“Notion of Time” in Waiting for Godot

It is a well-known fact that human beings strive to achieve various goals by structuring their time. But what if all human endeavours to gain control over time were futile? Samuel Beckett, in his landmark play, Waiting for Godot, scrutinizes “the notion of time” in order to present human condition in the light of an absurd universe.

Considered the fourth dimension of space, Time in Waiting for Godot represents duality of change and changelessness. In doing so, Beckett strips his characters of all essences and depicts them in their bare situation of existence. In the play, the couple that embodies the dual aspect of time is that of Pozzo and Lucky. In Act I of the play, Pozzo is shown to be very particular about time. He seems certain that he has travelled for six hours. But in Act II, his wonderful sight changes to complete blindness. Lucky, too, transforms from a thinking/speaking animal to a dumb automaton, unable to even groan. In this way, time, as an agent of change, becomes a devitalizing process in which human beings continue to waste and pine. This notion of time is reflected in Pozzo’s furious outburst in Act II, as he declares how time passes between birth and death in a flash, and human condition changes in an instant. Throughout the play we see repetitive actions with slight variations, which in turn make us aware of passing of time. As time lapses, we are all changed, but without any warning. This absurd universe has no logic; therefore, time as a changing agent has no logic either.

However, the change with passage of time happens only at the level of individual existence. In comparison to a vast universe, on the other hand, nothing changes because “nothing ever happens”. This changelessness is transcribed into temporal circularity in the play. It is reflected in a meaningless and repetitive circulation of seasons, days and hours. The linearity of time has been punctured in the play by its circular stasis. The victims of this “accursed time” are Pozzo and Lucky. In Act I, Pozzo calculates his life by clocks (hence the importance of his pocket watch). But in Act II, with complete blindness, he gains a deeper insight as he realizes that all his wanderings have got him nowhere. He, along with his companion Lucky, remains in a state of perpetual wandering. So much so that it has become a deadening habit for these wayfarers. Initially, Pozzo’s wanderings give him a sense of satisfaction, for he feels that he is going somewhere – such as to the fair – and hence his constant command “On!” It is his wanderings that render his life meaningful. But by Act II, he realizes, as does the audience, that all he does is to go round and round in a circle. He is trapped in a constant state of ‘nowhere-nowhen’ (Hugh Kenner) that is synonymous with all place and all times. Thus, the basic human condition remains the same even with passage of time. Therefore, for Pozzo, time between tomb and womb passes in a flash. His speech in Act II resonates Heideggar’s statement: ‘As soon as man is born, he is old enough to die.’ Human life is such that there is nothing except fruitless repetition and there is no possibility of transition taking place.

Even Gogo and Didi are impacted by the circular stasis of time, which seems virtually non-existent to them. As Didi reveals in his soliloquy in Act II, time for these tramps is “lingering” and full of suffering, a notion of time that is different from that of Pozzo’s. Wherever they are, day and night follow each other cyclically. In addition, they have hazy memory and no future prospects, as they exist in a perpetual present. Vladimir, aghast, exclaims: “They all change, only we can’t.” The tramps in the play enact the action of waiting through various activities and game playing, but in vain. Sometimes time becomes ‘that double-headed monster of damnation and salvation’ (Beckett, Proust) for them to delve on; sometimes time gives them the scope of showering each other with courtesies; and at other times, the stagnant time is coped with by abusing each other. Ultimately, all actions lose their significance as they are weighed on the same scale in order to pass time.

Thus, time has become a habit – “a great deadener” – with the tramps, as it is circular and repetitive. This habit keeps them in their comfort zone. Yet, time and again they are confronted with their real situation, which leaves them in despair. Therefore, when Didi’s companion Gogo indulges in another game-playing activity with Pozzo, that of exchanging courtesies, he feels left out and is momentarily jolted out of his habit. This makes him conscious of the horror of stagnant time as he says, “Time has stopped”. It is discomfiting to feel the arbitrariness of everything in the vast universe. Yet there is no escape from this situation as one exists in a void. In this way, time becomes for these tramps ‘an existential prison-house from which there is no escape’ (Javed Malick, “Introduction” to Waiting for Godot, Oxford University Press, 1989).

In this universe, where time has become static, Didi and Gogo, like many human beings, leap into bad faith by waiting for an intervention by God or Godot. However, God remains an elusive concept that gives the tramps an opportunity to pass time, though it gives them no relief from their absurd situation. Godot, too, remains an absence till the end of the play, thus, depriving Didi and Gogo of any refuge from their existential trap.

The dual nature of time causes immense anxiety to Didi and Gogo who keep oscillating between hope and despair, especially Didi. Full of hope, he leaves everything to future (“time will tell”), yet at the end of each action he feels despair for uncertainty ensues hopeful thoughts and there is “nothing to be done”. This uncertainty is interestingly exposed through the reference to Saturday in Act I, when Gogo and Didi are discussing the specific day they are supposed to meet Godot.

Estragon: You’re sure it was this evening?
Vladimir: What?
Estragon: That we were to wait.
Vladimir: He said Saturday. (Pause.) I think.

Estragon: (Very insidious). But what Saturday? And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday?

This reference to Saturday recalls the Biblical story of Christ’s Crucifiction (on Friday) and Resurrection (on Sunday). Saturday lends to uncertainty as it falls between Friday and Sunday. On Saturday, one hopes for resurrection of a divine power, but nothing is for certain. Thus, one succumbs to uncertainty as one oscillates between faith and doubt while waiting in anticipation. Similarly, for modern human beings, life is but a series of Saturdays when uncertainty prevails. This is the cause of angst in modern human beings. In order to deal with this anguish, one lapses into rituals and routines. And that is how one copes with the “accursed time”. Here we are reminded of Hamlet’s angst: ‘Time is out of joint, O cursed spite/If ever I was born to set it right’. Modern human beings feel the pricks of time in the same way as Shakespeare’s Hamlet does, but have no hope to set it right, for them there is “nothing to be done”. Beckett’s genius lies in depicting this situation of every human being through his art, and Waiting for Godot is a prime example of the same.

(c) Riya Payal 2016

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