Characters Comparison in Waiting for Godot Essay

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Waiting for Godot Character Comparison

Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot depicts two vagabonds, Vladimir and Estragon, as its central characters: to the extent that the play's structure accommodates a traditional protagonist, one of them -- or both considered as a unit -- must be that protagonist. Yet I think Beckett is careful to give us reason both to understand Vladimir and Estragon (within their own interactions) as being more distinct characters, while at the same time we can see them as the same character with the same name. I'd like to look at the evidence of a few crucial moments in Beckett's text, in which the distinctions between Vladimir and Estragon are either heightened or elided, in order ultimately to argue as to why I think we must understand the two characters as a unit, and to some degree as the same character with the same name.

At the play's outset, we see a contrast between Estragon engaged in activity (trying to remove his ill-fitting boot, which has injured his foot) while Vladimir idly engages in chit-chat, speculating about suicide:

VLADIMIR:

(gloomily). It's too much for one man. (Pause. Cheerfully.) On the other hand what's the good of losing heart now, that's what I say. We should have thought of it a million years ago, in the nineties.

ESTRAGON:

Ah stop blathering and help me off with this bloody thing.

VLADIMIR:

Hand in hand from the top of the Eiffel Tower, among the first. We were respectable in those days. Now it's too late. They wouldn't even let us up. (Estragon tears at his boot.) What are you doing?

Here he indicates a long foregrounding for his own relationship with Estragon -- tracing it back to the belle epoque 1890's in Paris, when Gustave Eiffel's tower was still a new structure, and so they might have committed suicide by leaping off it together ("hand in hand from the top") and been "among the first" to utilize the structure as a suicide leap. But after Estragon has removed the boot, we get the first indication that there is a distinct difference in the two characters, one that Beckett will emphasize repeatedly. It is worth taking a look at this moment in closer detail:

ESTRAGON:

Nothing.

VLADIMIR:

Show me.

ESTRAGON:

There's nothing to show.

VLADIMIR:

Try and put it on again.

ESTRAGON:

(examining his foot). I'll air it for a bit. VLADIMIR:

There's man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet. (He takes off his hat again, peers inside it, feels about inside it, knocks on the crown, blows into it, puts it on again.) This is getting alarming. (Silence. Vladimir deep in thought, Estragon pulling at his toes.) One of the thieves was saved. (Pause.) It's a reasonable percentage. (Pause.) Gogo.

For a start, this passage indicates the larger motif enacted throughout the play that, when they are alone together, the default relationship between the two characters is for Vladimir to play the parental or senior role, and Estragon play the child-like or junior role. Here Vladimir admonishes Estragon, like he were a son or a younger sibling. But at the same time, there is an introduction of a symbolic leitmotif in the actual text which is also designed to shore up our sense of the paradoxical similarities between the two characters: this is subtly introduced in Vladimir's seeming nonsequitur, while watching Estragon "pulling at his toes," musing "One of the thieves was saved…It's a reasonable percentage." We are meant to recognize this as an allusion to the account of Christ's crucifixion in the New Testament, in which at least one Gospel account specifies that Christ would be crucified between two thieves (Dismas and Gestas) who were on the crosses to either side of Christ's own on the hill of Golgotha. Christian tradition holds that "one of the thieves was saved," as Vladimir puts it -- Gestas, repenting at the last moment of his life, supposedly begged forgiveness and recognized Jesus as the son of God, which guaranteed his redemption and entry into heaven. The sternest Christian expositor of the doctrine of Original Sin, Saint Augustine, would use the Gospel story of the two thieves as an indication of the via media that humans should pursue in their awareness both of the ingrained nature of human sin and the perpetual nature of divine mercy: Augustine would write, "Do not despair, for one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume, for one of the thieves was damned." To some extent, this introduces a sense of profound difference into Beckett's depiction of the two characters: we now suddenly realize that they are indeed like two sides of the same coin, for Vladimir himself seems to think it is a statistical probability -- as he says "It's a reasonable percentage" -- indicating the idea of salvation or damnation as being precisely like a coin toss. So weirdly, this pattern of images -- which will be recollected as a leitmotif at several successive points -- manages to indicate both the likeness and the unlikeness of Vladimir and Estragon. To a certain extent, Beckett seems to be indicating that this is what it would be like if the same personality -- or certainly the same material circumstances and abstraction from any sort of social context, into a sort of existential depiction of the Shakespearean "poor, bare, forked man" (as the homeless vagrant, not unlike Beckett's Didi or Gogo, is described by King Lear) -- were forced into defining itself against itself. Didi becomes the older, the wiser, the authoritative; Gogo plays along; but only one of them is going to be "saved" and one "damned," according to this pattern of images invoked by Didi himself.

The likeness between the two, though, comes into its clearest view when there is someone else -- another pair -- onstage for Vladimir and Estragon to define themselves in opposition to. The opportunity is conveniently provided by Lucky and Pozzo, and it is instructive to note the separate interactions that Vladimir and Estragon have to the master and slave duo:

VLADIMIR:

You want to get rid of him?

POZZO:

He wants to cod me, but he won't.

VLADIMIR:

You want to get rid of him?

POZZO:

He imagines that when I see how well he carries I'll be tempted to keep him on in that capacity.

ESTRAGON:

You've had enough of him?

POZZO:

In reality he carries like a pig. It's not his job.

VLADIMIR:

You want to get rid of him?

POZZO:

He imagines that when I see him indefatigable I'll regret my decision. Such is his miserable scheme. As though I were short of slaves! (All three look at Lucky.) Atlas, son of Jupiter! (Silence.) Well, that's that, I think. Anything else? V aporizer .

VLADIMIR:

You want to get rid of him?

POZZO:

Remark that I might just as well have been in his shoes and he in mine. If chance had not willed otherwise. To each one his due.

VLADIMIR:

You waagerrim?

POZZO:

I beg your pardon?

VLADIMIR:

You want to get rid of him?

There are two things worth observing here. The first is the hint of a fundamental distinction between Vladimir and Estragon, insofar as their different phrasings of the same question give us some hint into different conceptions. For Estragon, it must be the fault of the slave in the master/slave duo if the relationship is not working: "You've had enough of him" implies that Lucky has been a trial for Pozzo to endure. Vladimir by contrast repeats ad nauseam his own question "You want to get rid of him?" -- which could be his way of needling Estragon with the question that possesses Vladimir. If to a certain degree Vladimir is presented as the superior partner in their duo, it is clear that Vladimir is defining their relationship based on subjective experience ("wanting" to "get rid of him") rather than making it the other party's fault (when one has "had enough").

Yet there is a difference to be marked in Act Two, particularly because of the way in which Vladimir is used to frame the act at beginning and end. I would suggest that the song Vladimir sings, while alone onstage at the top of the second act, is meant to give some further hint towards understanding the two characters as not distinct, but as the same individual with different names. Here, a mournful little song about a thieving dog -- which seems to link up with the pattern of imagery recollecting the two thieves (one saved, one damned) in the Gospels -- but the song quickly becomes a recursive loop or mise-en-abyme in which the story itself, concluded, becomes the epitaph and necessitates its repetition:

A dog came in the kitchen

And stole a crust of bread.

Then cook up with a ladle

And beat him till he was dead.

Then all the dogs came running

And dug the dog a tomb [He stops, broods,…[continue]

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