Posts Tagged ‘literary analysis’

Asking the Ashplant: A Literary Investigation into Stephen Dedalus’ Walking Stick

May 9, 2017


The image of the walking stick manifests itself in seemingly all cultures, in religious ritual, and in rites of passage ceremonies. One can find the image of the walking stick permeating some of the oldest tales in literary history, including early Biblical tales. Thus, it is no surprise that the walking stick makes an appearance in James Joyce’s penultimate work, Ulysses. For Ulysses gives the reader explicit clarity that it recycles imagery, themes, tropes, and narrative voices from the Western canon (as contemporaneous with Joyce). The presence of the walking stick in Ulysses Stephen’s ashplant – is no exception. Yet, like many “recycled” elements in Ulysses, the ashplant takes on uncanny, surprising roles throughout the novel. Most critics, for instance, have assigned the role of Stephen’s ashplant to be a manifestation of his (lack of) phallus. This simple reading of the ashplant neglects its larger significance for the novel. Not only is the ashplant a crucial symbol throughout Ulysses, it also solves Stephen’s artistic troubles from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, threading the conceptual needle between two of Joyce’s major works. Without the ashplant, there would be no realization of Stephen’s artistic vision, nor would the climax of “The Odyssey” in Ulysses be possible.

Stephen Dedalus’ ashplant first appears in Joyce’s preceding work, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. During a vision towards the end of the novel’s fourth chapter, Stephen picks up “a pointed salteaten stick out of the jetsam among the rocks,” and clambers down the slope of the breakwater. This “salteaten stick,” though not immediately described as such, eventually takes the form of the ashplant that appears throughout Ulysses. The grasping of the ashplant in this scene coincides with some meditations of Stephen’s thalassophobia (fear of the ocean), and frustrated sexuality, as he gazes on the “birdgirl” in the water before him. As Benjamin Harder, in his essay, “Stephen’s Prop,” suggests, the salteaten stick, not yet an ashplant, is “a means of stability, a crutch,” which allows Stephen to navigate difficult terrain, both physical and emotional. Keeping in mind the title of the novel, Harder argues that the stick has incredible influence on the “young artist’s sight and self-image” throughout Portrait. For, in grasping this salteaten stick from the jetsam, Stephen begins his transition from boyhood into manhood. As Stephen develops into the “young man” that the novel’s title suggests, he must face the loss of his boyhood, the fact that he is now “alone.” Or, rather, the realization that Stephen was “unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life,” coincides with the consequence that he, with the aid of the salteaten stick, is on the cusp of achieving artistic and personal individuality.

The presence of the stick persists throughout the end of Portrait, entering into the final chapter when it finally changes symbolic form. Standing on the steps of the library, Stephen notices a flock of birds pass by, and is described as “leaning wearily on his ashplant.” Not a page later, this freshly described “ashplant” transmogrifies in Stephen’s imagination into “the curved stick of an augur.” This new form of the walking stick is described in Don Gifford’s book, Notes for Joyce, in which he adds the following description of what will later become, in Ulysses, the “augur’s rod”:

49:10 (48:19). Augur’s rod of ash – the Roman augur’s rod, the lituus, was a staff without knots, curved at the top. It was one of the principal insignia of the augur’s office and was used to define the templum, the consecrated sectors of the sky, within which his auguries (observations of the omens given by birds) were to be made.

The Roman connotations are not lost on Joyce’s character, Stephen, who makes innumerable references to Roman (and Greek) tropes, mythology, and history, throughout the novels. Nor is the aforementioned birdwatching simply an idle activity for Stephen. As Gifford notes, the “consecrated sectors of the sky” appear before him on the library steps. Another consideration for Stephen’s walking stick is the shift in diction across Portrait and through the narrative arc of Ulysses; tracing Stephen’s own growth, the stick evolves from the meager “salteaten” stick to the proper “ashplant.”

The transformation of Stephen’s ashplant into the augur’s rod brings with it some additional implications of potential violence. Harder elucidates these implications through an earlier scene in Portrait when Cranly snatches the ashplant from Stephen’s hand and chases Temple away with it. Harder writes, “Stephen’s prop, when appropriated by another, is susceptible to violent scenes. The question is whether Stephen can control his own use of the staff.” Harder’s suggestion that the ashplant develops pernicious symbolic potentials in the hands of other characters will become of greater concern in Ulysses, in which the character, Leopold Bloom, briefly handles Stephen’s abandoned walking stick. Not long after this exchange between Stephen, Cranly, and Temple, Portrait comes to a close.

It is curious that Joyce specified the nature of Stephen’s walking stick as an “ashplant” in these novels, for the botanical sources of walking sticks have varied greatly throughout human history. Materials such as bamboo, maples, hickories, walnuts, oaks, cedars, pines, cherries, rhododendrons, and so on, have been more common sources of walking sticks in adjacent cultures. The ash tree of which Stephen’s ashplant originates is a plant whose roots grow at such an oblong and horizontal direction that, when dug up from the ground and clipped back, makes for a perfectly shaped walking stick. The horizontal root serves as a smooth handle. One can see how Joyce’s choice to place Stephen’s walking stick within the roots of Ireland is, in fact, a pointed gesture, as Joyce would be well-acquainted with Ireland’s tallest, most common native tree: the ash tree. Thus, upon further reflection, Stephen’s ashplant seems to serve as an embodiment of Ireland (and Stephen’s Irish identity) itself.

The ashplant makes its first, rather innocuous, appearance in the opening chapter of Ulysses, entitled “Telemachus.” As Stephen and Buck Mulligan prepare to leave their living quarters for the day, Stephen takes his ashplant from its “leaningplace” (U 1.528). The walking stick isn’t mentioned again until Buck, in the middle of a chant, “tug[s] swiftly at Stephen’s ashplant in farewell” and exits the scene, leaving Stephen and Haines alone. Joycean critics have all seemed to neglect the bird imagery cloaking this exchange with the ashplant, however. Taking a look at the diction surrounding Buck in this scene, one can’t help but wonder if the “bird” elements are present to suggest that Buck’s “tugging” of the ashplant is also, in fact, a birdlike gesture (that of attempting to build a nest with sticks). For, he is described as “fluttering his winglike hands,” with “birdsweet cries,” and so on (U 1.600-02). This connection might be worth exploring further. The silence by literary critics on this matter, however, suggests that the connection between the birdlike elements of this scene and the tugging on the ashplant is not as strong as it might be.

As Buck leaves, Stephen and Haines continue discussing theological concerns, and here the ashplant makes yet another peculiar appearance. As the characters walk, Stephen’s ashplant is “trailing […] by his side” (U 1.627). Its “ferrule” – the end cap – is described as following “lightly” on the path with the characters, almost like a pet dog walking alongside them. Yet the ferrule’s light contact with the path produces a “squealing” sound, which generates the following moment of Stephen’s inner monologue: “My familiar, after me, calling, Steeeeeeeeeeeephen!” (U 1.628-29). Again, the descriptions resemble something pet-like. Furthermore, the ashplant’s presence in this scene produces psychological absence – it takes Stephen out of the scene. The connotations of the stick’s sound being “familiar,” like an old friend, following “after me,” as though it were evoking memories from the past, and the childishly embellished “e” sound in Stephen’s name all suggest a youthful quality about the ashplant. The “youth” of the ashplant, in these descriptions, manifests itself as an inherited quality from the “youth” of Portrait, one which remains rather implicitly acknowledged throughout the progression of Ulysses.

The ashplant disappears from the novel until the third chapter, “Proteus,” in which its role in the novel is first properly explored. This monologic scene in which Stephen plays at being blind allows for the ashplant to take on multiple symbolic functions at once. Stephen thinks, “I am getting on nicely in the dark. My ash sword hangs at my side. Tap with it: they do” (U 3.15-16). The “they” in Stephen’s interior monologue is undoubtedly the blind, as Stephen mimics the act of finding one’s way around with a probing cane. Harder notes how there is a symbolic tension within these few lines, in how the ashplant is plainly described as a weapon (“my ash sword”), and yet is “plainly a compensatory tool of vision.” And yet, one might suggest, there is no reason to suppose that either of the ashplant’s dual functions need necessarily preclude one another. In any case, Harder proceeds to link this scene with Portrait in that the ashplant conveys “extraordinary sight, which elevates his station in a moment of wish fulfillment.” The ashplant clearly functions in the opening scenes of this chapter as a visual prosthetic for Stephen, both in terms of his physical senses (the “ineluctable modality of the visible”) and his mental faculties.

The ashplant also functions as a tool for Stephen’s self-defense and the overcoming of fears in the “Proteus” chapter. As seen in Portrait, Stephen’s thalassophobia remains present throughout his wanderings on the Sandymount Strand. Stephen takes special caution to distance himself from the waters throughout the chapter and, as he situates himself on a rock to take a break from walking, he thinks, paranoidly, “The flood is following me” (U 3.282). As Stephen climbs up onto his perch, he “rest[s] his ashplant in a grike,” temporarily abandoning his crutch, and allows his mind to wander away from the scene at hand (U 3.284-85). Harder suggests that Stephen’s ashplant here functions as “a comfort against falling into the ocean,” and even goes as far to consider this action of releasing the ashplant is “a protection against suicide, and a means of approaching the rushing, frightening jouissance that is just under Stephen’s consciousness.” The connection to suicide is not unwarranted, however, as will be seen in the “Circe” chapter in which Stephen encounters figures of the dead, including that of his mother.

Another of Stephen’s grave fears makes itself known in the “Proteus” chapter as well, and is dispelled by the comforting presence of his ashplant. Continuing its “violent” function from Portrait, Stephen considers using it on the dog running around Sandymount Strand. It has already been made clear by this point in the novel that Stephen is a cynophobe (one who fears dogs). Thus, his first thought upon seeing the “live” dog running across the sand is, “Lord, is he going to attack me?” (U 3.295). Stephen’s impulse is to expect the dog to become violent with him, hence his instinct to protect himself with the ashplant. As with the ocean, Stephen keeps his ashplant close so as to defend himself at any time. But, in keeping with Stephen’s character, he does not engage with this dog. Rather, he reassures himself: “Respect his liberty. You will not be master of others or their slave. I have my stick. Sit tight” (U 3.295-96). Here the thought “I have my stick” could be interchangeable with “I have my sword” or any other means for self-defense. Without the ashplant, as Harder has suggested, Stephen would become unmanned and even  “unselved” by these encounters with his fears. Indeed, Stephen allows himself to sink into morbid thoughts once more towards the end of the “Proteus” chapter.

The notion that Stephen’s subconscious is magnetized towards suicidal impulses is reinvigorated when he thinks about the flowing waters of Cock lake. Stephen imagines the waters flowing in, “covering greengoldenly lagoons of sand,” perhaps even the very beach on which Stephen has been walking, taking him back out into the waters (U 3.453-54). “My ashplant will float away,” thinks Stephen, rather detachedly, and he continues, “No, they [the waters] will pass on” (U 3.454-55). The ashplant, as critics have argued at length, is in many ways a symbol of Stephen himself; the notion that his ashplant would “float away” like the bloated dog carcass from earlier in the chapter implicates Stephen’s own life. Furthermore, Stephen’s diction regarding the waters – the notion that they will “pass on” – is uncannily that of someone describing a death, as though Stephen, without his sturdy ashplant at his side, would soon “pass on.” Luckily, these thoughts are interrupted once more, and Stephen’s chapter comes to a close. As he gathers himself up to leave Sandymount Strand, he takes the “hilt” of his ashplant, and briefly swings it around like a sword (U 3.489). “Yes, evening will find itself in me,” he thinks, “without me. All days make their end” (U 3.490). The evocation of “evening” in connection with “end” yet again restores the suicidal impulse in Stephen’s mind. The ashplant, faithfully at his side, serves as an emotional crutch to these feelings as much as it supports and protects him physically.

Joyce also describes the ashplant in performative terms, as though it were merely one of Stephen’s “effects” of dress. It is as though Joyce deliberately downplays the ashplant’s obvious symbolic role as a means of confusing those who track the ashplant’s movement throughout Ulysses. After “Proteus,” the ashplant vanishes from the novel until its ninth chapter, “Scylla and Charybdis,” in which Stephen’s “ashplanthandle” is hung over his knee (U 9.296). Later on in the chapter, Stephen examines himself: “Stephen looked on his hat, his stick, his boots” (U 9.946). These simple images immediately transform into more complicated ones, however: “Stephanos, my crown. My sword. His boots are spoiling the shape of my feet. Buy a pair. Holes in my socks. Handkerchief too” (U 9.947-48). The shift in description immediately connotes a kingly image, with “crown” and “sword” being the lustrous features of Stephen’s appearance. Yet, these connotations are simultaneously undermined by the peasant-like “holes” in the socks and handkerchief. The double-image of Stephen’s hat/crown and stick/sword seems to undermine the larger significance of the hat and ashplant throughout the novel. Yet, as will be seen in the “Circe” chapter, that would be to misunderstand the ashplant’s role as more than a walking stick.

Though the ashplant does make a few cameos in the “Wandering Rocks” chapter of the novel, its role is rather subdued. The ashplant properly comes to life – almost taking on the role of a character – in “Circe.” This chapter, written as though it were to be performed on stage, mentions the ashplant more than any other. The ashplant first makes its appearance in the chapter’s stage directions, where Stephen is described as “flourishing the ashplant in his left hand” as he chants with other characters (U 15.73). Once again, the ashplant’s flourish provides for a kind of performative quality on Stephen’s behalf. Indeed, drunk and showing off in front of the ladies, Stephen tells Lynch, “Hold my stick” (U 15.118-19). Lynch begrudgingly accepts – or, rather, “Stephen thrusts the ashplant on him” – though not without complaint: “Damn your yellow stick” (U 15.120). This exchange is described in Randall J. Pogorzelski’s book, Virgil and Joyce, as paralleling Aeneas’ golden bough from the Aeneid. Pogorzelski writes, “It is hard not to recall the ‘aureus . . . ramus’ [golden bough] that gains Aeneas entrance to the underworld.” There are undoubtedly many references to Virgil throughout Ulysses; whether this exchange is one of such references, however, is contestable. If, in fact, Stephen’s “yellow stick” is to be thought of as Aeneas’ “golden bough,” then it serves to explain the mythic, quasi-supernatural characteristics of the ashplant in this chapter.

As the “Circe” chapter continues, and Stephen becomes progressively more drunk, the role of the ashplant becomes more and more perplexing. Stephen thinks to himself that he is “out of it now,” presumably (but not limited to) his drunkenness (U 15.2535). Following this thought, the siamese twins, Philip Drunk and Philip Sober, appear to reaffirm Stephen’s thought: “Out of it out of it. By the bye have you the book, the thing, the ashplant? Yes, there it, yes. Cleverever outofitnow. Keep in condition. Do like us” (U 15.2537-39). These rather sing-songy lines aside, it seems that Philip Drunk and Philip Sober bring up the ashplant in passing, especially considering how it is named offhandedly, as though the twins Philip were trying to remember the term for the ashplant. However, their inquiry ceases once they find the correct word. The twins Philip proceed to affirm its presence, repeat Stephen’s “out of it” comment, and then advise Stephen to “do like us” by keeping the ashplant in good condition. This scene, taking place as though it were a hallucination, prophecies the later culminating scene in which the ashplant’s violent potential displays itself.

The ashplant retains (and develops) its sense as a mythical object when Stephen refers to it, not as his stick or ashplant, but as his “augur’s rod.” In a scene of dancing and festivities, Stephen says, “Quick! Quick! Where’s my augur’s rod? (he runs to the piano and takes his ashplant, beating his foot in tripudium)” (U 15.4011-12). Stephen proceeds to dance with Zoe and other characters in this scene, eventually announcing “Pas Seul!” (a dance for one person) to the group. As Stephen dances, the descriptions of his movements always reference the ashplant (U 15.4120-4129), and as his moves become wilder, the grammar breaks down: “Stephen with hat ashplant frogsplits in middle highkicks with skykicking mouth shut hand clasp part under thigh” (U 15.4123-25). These descriptions are curious for a number of reasons. First, as the reader is undoubtedly supposed to infer, the ashplant serves as a walking stick for Stephen; presumably Stephen has a lame leg or needs the support when moving. Second, all of the dance moves described in this section refer to leg movements – “frogsplits,” “highkicks,” “skykicking.” The ashplant, acting as a kind of “third leg” becomes, for Stephen, a prosthetic device. For, with the aid of the ashplant to balance his movements, he performs more complicated dance moves than would otherwise be expected from a character carrying a walking stick.

The ashplant’s ultimate significance is brought about through visions of Stephen’s dead mother, towards the end of the “Circe” chapter. Stephen’s mother proselytizes him, warning him to repent and to beware of God. In keeping with other religiously ambivalent overtones of the novel, Stephen attempts to rebel against his mother in this scene, replying “Non serviam!” (I will not serve) (U 15.4228). Harder suggests that this declaration mimics Peter’s denial of Christ, which is aligned with Stephen’s antipathy towards both religion and his mother’s death “No! No! No!” Stephen shouts, “Break my spirit, all of you, if you can! I’ll bring you all to heel!” (U 15.4235-36). And with this penultimate line, Stephen ceases to listen to reason; rather, he lashes out in an act of physical violence. “Nothung!” he shouts, and the stage directions describe the ashplant’s unforgettable apotheosis: “(He lifts his ashplant high with both hands and smashes the chandelier. Time’s livid final flame leaps and, in the following darkness, ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry.)” (U 15.4243-45). It is notable that Stephen challenges those in the room to “break” his spirit before proceeding to physically break the chandelier. Furthermore, Richard Ellman suggests that Joyce’s reference to Wagner – “nothung,” Siegfried’s sword – is also a parallel to Odysseus’ “Noman,” the identity he gives the Cyclops after blinding him in The Odyssey. It’s as though Stephen doesn’t know how to channel his emotions in this scene, which, compounded by his excessive drunkenness, physically escapes his body through this violent gesture. He is, in other words, blinded to reason. As Ellman suggests, Stephen channels his spiritual rebellion into physical rebellion. And yet, this isn’t entirely a destructive act; rather, this scene represents the fact that Stephen has finally graduated from the “young man” he was in Portrait. In this scene, Ellman writes, “ the destruction-creation at the centre of the artistic process is realized.” Despite the resounding drama of this scene, Stephen proceeds to “[abandon] his ashplant” after someone yells for the police (U 15.4255). Bloom, in a moment of lucidity, has the sense to collect Stephen’s ashplant before making reparations with the owners of the “tenshilling house.” Though, in so doing, he mimics Stephen (“he raises the ashplant”) and startles the ladies in the room.

Bloom’s involvement with the ashplant is a source of all kinds of scholarly intrigue.

The most extensive conversation surrounding this act is to be found in Mark Osteen’s The Economy of Ulysses, in which he argues that Bloom becomes a “transvestite” towards the end of the “Circe” chapter. Osteen writes, “by picking up the ashplant and preparing to strike the shade again, Bloom acts as Stephen as well as for him.” The ashplant, so central to Stephen’s identity, has the power to confer identity onto Bloom in this scene. Osteen argues that Bloom “becomes” Stephen through the final act of dressing and performing as him. This is borne out in moments where, for instance, Bloom “tightens and loosens his grip on the ashplant” as he hears a dog bark in the distance (U 15.4945-46). But this reading goes against much of the overtones of fatherhood throughout the novel. That is, the paternal relationship of Bloom and Stephen is transfigured by this scene into a more homoerotic one. For, Osteen argues, this scene is the first in which Bloom intentionally touches Stephen (with concern), and calls him by his first name. These unique gestures are not repeated elsewhere throughout the novel. With these notions in mind, moments when Bloom “stands erect” with Stephen’s hat and ashplant further complicate their relationship to suggest something more overtly homoerotic (U 15.4946). Thus, between their newly altered friendship and Bloom’s possession of the ashplant – Stephen’s essential identity marker – this scene demonstrates how “extremes meet through exchange.” That is, the diametrically opposed dispositions of Stephen and Bloom are united through the act of dressing up in the role of the other character.

As Bloom’s character changes with the ascertainment of the ashplant, so too does Stephen’s with the loss of his stick. This is evident in the stage directions surrounding the ashplantless Stephen, as he “staggers,” needs to be propped up by Bloom, “sway[s],” and “falls back a pace” (U 15.4428-31; U 15.4481). Eventually Stephen realizes that his “centre of gravity is displaced” (U 15.4434). The “centre of gravity” almost undoubtedly refers to his still-missing ashplant. Joyce even takes the opportunity for Stephen to drop the pun, “How do I stand you?” (U 15.4590). Of course, Stephen’s lack of balance all has much to do with the fact that he has been drinking. That aside, Stephen’s newly unbalanced characteristics wear off almost immediately upon regaining his ashplant.

As many scholars have argued at length, Stephen’s ashplant is commonly seen as a phallus. The connection is obvious, if not juvenile. What seems to be omitted from the larger discussion is the moment that Stephen regains his “phallus” from Bloom. Running up to Stephen, Bloom offers up the ashplant, to which Stephen rejects: “Stick, no. Reason. This feast of pure reason” (U 15.4745). Recalling the fact that Stephen abandoned his stick after his physically violent, hyper-masculine outburst, the ultimate reason for his attack on the chandelier was that Stephen was unable to reason with his mother. Through excessive alcohol intake, and through the stupor of the evening, Stephen could not summon his adept reasoning and thus resorted to brutish violence. Upon regaining the ashplant, now seen as the weapon for which it always had potential, Stephen rejects its role as a violent object. Hence his insistence on “reason” being in opposition to the stick. If other scholars are correct in deeming the ashplant as a phallus, it then becomes a vexatious problem of how to sort out Stephen’s preference for the intellect over brute force. Keeping traditional notions of masculinity in mind, the phallogocentric path would be to accept the ashplant. Stephen rejects it at first, realizing, as he did not in Portrait and thus far in Ulysses, that his path forward in life would indeed require a different understanding: one primarily imbued with reason.

Following the “Circe” chapter, Bloom is finally able to return the ashplant to Stephen, and it goes unremarked upon for the remainder of the novel. However, in Bloom’s chapter, “Ithaca,” the ashplant makes its final appearance. Stephen, leaving Bloom’s house, is described in similar stage directions to that of “Circe”: “Lighted Candle in Stick / borne by / BLOOM / Diaconal Hat on Ashplant / borne by / STEPHEN” (U 17.1023-28). The presentation of this passage is with centered texts, lines breaking in such a way as to suggest performativity. As Stephen now realizes, the ashplant is “a tool that must be borne as a burden or punishment.” Throughout the novel, he has carried the walking stick around as a means of self-defense, of prosthetic aid, and to continue with it further brings with it the memories of his violent, drunken outburst in “Circe.” It is probable to suppose that Stephen finally abandons his ashplant, having learned the lessons – lessons of his identity as a man, as an artist, and so on – along the novel’s course. The ashplant does not reappear in Ulysses.

The ashplant is an object within the text which offers a host of interpretations. This is in keeping with the rest of Ulysses, a text that defies scrutiny and yet offers endless possibility for such scholarly inquiry. At times, the ashplant appears as a force of good in Stephen’s life. It keeps him upright, it helps him face his fears, and assists him in carving out his identity as a young artist. That said, the ashplant also carries with it the potential for violent action, not to mention its role as a “crutch” in the truly deprecating sense (i.e. relying on something too much). The ashplant, in any interpretation, is the connecting object between Portrait and Ulysses. It walks the reader along, through the treacherous paths that Joyce has written, and allows the reader a sense of efficacy that they, too, can be aided in their journey through the life of Stephen Dedalus.


From Chekhov to Solzhenitsyn: The Writings of Confinement

April 25, 2017

The majority of Anton Chekhov’s short stories are grim vignettes of a troubled and intellectually frustrated people of pre-revolutionary Russia. In many of Chekhov’s works, characters wax philosophically on such subjects as human nature, the contemporarily fraught political climate of Russia, life following the industrial revolution, and so on. Chekhov’s writings, however, always couch his own critiques through his characters, and it is not uncommon for Chekhov to interrupt (or outright ignore) these moments of seriousness and sincerity, leaving the reader with a rather fragmented sense of Chekhov’s own views on these matters. One of his short stories, Ward No. 6, however, is uniquely vivid, charged with mordant critique of the injustices inflicted upon the mentally ill. The degree to which Chekhov’s account is fictionalized remains unclear. It is accepted, however, amongst the Russian people, that Chekhov published Ward No. 6 as a case study depicting the simultaneously ignorant and malicious aspects of Russian medicine. Despite the morbid despair that Chekhov so masterfully captured, this story has influenced Russian intellectuals for a century. It’s a wonder, then, that the obvious links between Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn have been rather un(der)explored by literary critics and scholars. For, in reading the works of Solzhenitsyn, one gets the impression that Chekhov’s prescient presence persists in a 21st century Russia.

Chekhov’s influence on Russian thought was such that Vladimir Lenin, the communist revolutionary, once remarked to his sister of the “horror” of reading Ward No. 6. Chekhov’s story was so powerful that Lenin “could not bear to stay in his room” due to the “horror” that had seized him, and went out to find someone to confide in. “‘I absolutely had the feeling,’ he told his sister the next day, ‘that I was shut up in Ward 6 myself!’” And indeed, the narrator of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 takes deliberate care to walk the reader into the ward, where they are then confined and forced to bear witness to its secrets. The story begins with a description of the “burdocks, nettles, and wild hemp” of the hospital yard. As if these thorny, unkempt, weedy images were not enough to deter the reader from entering the hospital – “if you are not afraid of being stung by the nettles” – the bleak images only decay in invitingness. Chekhov’s narrator describes the hospital’s “rusty” roof of the hospital, the “tumbling” (presumably crumbling) chimney, the “rotting” steps of the entrance, and the overall overgrown nature of the lifeless place. Indeed, even the “grey” fence has nails on it which “point upwards,” deterring any possibility of cheerful visitors. Chekhov’s narrator concludes these observations by noting that the whole environment had “that peculiar, desolate, God-forsaken look which is only found in our hospital and prison buildings.” These observations take but a paragraph, and yet the tedium of detail contained within harbors the dread of an eternity – the opening paragraph feels, like Lenin said, real, as though the reader is in fact shut up in Ward 6.

Chekhov’s centripetal introduction to Ward No. 6 only worsens in detail as the reader enters the hospital, as the narrator forces the reader to endure the “sickly smell” of the building, the “heaps” of rubbish lining the building’s interior. The building’s walls are “dirty,” its ceiling is “sooty,” the windows are “disfigured” by iron bars, and the grey, wooden floor is “full of splinters.” Finally, after walking past this disgusting scene, Chekhov’s narrator introduces the “lunatics” of the ward.

Compared to the dismal setting, the five lunatics are surprisingly normal, one of which is described as “upper class,” while the rest are “artisans.” Each ward member’s mental illness is unique: the Jew Moiseika is described as a harmless simpleton (always begging for a kopeck), Ivan Dmitritch Gromov suffers from a (not altogether unreasonable) mania of persecution, and so on. With the exception of Nikita, the brutal porter, each member of the story is described in genuinely pitiable terms. Chekhov’s portrayal of the contextual and causal stories of degenerative mental health illustrates the compassionate view that, unfairly, the “dull” and “stifling” town was what drove people into the ward; that is, the Russian people were bound to end up in the “monotonous” ward. The ward, once entered, functions as all such isolating government institutions are designed: to prevent people from escaping.

It is with these aporetic insights into the inner machinations of the hospital that the morally aggressive tenor of Chekhov’s story first asserts itself. The character Ivan, with whom the doctor Andrey would later argue, muses on theories of justice in relation to his own position in the ward. Recalling Chekhov’s earlier likening of the hospital to a prison, Ivan’s observation that “the agelong experience of the simple people teaches that beggary and prison are ills none can be safe from,” suggests a moment where Chekhov’s own moral indictments arise in the story. Ivan observes how a “judicial mistake” could be at the heart of some of the country’s worst sufferings, and concludes that “people who have an official, professional relation to other men’s sufferings […] in the course of time, through habit, grow so callous that they cannot, even if they wish it, take any but a formal attitude to their clients.” One thing – “time” – is at the heart of this callousness.

Ivan’s indictment of the professional, callous relationship to suffering eventually manifests itself in the ward’s doctor, Andrey Yefimitch Ragin. Chekhov introduces the doctor in optimistic terms. Andrey is described as shabby but intelligent, with a morally alert conscience: “Andrey Yefimitch came to the conclusion that [the ward] was an immoral institution and extremely prejudicial to the health of the townspeople.” Thusfar in the story, Chekhov has given the reader reason to agree with Andrey’s moral concern towards the ward’s institutional efficacy. As Chekhov’s descriptions continue, however, the “callousness” that Ivan described becomes evident. For instance, Andrey loses his status as a sympathetic character through the deadpan delivery of his cynical realization that he is only a cog in the inevitable social machine: “‘I serve in a pernicious institution and receive a salary from people whom I am deceiving. I am not honest, but then, I of myself am nothing, I am only part of an inevitable social evil.’” Thus, a culminating moment of the doctor’s waning moral convictions bursts forth in a discussion with Ivan: “‘So long as prisons and madhouses exist someone must be shut up in them’” [my italics]. This moment of realization seems to be one of the few moments when Chekhov’s own views bleed through the dialogue of his characters. Andrey’s suggestion that the evils of the ward were “inevitable,” that the very existence of the institution was “pernicious,” as their empty wards magnetically trapped their future patients – all of these observations speak to the existing institutions that Chekhov was clearly critiquing in his short story. Similarly, all of them undermine the attitude that the doctor was “an oracle who must be believed without any criticism even if he had poured molten lead into their mouths.”

Another trenchant critique in Ward No. 6 is displayed through Chekhov’s scrutiny of stoic philosophy, as argued by Andrey. During an exchange between Andrey and Ivan, Chekhov’s position on the question of how to properly address the problem of human suffering is illuminated. By this point in the story, the reader has good reason to scrutinize Andrey’s aphoristic suggestion that “the wise man, or simply the reflecting, thoughtful man, is distinguished precisely by his contempt for suffering; he is always contented and surprised at nothing.” Here, Andrey is parroting Marcus Aurelius, the great stoic philosopher. It is very possible that Chekhov was sympathetic with the stoics’ existential project, as he demonstrates a deep understanding of their ideals, but the passion with which his character, Ivan, refutes Andrey suggests an opposing interpretation:

To pain I respond with tears and outcries, to baseness with indignation, to filth with loathing. To my mind, that is just what is called life. The lower the organism, the less sensitive it is, and the more feebly it reacts to stimulus; and the higher it is, the more responsively and vigorously it reacts to reality. How do you not know that?

Ivan continues, arguing that Andrey’s adherence to stoicism is insincere, and in fact “quite unintelligible” to the majority of all men. The reason that the doctor is able to speak with such blasé regarding human suffering, Ivan argues, is that Andrey was “only theoretically acquainted with reality.” Similarly, the doctor is only theoretically acquainted with suffering, hence his stoic view. Chekhov’s own attitude towards human suffering, cloaked within this argument, starts to take shape through the bickering of the ward members.

Chekhov’s commentary on human suffering is left unspoken for the majority of the story’s final pages, until, suddenly, Andrey finds himself thrown in the ward with Ivan and the others. Upon realizing that the new ward member was the (now former) doctor, Ivan hoots with excitement, “You sucked the blood of others, and now they will suck yours. Excellent!” In other words, Andrey no longer will be able to maintain his strictly “theoretical” understanding with suffering; he is now one of the “lunatics” that he was in charge of. “Cursed life,” grumbles Andrey, “and what’s bitter and insulting, this life will not end in compensation for our sufferings, it will not end with apotheosis […] but with death.” As Andrey curses his new condition, he tries to find any possible way to break the monotony of the ward. He looks out the window, observing the yard, the moon, the fence, and thinks, “This [is a] prison.” Again, the analogy between prisons and hospitals becomes unignorable. The key connection, for Chekhov, seems to be in the forced “waiting” that is shared both in prisons and in hospitals; it is in the waiting that insanity truly develops, that psychological suffering becomes unimaginable:

[Andrey] bit the pillow from pain and clenched his teeth, and all at once through the chaos in his brain there flashed the terrible unbearable thought that these people, who seemed now like black shadows in the moonlight, had to endure such pain day by day for years. How could it have happened that for more than twenty years he had not known it and had refused to know it?

It is with this realization that Andrey finally regains some sympathetic qualities to his character. After beginning to experience the suffering of others, he can finally begin to understand it as well. Like so many of Chekhov’s prescient writings, this discussion of human suffering would remain relevant throughout the eminent Russian revolutions, specifically in the labor camps where unspeakable, incalculable amounts of human suffering were inflicted on the Russian people.

One can find the perennial relevance of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6, its critique of contemporary institutions, and its investigation into the problem of human suffering, all within the writings of another powerful Russian writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Chekhov’s influence is most explicitly acknowledged in the “Interrogation” chapter of Solzhenitsyn’s infamous (and formerly banned) book, The Gulag Archipelago:

If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia […] not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.

This insight must not be taken lightly, and is nested in a broader discussion – the topic Solzhenitsyn’s chapter refers to – of the tortures inflicted on Solzhenitsyn and others in the Gulag. Half a century divides Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, and so one senses in Solzhenitsyn’s writings a matured view of mental health from Chekhov’s 19th century understanding. To that end, one of the largest differences between these authors is the aforementioned normalcy with which Chekhov cloaks the conditions of the ward members. That is, the characters of Ward No. 6 all seem to have fallen ill gradually, with little explanation; Solzhenitsyn suggests that the Gulag was enough to reliably produce insanity. And it is no coincidence that Solzhenitsyn evokes the insane asylum in the same sentence that he mentions Chekhov’s characters.

As Chekhov’s story condemns the tendency of institutions to fill themselves (specifically the hospital, but also the prison system), so too does Solzhenitsyn indict the system of Russian prison camps. Though these prison camps were entirely unlike any prison contemporary to Chekhov’s life, one can still trace a similar critique through Chekhov’s writings and into Solzhenitsyn’s. The early chapters of Gulag Archipelago describe the soaring rates of arrest in Russia – which led to Solzhenitsyn’s own imprisonment – the contagiousness of which spared no one. “The circles kept getting bigger,” Solzhenitsyn writes, “as they raked in ordinary believers as well, old people, and particularly women.” The “circles” Solzhenitsyn describes refer to are the concentric social circles which grew exponentially as the definition of a “traitor” broadened. Whereas Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs began arresting people on ostensibly evidential grounds, soon they were arresting people to inspire political fear, citing “incidental irrelevancies” as warrant for arrest. And thus one can see the connection to Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and the warnings embedded in Andrey’s observation that “‘So long as prisons and madhouses exist someone must be shut up in them.’” It’s as though Solzhenitsyn’s writings demonstrate the veracity of Andrey’s cynical pronouncement in Ward No. 6. For as soon as the parameters expand of what constitutes grounds for arrest, naturally more arrests were made in Russia. This influx of arrested citizens would require more, larger institutions and, thus, “someone must be shut up in them” [again, my italics].  

The parallels between the writings of Solzhenitsyn and Chekhov are so obvious, that even Solzhenitsyn’s gloomy description of the prison -an unintelligibly dismal venue – echoes the depressing introduction to Chekhov’s Ward No. 6. “We have been happily borne,” Solzhenitsyn writes, “or perhaps have unhappily dragged our weary way – down the long and crooked streets of our lives, past all kinds of walls and fences made of rotting wood, rammed earth, brick, concrete, iron railings.” Immediately this description of the “crooked streets” recalls the “narrow footpath” leading to the hospital in Ward No. 6. Furthermore, the adjectives in Solzhenitsyn’s description – “rotting,” “rammed earth” – match with the objects in Chekhov’s story – the rusted roof, the iron gratings, barbed fences, crumbling brick, and so on. Solzhenitsyn goes further, however, to explicate the authorial intent which Chekhov has hidden in Ward No. 6, namely that “We have never given a thought to what lies behind [the walls of the institution]. We have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or our understanding.” While Solzhenitsyn is writing of prison walls, as opposed to hospital walls, the broader principle rings true throughout Chekhov’s story. Not only has Chekhov already made the connection between the “God-forsaken” atmospheres of prisons and hospitals, but one can also find a double meaning in the writings of Solzhenitsyn. It’s as though Chekhov wrote Ward No. 6 because we have “never given a thought” to what lies behind the hospital walls; furthermore, “we have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or our understanding.”

A final, crucial consideration regarding the similarities between Ward No. 6 and Gulag Archipelago is in the way both authors pull the reader into a confined space along with the prisoner or ward member. As Chekhov’s introductory description makes the reader feel like a patient being escorted into the ward, so too does Solzhenitsyn drag the arrested reader into the Gulag: “And all of a sudden the fateful gate swings quickly open, and four white male hands, unaccustomed to physical labor but nonetheless strong and tenacious, grab us by the leg, arm, collar, cap, ear, and drag us in like a sack, and the gate behind us, the gate to our past life, is slammed shut once and for all.” Solzhenitsyn’s description is startling in its brevity – “all of a sudden” the gate “swings quickly” open – and yet also suggests the agony, through precision of detail, that one must have felt while being grabbed. Solzhenitsyn names the series of body parts these prisoners are likely to be grabbed by, which evoke the multiple “white male hands,” indiscriminate in their treatment of the prisoners. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn’s analogy of the human body being treated like a “sack” reinforces the inhuman, impersonal nature of the prison guards. And, as the doors to the ward close forever on Andrey, a physical barrier between the doctor’s old “sane” life and his new “insane” one, so too do the prison gates close between Solzhenitsyn’s old and new life.

A less explicit connection between the writings of Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn is to be found in Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. Though the titles share the word “Ward” in their title, the narrative arc of the two stories – Ward No. 6 and Cancer Ward – could hardly be more different. The ward of Solzhenitsyn’s novel, unlike Chekhov’s, is number thirteen, the cancer wing of the hospital. Time had progressed many decades since Ward No. 6, and the characters within Solzhenitsyn’s ward are written very differently. Yet, there are intense similarities as well throughout both stories. Early on in the novel, Solzhenitsyn repurposes a nearly identical description from Gulag of the “door to all your past life” being slammed behind you upon entry into the ward: “it frightened you more than the actual tumor.” This could also be said of Chekhov’s mental ward, and the fear Andrey feels upon his entry as a patient. Similarly, Solzhenitsyn’s protagonist, Pavel Nikolayevich, shares the same disdain for the “uncultured creatures” of the town and the ward that is displayed in Chekhov’s character, Andrey, and his pretentious arrangements and tastes. And, as with Chekhov’s ward and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, characters in Cancer Ward remark on the idea that “even if [the hospital staff] do let you go home, you’ll be back here pretty quick […] once [the doctor has] grabbed you with his pincers, he won’t let go till you croak.” This common theme, as it runs through the works of Solzhenitsyn and Chekhov, maintains the idea that institutions function to prevent escape, even if patients don’t belong in them.

The Chekhovian parallels in Cancer Ward continue, recalling Ivan’s accusation in Ward No. 6 that Andrey’s intellectualism was insincere, that his theoretical understanding of suffering was insufficient to truly understand suffering. Solzhenitsyn’s character, Kostoglotov, reminds Dyomka, another ward member, that “education doesn’t make you smarter.” Dyomka questions this, to which Kostoglotov clarifies, “Life, that’s what [makes you smarter].” Though the power dynamics of this scene differ from Chekhov’s ward, there is still the intense debate of ideas – distinguishing the differing values of theoretical versus practical education and understanding – which seems to be Solzhenitsyn speaking, like Chekhov, through the characters in the ward.

As Chekhov’s story describes the callous, professional relation to suffering that doctors have, so too does Solzhenitsyn’s story remark that “an unpleasant feature of all public hospitals is that nobody stops for a moment to exchange a few words.” The impersonal haste of hospitals is reflected more in the contemporary story of the cancer ward than in Chekhov’s mental ward. Likewise, even Solzhenitsyn’s doctor parallels that of Chekhov’s doctor, Andrey, recalling – through a more contemporary lens – the desensitization of doctors to their patients. Kostoglotov, in a rare moment of gentle conversation, remarks to the doctor in charge of his care:

‘No sooner does a patient come to you than you begin to do all his thinking for him. After that, the thinking’s done by your standing orders, your five-minute conferences, your program, your plan and the honor of your medical department. And once again I become a grain of sand, just as I was in the camp. Once again nothing depends on me.’

This exchange recalls, not only the “callous” professional interactions of doctor and patient, but also Andrey’s nihilistic declaration that “‘I of myself am nothing, I am only part of an inevitable social evil.’” The tone of Solzhenitsyn’s character, Kostoglotov, has the same tenor of feeling like “nothing” is of consequence for their position in the ward. Like Chekhov’s characters, the physical space of the ward – the sheer proximity of it, the closeness, the “God-forsaken” nature of the building – shapes the interactions more than any moral qualities of the characters themselves.

As though the parallels were not enough between the prose, plot, setting, and other crucial features of Ward No. 6 and Cancer Ward, there is the deeper political critique of their stories. As John Arnold suggests in his book, Life Conquers Death, “just as Chekhov’s Ward 6 was read as an allegory of Tsarist Russia, so Cancer Ward can be read as an allegory of the contemporary Soviet Union.” Arnold’s analogy is apt, especially in that Chekhov’s critique of Russia was less overt than Solzhenitsyn’s. Though, the concern remains, that “the allegorical method of interpretation” tends toward “simplistic [political] exegesis,” thus, we should limit such speculation when explicit evidence isn’t present in these texts. And yet, as Jeffrey Meyers argues in his article, “Cancer Ward and the Literature of Disease,” there is an undeniable connection between the project of these two writers: courageously confronting disease, profound sympathy for the diseased, a “transformation of the clinical into the poetical,” and the moral examination of social pathology. Even if we are to ignore the similarities between Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn in terms of style, detail, prose, or subject matter, these writers indisputably have overlapping moral concern with aspects of Russian medicine and confinement.

It would be impossible to exhaust the literary connections between Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn’s writings within the space of a single essay. Rather, other critics have suggested, “[Chekhov] is indeed a cultural inheritance and always present in the consciousness of any Russian reader,” an inheritance which can certainly be seen in the writings of Solzhenitsyn. A plethora of possible connections remain between Solzhenitsyn’s time in the Gulag Archipelago and Chekhov’s similarly autobiographical exploration of Russian penal camps, as recounted in Sakhalin Island. Natalia Pervukhin goes so far as to suggest that Solzhenitsyn practically litters his writings with references to Chekhov – forty in one book alone. These connections, rich as they surely are, would require an entirely additional literary investigation to bear out.


Works Cited

Arnold, John. Life Conquers Death: Meditations on the Garden, the Cross, and the Tree of Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007. Print.

Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich, Richard Ford, and Constance Garnett. “Ward No. 6.” The Essential Tales of Chekhov. New York, NY: Ecco, an Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2015. N. pag. Print.

Meyers, Jeffrey. “Cancer Ward and the Literature of Disease.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 29, no. 1, 1983, pp. 54–68.,

Pervukhin, Natalia. “The ‘Experiment in Literary Investigation’ (Čexov’s Saxalin and Solženicyn’s Gulag).” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 35, no. 4, 1991, pp. 489–502.,

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isaevich. The Cancer Ward. New York: Dell, 1968. Print.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isaevich. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956. an Experiment in Literary Investigation. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007. Print.

Wilson, Edmund. To the Finland Station: A Study in Writing and Acting of History with a New Introduction. New York, NY: Noonday, 1999. Print.


Narratricide: An Analysis of the Tree in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot

March 1, 2017


“I don’t know why, but I just don’t trust trees. I appreciate that they are supposed to provide oxygen for us, but I’m not entirely sure that I believe that. They intimidate me—probably because I’ll end up dressed in one before long.”
—Jarvis Cocker

The famously sparse stage directions of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot begin with three terse images: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” Beckett’s simple images are often deceptive and transmographic – ideas that resist any artistic tendency to linger over specificity or detail. Lest the mind become lulled into lazy, comfortable patterns of thinking, Beckett creates images that take on quasi-symbolic roles, serving to provoke an unclarity in the imagination. This lack of clarity is employed by Beckett to suggest what is suggestible but isn’t already there on stage, or on paper, mise en scene. Of the three opening stage directions, the tree becomes of most concern – mostly because it recurringly appears, but also because of its narratological significance. Though the tree appears to be as symbolically feeble as its branches, it keeps Godot’s characters rooted to the spot throughout the play.

Beckett’s stage directions are rather bare like Godot’s tree, and have presented a challenge to set designers over the years. Indeed, Beckett himself fell victim to his own brevity in 1961, attempting to revive Godot in Paris. At the time, Beckett had found himself persistently critical of the productions of his own works, particularly the shortcomings of set designers for Godot. Thus, in 1961, Beckett reached out to Alberto Giacometti, a sculptor with whom he had long held drinking ties. Giacometti’s task was to collaborate with Beckett on the (in)famed tree’s design, a task which “confounded them both.” Beckett and Giacometti spent the whole night sculpting Godot’s tree, “trying to make it sparser, smaller, the branches thinner. It never looked any good,” wrote Giacometti, “and neither he nor I liked it. And we kept saying to each other, Perhaps like this…” It is with this anecdote in mind that Siobhan Bohnacker writes, “What motivates Beckett’s protagonists is the pursuit of the Absolute, similar to [Beckett and Giacometti’s] persistent, deep-rooted doubt that they would ever find the perfect artistic form.” In comparing Beckett and Giacometti to Godot’s characters, Estragon and Vladimir, one can see how Beckett eventually embodied the very “plot” to which he subjected Godot’s characters: waiting. It’s as though Beckett, in leaving the stage directions as bare as the tree he wrote, was playing a trick on himself, taunting his future self’s frustrated attempts to reify what would otherwise belong to the hidden, personal realms of the imagination.

Beckett’s tree frustrated not only himself and his sculpting companion, but the characters in (and audiences to) Godot as well. In Beckett’s play, the tree is first acknowledged by the characters when Estragon questions Vladimir on why they are, in fact, waiting for Godot – and yet this serves to calm no one and solves no questions:

Estragon: [despairingly] Ah! [Pause.] You’re sure it was here?
Vladimir: What?
Estragon: That we were to wait.
Vladimir: He said by the tree. [They look at the tree.] Do you see any others.
Estragon: What is it?
Vladimir: I don’t know. A willow.
Estragon: Where are the leaves?
Vladimir: It must be dead.
Estragon: No more weeping.
Vladimir: Or perhaps it’s not the season.

The tree, in this scene, serves as an organizing plot device which anchors Vladimir and Estragon to the location that will remain constant on stage throughout Godot’s performance. They are waiting there, on stage, because “he” (presumably Godot) told them to wait by the tree. And yet, “he” is never quite specified, nor is Godot ever made present to Beckett’s characters. It’s as though this tree were a stand-in for Godot himself. What’s curious about this interpretation, however, is in the symbolism underlying Vladimir’s characterization of the tree as “a willow” and the subsequent exchange that follows. For the image of the willow tree is religiously charged, both in the Celtic and Christian traditions (which Beckett, an Irish expatriate, would be no stranger to). Planted in memorial of the dead, a willow tree is a sign both of grief and of hope for new life. Furthermore, willows are usually planted along the coast of a body of water, at a site that physically represents the ever-changing nature of life. It is with these mortal concerns in mind that one can find morbid humor in Estragon’s classic non-sequitur, “No more weeping.”

The debate between Estragon and Vladimir regarding the tree’s “tree” status is also of note for Godot. In an otherwise humorous exchange that wouldn’t be out of place in a Monty Python skit, the tree is examined:

Estragon: Looks to me more like a bush.
Vladimir: A shrub.
Estragon: A bush.
Vladimir: A–. What are you insinuating? That we’ve come to the wrong place?

As the characters argue about the nature of the tree (as a beaconing object) by which they were told to wait for Godot, they simultaneously call its role as a symbol into question. If we entertain the common interpretation of Godot’s (lack of) arrival as symbolizing salvation for Vladimir and Estragon (i.e. Waiting for Salvation), then the characters, as early as the sixth page of the play, negate the tree’s possibility as a “site of salvation.” For, in questioning its existence as a tree, Vladimir and Estragon question salvation itself. Despite their simultaneous faith and eschatological skepticism towards Godot’s arrival, the characters remain rooted to the spot, in vain, waiting for Godot.

Staring into the blank, infinite morass of boredom, Estragon eventually offers to Vladimir a solution to confront their own existential ennui: “What about hanging ourselves?” In other words, Estragon presents an inversion to their own hopeless situation of boredom; if salvation isn’t coming for them, then they must confront it themselves, by suicide. Both characters rather abruptly agree that hanging themselves would indeed be a welcome respite from their endless waiting (as Estragon continues, “Let’s hang ourselves immediately!”). Yet, Beckett doesn’t allow the tree to provide the characters (or the audience, in fact) with the means to flee their existential confinement. Rather, as the characters quickly discover, the tree’s branches wouldn’t be strong enough to hang even one of them. Thus, Estragon and Vladimir are forced to abandon their suicidal impulses (to kill time), lingering around this tree, waiting for Godot.

Act Two begins with more robust stage directions, including how “The tree has four or five leaves,” a marked change from yesterday’s bare limbs. The stage directions continue, as Vladimir enters “agitatedly” and “halts,” taking a long look at the tree. Then, as though the tree’s regeneration has sparked some kind of revelation (or panic) in Vladimir’s mind, he “suddenly begins to move feverishly about the stage.” Unlike the introduction to Act One, the second act overtly begins with the tree as the main object of concern in the play. As critics of Godot, such as Emily Atkins, have suggested, the tree’s very obvious presence in the beginning of the second act is an “indication of the characters’ impending salvation.” The dawn of the new day in Act Two is accompanied by a seemingly symbolic regeneration of the tree – an act which harkens (and yet subverts) mythology from time immemorial such as the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge, and so on. The tree’s regeneration deceptively suggests that the second act will bring about the conclusion for which Vladimir, Estragon, and the audience, are waiting for.

Further on in Godot’s second act, Vladimir and Estragon reenact a scene from Act One. Estragon asks Vladimir what they do now that they are “happy,” to which Vladimir responds, “Wait for Godot. [Estragon groans. Silence.] Things have changed here since yesterday.” After a moment of puzzlement between the two characters, Vladimir implores Estragon to look at the tree:

Vladimir: The tree, look at the tree. [Estragon looks at the tree.]
Estragon: Was it not there yesterday?
Vladimir: Yes of course it was there. Do you not remember? We nearly hanged ourselves
    from it. But you wouldn’t. Do you remember?
Estragon: You dreamt it.
Vladimir: Is it possible you’ve forgotten already?
Estragon: That’s the way I am. Either I forget immediately or I never forget.

This exchange between Beckett’s characters must indeed be as frustrating to the audience as it is to his characters. As far as the audience (and Vladimir) is concerned, the tree is the same – give or take a few leaves. Estragon, on the other hand, in the act of forgetting, radically calls the tree’s continuity into question: “Recognize! What is there to recognize?” However, as Atkins suggests, Estragon is not madly arguing against Vladimir’s memory – the tree is clearly on set, and the characters have interacted with it multiple times – thus Estragon’s “exclamation” of recognition must be interpreted as his undermining the very stability of symbolic meaning, as well as the stability of memory’s fixation of objects (such as the tree) in time. Atkins concludes that Estragon’s outburst “undermines any hope that the tree is moving toward a symbol of possible redemption, despite its new leaves.”

Further on in Godot, Vladimir and Estragon return to their hollow affirmations of happiness. Trailing off between ellipses, Vladimir drones on:

Vladimir: Wait…we embraced…we were happy..happy…what do we do now that we’re happy…go on waiting…waiting…let me think…it’s coming…go on waiting…now that we’re happy…let me see…ah! The tree!
Estragon: The tree?
Vladimir: Do you not remember?
Estragon: I’m tired.
Vladimir: Look at it. [They look at the tree.]
Estragon: I see nothing.

As Vladimir seems to recognize in this scene of meditation around the tree, happiness is manifest through his memory, not through his experience of the present. His insistence that “we were happy” [my italics] coupled with “go on waiting” indicates that happiness, as conceptualized in Godot, is as transient as the other fleeting aspects of this play. That is, happiness is something only identifiable in retrospect, and if we seek to prosthetically emulate the feeling in the present, then we will, like Vladimir, “go on waiting.” The characters in Godot are so intent on coming to an end – a conclusion, a closed stage curtain, Godot’s arrival, etc. – that they have, like Estragon, missed what has been right in front of their eyes for the entire play: the tree and its new leaves.

Vladimir is not willing to allow Estragon’s forgetfulness to distract the audience from the tree’s newly formed leaves. He insists that the tree has significance, that the seasons have changed, that time has passed:

Vladimir: But yesterday evening it was all black and bare. And now it’s covered with leaves.
Estragon: Leaves?
Vladimir: In a single night.
Estragon: It must be the Spring.
Vladimir: But in a single night!

Vladimir and Estragon have radically different interpretations of the tree’s imbued significance, both as a stage prop and a symbol of potential meaning. Vladimir, excited by the tree’s new leaves, projects hope (for the future, for life, for creation) onto the tree, while Estragon sees the tree with a sense of loss (of memory, of time, of meaning). Atkins suggests that, “by playing with the image in this way, Beckett removes its ability to convey a set answer or explanation to his characters or his audience. It is up to each person to determine for himself the tree’s ultimate significance.” The tree, devoid of objective meaning, purposefully presented as an anti-symbolic image, becomes itself a kind of character – one which the audience must interact with as they negotiate the tree’s meaning.

The tree, understood as a symbol of a symbol, is an instance of what H. Porter Abbot calls “narratricide,” a dismemberment of narrative meaning. In his book, Beckett Writing Beckett, Abbot writes, “[Beckett’s] texts are littered everywhere with the barest fragments of narrative irrelevancy which lead nowhere and […] frequently feature objects,” a tree in this case, “which augment their alinear, achronological condition.” The tree in Godot, according to Abbot, augments the achronological condition of Vladimir and Estragon’s predicament, serving to alienate (rather than situate) them within the broader narrative arc – if that could be said – of Godot. Beckett, it would seem, “unwrites” his images as soon as he allows us to see them.

As the second act progresses, Vladimir and Estragon mistakenly hope for a moment that Godot is on his way (“At last!” “We’re saved!”), only to panic in the realization that they are “surrounded.” The characters rush to escape the scene, and Vladimir says to Estragon:

Vladimir: Your only hope is to disappear.
Estragon: Where?
Vladimir: Behind the tree. [Estragon hesitates.] Quick! Behind the tree. [Estragon goes and crouches behind the tree, realizes he is not hidden, comes out from behind the tree.] Decidedly this tree will not have been the slightest use to us.

This moment of comic relief demonstrates yet again the tree’s loss of all objective meaning. Not only is the tree “useless” to the characters as a source of symbolic meaning, but it is useless as a physical prop to hide behind. Vladimir’s remark, despite its self-referential tone, speaks to our need as an audience to have allegorical meaning imbued in scenes such as this one in Godot. By resisting the obvious symbolism of trees, Beckett presents to us an image as image, or, as Abbot writes, “an image of an image.” The image of an image, in Abbot’s conception, is not penetrable in the way that a traditionally symbolic image would be. The tree, then, does not offer concrete, objective meaning to the audience; it rather opens up the audience to projecting their own meaning onto the tree.

As Godot concludes, Estragon suggests to Vladimir that they abandon their persistent waiting. This sense of downtrodden failure, fatigue, and spiritual famine culminates in one final scene with the tree:

Estragon: And if we dropped him? [Pause.] If we dropped him?
Vladimir: He’d punish us. [Silence. He looks at the tree.] Everything’s dead but the tree.
Estragon: [looking at the tree] What is it?
Vladimir: It’s the tree.

To this end, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty comes to mind, in which he expounds upon theories of epistemic agreement. “The information ‘That is a tree,’ when no one could doubt it,” Wittgenstein writes, “might be a kind of joke and as such have meaning.” In this light, Vladimir’s remark, “It’s the tree,” become itself a sort of joke which we, the audience, are in on. Wittgenstein’s idea is that making obvious remarks, such as Vladimir’s, is a way of turning what is otherwise forgettably mundane into something remarkably memorable – in this case, Godot’s tree. Vladmir’s comment could also be interpreted as “a platitude that houses a profundity,” as Matthew Bevin suggests, or that the presence of the tree is a paradox: “things are both clear and not clear.” If Bevin is correct, then Wittgenstein’s remark that “a good and serious philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes” becomes all the more relevant to Beckett’s play. For, as is frustratingly evident in Beckett’s writings, Beckett was well-versed in philosophy and yet refused to engage seriously in its work. If Wittgenstein can be read as applying to Beckett, then it seems that this tree – a joke, in Wittgenstein’s conception – appears to meta-textually evoke the sort of “serious” philosophical work that Beckett refused to write.

[Estragon draws Vladimir towards the tree. They stand motionless before it. Silence.]
Estragon: Why don’t we hang ourselves?