to you is this: how do we know if an author knows what he or she is doing? If anything, Godot seems random, does it not? We’ve got two vagabonds, two strangers, one missing Godot, one boy, and a tree. Basically, nothing happens. But the way that nothing happens is what is interesting.
Let’s take a look at the idea of paradise in the play. Now, paradise happens to be an important theme or trope in literature. Your Dictionary defines trope in this way: “When you see a kid running around with a cape and know they’re pretending to be a superhero, you’ve recognized the trope that superheroes wear capes. That’s all a trope is: a commonplace, recognizable plot element, theme, or visual cue that conveys something in the arts.”
Ready? Where is the trope of paradise in Waiting for Godot? You may have noticed there is a tree in the setting, a tree that looks dead or possibly as one of the characters remarks, out of season. Then the tree blooms. There you go: paradise.
Wait, what? That tree? I thought it was a backdrop. It represents paradise?
Beckett’s tree does not represent paradise, but rather it reminds you of paradise. How does it do that? There are certain benchmarks in the study of literature. Once you know something of literary history pertaining to trees, for example, and its resonance with paradise, you will be more comfortable appreciating an author, like Beckett, who uses paradise (or trees) in an interesting way.
This has been my secret plot all along! I’d like to help everybody feel more comfortable answering a question like that: Is the author doing something interesting? All those tales I told about France were bait. (Oh, my gawd. She tricked us.) Not really.
Because I am no longer an English teacher, may I say that you don’t even need to read the play for you to follow what I’d like to say. (For those of you who think that can’t be a good idea, I refer you back to the link I had last week which gives you a bit more detail. Three minutes of summary.)
You notice that there is a tree. It appears dead at the beginning but then, lo and behold, leaves! Spring, resurrection, salvation. One of the vagabonds objects, however, to its being a tree, and thinks it looks more like a bush. Which is fortunate because one thing about the tree is that it could be used for hanging themselves. A bush won’t hold them.
In the early days of literary study, the Bible was a go-to text and many literary works referenced the Bible. John Milton, in his long poem (very long) Paradise Lost, for example, brings to life the drama from the book of Genesis. Eve was tempted in paradise to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil by the offer of having the knowledge of God, and she succumbs. (Or in a feminist reading would a better word be “accepts”? Eve accepts the snake’s offer.) Adam complains later in Milton’s poem that Eve made him eat too. And then they are both booted out of paradise.
STILL MORE ABOUT PARADISE
In literary history, we learn that fiction (and plays) pick up speed upon the expulsion from the garden. The question becomes: And then what happens? This question is the domain of plot. If there’s no getting kicked out and banned, then there is no plot. There are other things besides plot, like, well, paradise, which can be considered a point of stasis and therefore not as interesting as what happens after that.
Many novels play with this idea of a boring stasis, and a terrible moment which then can go in many different directions. In Islam, for example, Adam is afterwards considered the first prophet, whereas his role in Christianity is more ambivalent, as bearing original sin.
In fact, knowledge itself can be tricky as it was in Milton’s play and in the Bible. Once you know that there is good and evil, there is a loss of a more undifferentiated way of being, a loss of innocence, as it were.
BACK TO GODOT
We have established that there’s a tree in Waiting for Godot. I suggest that this tree adds resonance to the idea of paradise. The way Beckett handles this tree is complicated. It’s not a tree that represents only the good. In fact, it looks dead. Then it becomes green. But does it promise salvation? Or does it facilitate suicide?
I think what makes Beckett’s play so compelling is that we don’t choose between these associations, but that they both hold our attention as possibilities. We can now say that Beckett is sophisticated in his apparent minimalist use of his tree.
And speaking of paradise, we ask ourselves, what kind of paradise is this anyway? Everybody seems miserable. Except they are so funny. Perhaps this is the paradise that we get, we on this earth who are descendants of the couple expelled from the garden. There is some hint that Godot might save the vagabonds, but how can he do that if he has difficulty showing up? Perhaps this is also a further comment on the problem of belief (in a minimalist fashion).
In the novel Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, I’d like to present the following passage in the mind of the narrator, a fifteen-year-old boy, accompanying his friend Jon to see what you think.
“The sun was high in the sky now, it was hot under the trees, it smelt hot, and from everywhere in the forest around us there were sounds; of beating wings, of branches bending and trees breaking, and the scream of a hawk and a hare’s last sigh, and the tiny muffled boom each time a bee hit a flower. I heard the ants crawling on the heather, and the path we followed rose on the hillside; I took deep breaths through my nose and thought that no matter how life should turn out and however far I travelled I would always remember this place as it was just now, and miss it.”
As understated as this passage is, do you see the trope of paradise? And now that you’re in on the game, you know that something “bad” will happen. In fact, the boys climb a tree and Jon does something so disturbing to a bird’s nest, that we see the expulsion from paradise has already happened in the very tree itself. And knowing now that the novel tracks what happens next, I hope you can already admire the skill of this author apparent already in the early pages of this wonderful book.
See you next week! Remember Mr. Ludovic, the contractor who made me a patio? He has become a character in his own life. I’ll tell you more.