Labor, Alienation, and the Status of Being: The Rhetoric of Indolence in Beckett's Murphy

Article excerpt

First published in 1938 after being rejected by forty-two publishers, Samuel Beckett's novel Murphy presents a highly subversive drama, one that recounts the title character's unyielding effort to avoid seeking employment in the London job market, as eagerly advised by his lover, Celia. From her first appearance in the novel, Celia is preoccupied with her endeavor to talk Murphy into finding a job that might pay "even a small salary" (56), and to this end she does not spare whatever tactic is available, including the warning to withdraw her love and abandon him (35). (1) In an effort to subvert Celia's rhetoric of work and thereby dodge the job market, Murphy resorts to a range of strategies such as his blackmailing of his uncle (19), his sophistry that deems work "stigmatized" and "the end of them [Murphy and Celia] both" (27), his deliberate lying to Celia (69-70), and, finally, his malicious "dup[ing]" (80-84) of the waitress. Constituting a central plot line, the friction born out of Celia's work imperative and Murphy's willful subversion of it becomes a key narrative dynamic by which Beckett shapes and evaluates his characters, and by which he arranges the narrative episodes in sequence. Indeed, Murphy's lazy behavior sounds absurd and even illogical to those who can hardly understand why a young man as reasonably healthy as Murphy, except for his occasional "heart attack" (30), should become so "indolent" and "not so affected by the prospect of employment" (31) that he would rather "swindle" (81) a living than simply take a job.

Apparently, the story involving a slouching hero did not appeal to the publishers, when some of them suggested that the novel be cut by one-third, and when others coldly judged it "unsellable;" (2) only thanks to Herbert Read's enthusiastic recommendation to Routledge did Murphy finally get into print and, indeed, prove sellable afterwards. Murphy's struggle to stay unemployed, a struggle that once failed to engage the publishers has made little sense to critics who, up till now, have rarely probed the subtle meaning underlying the intense debate between Murphy and Celia over his job search; consequently, Murphy's inclination to pursue a non-action mode of being has remained largely unexplored. While earlier critical accounts tend to favor Beckett's application of Cartesian dualism and existential pessimism to the figuration of Murphy, (3) more recent criticism tends to focus on how the novel rehearses poststructuralists' scepticism of the teleology of language, knowledge, identity, and narrative convention. Sylvie Henning, for example, states that in Murphy Beckett mainly satirizes "a general [Western] faith in the reality, or possibility of ultimate identity or totality" by organizing the narrative events in a perpetual "interplay of elements and voices." (4) For Henning, the novel's various episodes should not be read as "positive illustrations" (5) of some final truth, but as what she terms an endless "carnivalized and carnivalizing dialogue." (6) Inasmuch as these approaches tend to isolate the novel from the larger cultural, historical, and biographical network informing it, they have shed little light on why Beckett chose to portray a hero who would prefer sloth to action and, in so doing, have left a significant gap in accounts of Beckett's work.

Focusing on the social implications entangled in Beckett's rhetoric of indolence, this essay suggests that by dramatizing Murphy's lack of incentive for employment, Beckett portrays Murphy as a subversive idealist resolved to forswear the conventional Protestant ethic that regards material gains as the ultimate goal of life and, thereby, commit himself to the belief in minimal desire and non-action. For Beckett, Murphy's indolent behavior embodies two positive meanings, both related as ways in which Murphy becomes a heroic defender of human dignity against a dehumanizing materialist culture. First, Murphy's adherence to a sluggish lifestyle is a deliberate gesture to resist interhuman alienation brought about by the modern consumer society in which man is subordinated to such abstract values as labor, commodity, and money. …