St. Augustine’s Remark
When asked about the theme of Waiting for Godot, Beckett is reported to have referred to the following sentence in the writings of St. Augustine “Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.”
Theme of the Uncertainty of Salvation
The theme of the two thieves on the cross, the theme of the uncertainty of the hope of salvation and the chance bestowal of divine grace, does indeed pervade the whole play. Vladimir states it right at the beginnings, when he says: “One of the thieves was saved. It’s a reasonable percentage.” Later he enlarges on the subject. One of the two thieves is supposed to have been saved and the other damned, says Vladimir. But he asks why only one of the four Evangelists speaks of a thief being saved. Of the other three Evangelists, two do not mention any thieves at all, and the third says that both of them, abused Christ. In other words, there is a fifty-fifty chance of salvation but, as only one out of four witnesses (the Evangelists) reports it, the chances are considerably reduced. As Vladimir points out, it is a curious fact that everybody seems to believe that one witness: “It is the only version they know.” Estragon, whose attitude has been one of scepticism throughout, merely comments “People are bloody ignorant apes.”
The Chance Remarks Made By the Two Thieves
It is the shape of the idea that fascinated Beckett. Out of all the evildoers, out of all the millions and millions of criminals that have been, executed in the course of history, only two had the chance of salvation in so unique a manner. One happened to make a hostile remark; he was damned. The other happened to contradict that hostile remark; and he was saved. How easily could the roles have been reversed! These, after all, were not well-considered judgments, but chance exclamations uttered at a moment of supreme suffering and stress. As Pozzo says about Lucky: “Remark that I might easily have been in his shoes and he in mine. If chance had not willed it otherwise. To each one his due.”
Godot’s Unpredictability in Bestowing Grace
Godot himself is unpredictable in bestowing kindness and punishment. The boy who is his messenger looks after the goats, and Godot treats him well. But the boy’s brother, who looks after the sheep, is beaten by Godot. “And why doesn’t he beat you?” asks Vladimir. “I don’t know, sir,” the boy replies. The parallel to Cain and Abel is evident: there too the Lord’s grace fell on one rather than on the other without any rational explanation. Here Godot also acts contrary to Jesus Christ at the Last Judgment: “And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.” But if Godot’s kindness is bestowed as a matter of pure chance, his coming is not a source of pure joy; it can also mean damnation. When in Act II Estragon believes Godot to be approaching, his first thought is that he is accursed. And as Vladimir triumphantly exclaims “It’s Godot! At last ! Let’s go and meet him,” Estragon runs away, shouting: “I’m in hell.”
Two Divisions of Mankind
The chance bestowal of grace, which human beings cannot comprehend, divides mankind into those who will be saved and those who will be damned. When in Act II, Pozzo and Lucky return, and the two tramps try to identify them, Estragon calls out: “Abel! Abel!” Pozzo immediately responds. But when Estragon calls out: “Cain! Cain!” Pozzo responds again. “He’s all humanity,” concludes Estragon.
Pozzo’s Effort to Attain Salvation
There is even a suggestion that Pozzo’s activity is concerned with his frantic attempt to draw that fifty-fifty chance of salvation upon himself. In Act I, Pozzo is on his way to sell Lucky at the fair. The French version of the play, however, specifies that it is the Market of the Holy Saviour to which he is taking Lucky. Is Pozzo trying to sell Lucky to redeem himself? Is he trying to divert the fifty-fifty chance of redemption from Lucky to Pozzo? He certainly complains that Lucky is causing him great pain, that he is killing him with his mere presence—perhaps because his mere presence reminds Pozzo that it might be Lucky who will be redeemed. When Lucky gives his famous demonstration of his thinking, the thin thread of sense that underlies the opening lines seems to be concerned with the accidental nature of salvation: “Given the existence of a personal God outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia, divine athambia, divine aphasia, loves us dearly with some exception for reasons unknown and suffers with those who are plunged in torment….” Here we have a description of a personal God, with his divine apathy, his speechlessness (“aphasia”), and his lack of the capacity for terror or amazement (“athambia”), in other words, a God who does not communicate with us, cannot feel for us, and condemns us for reasons unknown.
When Pozzo and Lucky reappear the next day, Pozzo blind and Lucky dumb, no more is heard of the fair. Pozzo has failed to sell Lucky; his blindness in thinking that he could thus influence the action of grace has been made evident in concrete physical form.
A Religious or Christian Play
Waiting for Godot then seems to be concerned with the hope of salvation through the workings of grace. And this view supports the belief that it is a Christian or a religious play. Vladimir’s and Estragon’s “waiting” might be explained as signifying their steadfast faith and hope, while Vladimir’s kindness to his friend, and the two tramps’ mutual interdependence might be seen as symbols of Christian charity.
Evidence Against this Conclusion
But these religious interpretations overlook a number of essential features of the play. These features arc the play’s constant stress on the uncertainty of the appointment with Godot; Godot’s unreliability and irrationality, and the repeated demonstration of the futility of the hopes pinned on him. The act of waiting for Godot is shown as essentially absurd and therefore devoid of any religious significance.
Thought of Suicide
There is one feature of the play that leads us to assume that there is a better solution to the tramps’ predicament, a solution which the tramps themselves consider preferable to waiting for Godot. That solution is suicide. “We should have thought of it when the world was young, in the nineties”, says Vladimir at the outset. Suicide remains their favourite solution, unattainable owing to their own incompetence and their lack of the practical tools to achieve it.
Not Tied to Godot
Estragon, far less convinced of Godot’s promises than Vladimir, is anxious to reassure himself that they are not “tied” to Godot. Vladimir gives him the necessary assurance: “Tied to Godot! What an idea! No question of it. For the moment”. When, later, Vladimir falls into a sort of complacency about their waiting, Estragon immediately punctures it. And Vladimir is quite ready to admit that they are waiting only from irrational habit.
The Tramps’ Faith
In support of the Christian interpretation, it might be argued that Vladimir and Estragon, who are waiting for Godot, are shown as clearly superior to Pozzo and Lucky, who have no appointment, no objective, and are wholly egocentric, wholly wrapped up in their sado-masochistic relationship. It is their faith that puts the two tramps on a higher plane. It is evident that Pozzo is overconfident and self-centred. “Do I look like a man that can be made to suffer”? he boasts. Even when he gives a melancholy and moving description of the sunset and the sudden failings of the night, we know he does not believe the night will ever fall on him; he is not concerned with the meaning of what he recites, but only with its effect on his listeners. Hence he is taken completely unawares when night does fall on him and he goes blind. Likewise Lucky, in accepting Pozzo as his master and in teaching him his ideas, seems to have been naively convinced of the power of reason, beauty, and truth. Estragon and Vladimir are clearly superior to both Pozzo and Lucky—not because they pin their faith on Godot but because they are less naive. They do not believe in action, wealth, or reason. They are aware that all we do in this life is as nothing when seen against the senseless action of time, which is in itself an illusion. They are aware that suicide would be the best solution. They are thus superior to Pozzo and Lucky because they are less self-centred and have fewer illusions. The hope, the habit of hoping, that Godot might come after all is the last illusion that keeps Vladimir and Estragon from facing the human condition in the harsh light of fully conscious awareness. For a brief moment, Vladimir is aware of the full horror of the human condition: “The air is full of our cries……At me too someone is looking……” But the routine of waiting, which has become a habit, prevents an awareness of the full reality of being.
The Dead Voices
Vladimir’s and Estragon’s pastimes are designed to stop them from thinking. “We’re in no danger of thinking any more….Thinking is not the worst……What is terrible is to have thought”, says Vladimir. Vladimir and Estragon talk incessantly because they wish to hear the “dead voices” which explore the mysteries of being and the self to the limits of anguish and suffering. The long silence that follows the cross-talk about those voices is broken by Vladimir in “anguish”, with the cry “Say anything at all!”
The hope of salvation may be merely an evasion of the suffering and anguish that spring from facing the reality of the human condition. But this does not invalidate the religious implications of the play. It is possible, however, to believe either that the play visualizes the possibility of salvation or that it negates such a possibility. Which alternative a reader adopts will depend upon his mental make-up because each reader will respond to the play in his own way.