Academic journal article Notes on Contemporary Literature

Sartre's "The Wall" and Beckett's Waiting for Godot: Existential and Non-Existential Nothingness

Academic journal article Notes on Contemporary Literature

Sartre's "The Wall" and Beckett's Waiting for Godot: Existential and Non-Existential Nothingness

Article excerpt

Although the idea of waiting in Waiting for Godot has been discussed in numerous articles, it is productive to compare Beckett's existential text to another that focuses on waiting, Jean-Paul Sartre's "The Wall" (which was published in 1948, the same year that Beckett began Godot). It is interesting that scholarship has not examined Sartre's story in regards to waiting even though it follows one character's wait until his death sentence is carried out. Comparing the wait and who/what these characters are waiting for between the two works sheds light on how Waiting for Godot decidedly rebels from existentialism.

Waiting brings up the existential theme of nothingness that occupies both texts. In Godot, Estragon says, "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful!" (Waiting for Godot [NY: Grove Press, Inc., 1954]: 27). In "The Wall," while contemplating his upcoming death, the main character, Pablo Ibbieta says, "I tell myself there will be nothing afterwards. But I don't understand what it means" (Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter Kaufman [NY: A Plume Book, 1975]: 289). Though both texts may share the idea of nothingness, their ideas of it are very different. In "The Wall," there is the Sartrean sense of nothingness as negation. In Godot, there is a sense of Heidegger's nothingness, from which freedom and Being spring. Heidegger says he was not an existentialist and claimed that Sartre misread his work: for Sartre, existence precedes essence; for Heidegger, essence (and nothingness) is contained within existence. The effect of this distinction on the two texts is that in "The Wall," when faced with ultimate negation, death, the characters start to embody death, which negates their humanity. In Godot, on the other hand, confronting nothingness emboldens the characters with the freedom to struggle and make meaning out of their situation (as in Camus' philosophy). In other words, nothingness makes Didi and Gogo more human, while it cause Pablo to become corpse-like.

As Ibbieta--who is innocent, but knows someone wanted by the ruling party--awaits his execution the next morning, he says: "I'd never thought about death because I never had any reason to, but now the reason was here and there was nothing to do but think about it" (285). …

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