In what way do Vladimir and Estragon illustrate the main theme of Waiting for Godot?

Two Anti-heroes
Vladimir and Estragon are the two heroes of the play Waiting for Godot. However, it would be more appropriate to call, them “anti-heroes” because there is little that is heroic about them. Estragon seems to be a cowardly person who suffers from nightmares and who is terribly afraid of the mysterious persons who regularly beat him. Estragon needs the care and guardianship of his friend and really cannot do without him. Once he had thrown himself into a river and had been rescued by Vladimir.

Vladimir is certainly more intelligent and more alert mentally than Estragon; he understands the situation in which the two men find themselves better. But even he is a more or less pathetic character, finding himself quite helpless and feeling compelled indefinitely to wait for Godot who is likely to bring about a change in the present situation but whose arrival seems to be very doubtful. Vladimir’s feeling of helplessness is clearly proved by the fact that he accepts the proposal that the two men should hang themselves.

Illustrative of the Central Image of the Play
The purpose which these two men serve in the play is obvious. In the first place, they serve to focus our attention on the central image of the play which is “waiting”. The two tramps represent the ordeal of waiting, and this ordeal is one which is experienced by almost every human being at one time or the other and, in many cases, all through life. In addition to the ordeal of waiting, these men represent ignorance, helplessness, impotence, and boredom. They do not have the essential knowledge: they do not know who exactly Godot is; they do not know what Godot will do for them; they do not know what would happen if they stopped waiting for Godot. Thus they are ignorant. Being ignorant they are unable to act. Being unable to act they find themselves helpless and impotent. This leads to the feeling of boredom and the difficulty of passing time. They are forced to resort to various devices to pass time, but each attempt in this direction fizzles out. The entire experience of Vladimir and Estragon has a universal application, and it is this fact which lends to the play a wide appeal.
Illustrative of the Themes of Habit, Boredom, and “The Suffering of Being.”
Although the conversation of these two men is discontinuous and fragmentary, essentially they are both talking about their lives. A dominant theme of the play is how to pass the time, given the fact that the situation is hopeless. In other words, the play is a dramatisation of the themes first touched upon in Beckett’s essay on Proust and then repeated continually throughout Beckett’s novels—the themes of habit, boredom and “the suffering of being.” Towards the close of the play, for instance, Vladimir says: “Habit is a great deadener.” Passing the time is a mutual obsession with the two men. When they have finished talking of one thing, they have to think of something else. When they have ceased one meaningless activity, they have to devise another. The dialogue is maintained even though there is nothing to say. Nothingness is what these tramps are fighting against, and nothingness is the reason why they keep talking. The plight of the two men arouses in us a deep feeling of sympathy; our attitude towards them is one of compassion because in them we recognise ourselves. Thus it is the state— both physical and mental—of the two tramps upon which our attention is concentrated. The condition of the two helpless individuals, whose expectation that Godot will come remains unfulfilled, lends to the play its serious and tragic quality.
Source of Comedy
But the play is not wholly a tragedy. Beckett called it a tragi-comedy, and a tragi-comedy it is. The comic and farcical elements in the play are also provided by Vladimir and Estragon. These two men are clearly derived from the pairs of cross-talk comedians of English music-halls. Their dialogue has the peculiar repetitive quality of the cross-talk of comedians’ patter. Many of the gestures and actions (permuting hats, embracing and shrinking from each other, stumbling and falling, etc.) are borrowed from the circus clowns. In accordance with the traditions of the music-hall or the circus there is an element of crude physical humour: Estragon’s vain efforts to take off his boots, for instance; Vladimir’s peering into his hat as if he were looking for something; Estragon’s trousers falling when he loosens the cord, which holds them up. These two men have rightly been compared to the two famous Hollywood comedians of the 1930’s: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy whose troubles with such things as hats and boots were notorious, and whose dialogue was spoken very slowly on the assumption that the human understanding could not be expected to work at lightning speed. But for the comedy provided by the two tramps, Waiting for Godot would have been a play of unrelieved gloom and would have been unbearably depressing.
A Warm Human Relationship
The tramps serve another purpose also. They offer one way of going through life just as Pozzo and Lucky offer another way. The mutual relationship of the two tramps is to be distinguished from the mutual relationship of Pozzo and Lucky. While Pozzo and Lucky symbolise a master-slave relationship (dominating and being dominated), the other two are bound to each other with natural ties. There is a major contrast between the cold formality of Pozzo and Lucky, and the warm though haphazard conversation of the tramps. Occasionally the two tramps speak of parting, but neither takes this suggestion seriously. At the end of Act I, Vladimir says: “We can still part, if you think it be better.” But Estragon replies: “It’s not worthwhile now.” Since nothing is certain, the two friends prefer the greater certainty of staying together. At the beginning of Act II, after a brief separation, they are extremely happy to see each other. Estragon cries out: “Don’t touch me! Don’t question me! Don’t speak to me! Stay with rue Vladimir asks: “Did I ever leave you?” And the other replies “You let me go.” This brief exchange between the two tramps could also be a love-scene, a conversation between a husband and a wife on meeting after a separation. Estragon is feeling hurt by the thought that his friend allowed him to go. His words provide a key to the contrast in this play between the bonds of tyranny (Pozzo-Lucky) and those of understanding (Vladimir-Estragon). They are full of frustrations and resentments, but they cling to each other with a mixture of inter-dependence and affection, deriving comfort from calling each other childish names, “Gogo” and “Didi”. In these, and other respects they are like an old married couple who always want to separate but never do.
Physical Listlessness
A noteworthy point about the two tramps is that they are incapable of anything more than mere beginnings of impulses, desires, thoughts, moods, memories, and impressions. Everything that arises in them sinks back into forgetfulness, especially in the case of Estragon. They both live, to a large extent, in a twilight state and though one of them, namely Vladimir, is more aware than his companion, inertia or complete physical listlessness prevails throughout. They belong to a category of people well-known in Paris as clochards, people who have known better times and originally been cultured and educated. At the beginning of Act I, Vladimir compares their proud past with their gloomy present. Their incapacity to live or to end life is intimately linked with their helplessness and their love of wish-dreams which they make no attempt to realise.
Reinforcing the Theme of Regression
The two tramps serve also to reinforce the theme of disintegration and regression mainly symbolised by Pozzo and Lucky. The past of these two tramps was much happier than their present is; they were “presentable” in the good old days. Now their conversation has no continuous thread to sustain it and is therefore reduced to absurd fragments: automatic exchanges, word­play, mock-arguments leading to no conclusion. The two men try everything at random. The only thing they cannot do is to go away: they have to stay because they are “waiting for Godot”. They are there from beginning to end of Act I, and when the curtain falls they are still waiting inspite of their announced departure. They are there again in Act II which adds nothing new and again inspite of the announcement about their going, they are still on the stage when the curtain falls. They will be there again, the next day, and the next day, and the day after that—superfluous, and without a future. These two men are merely alive but no longer living in a world. They are alive in a non-world. Inspite of their inaction and the pointlessness of their existence, these two men still want to go on like millions of people today, who want to go on even when their life becomes pointless. (Even the nihilists wish to go on living).
Two Distinct Individuals
Within the limits which the situation in the play creates, the tramps are two distinct individuals, each with his own character and interests. Estragon explains one essential difference when he tells Pozzo: “He has stinking breath and I have stinking feet.” Vladimir’s preoccupation is mental, and Estragon’s physical; and these two preoccupations are reflected in the distinct smells which disgust Pozzo. Of the two, Vladimir thinks more and is therefore more eloquent: his anguish is intellectual. Vladimir is more cultured: he quotes Latin and searches his memory for the correct word. Vladimir is capable of thinking of others whereas Estragon is only concerned with his own pain. Estragon is more irritable, obstinate, and selfish than Vladimir. He has a fit of bad temper like a child. But Estragon has a spontaneous imagination: when he talks of Christ he identifies himself with him; looking at his rags he claims to have been a poet. When Pozzo asks his name, he replies: “Adam”. Vladimir reads the Bible for instruction, Estragon reads it for the coloured maps of the Holy Land. Finally, Estragon is closer to timelessness than Vladimir. All landscapes are now the same to him and his memory is incapable of reaching back even to the previous day. “I’m not a historian,” he says. Once completed an event is forgotten; day means nothing to him any longer; and in his mind his thoughts belong to the repeated present moments in which they are spoken; he makes no distinction between events in time.
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