Waiting for Godot

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Modernism and Postmodernism Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Humor and the Absurd Theme Icon
Waiting, Boredom, and Nihilism Theme Icon
Modernism and Postmodernism Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Humanity, Companionship, Suffering, and Dignity Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Waiting for Godot, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Modernism and Postmodernism Theme Icon

Written in 1953, Waiting for Godot was a somewhat late successor to the vibrant experimentation in art and literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries known as Modernism. Modernist writers saw themselves as dramatically breaking with the past and innovating in all aspects of art, literature, and culture. Beckett's play shares with Modernist works a fascination with pushing the boundaries of literary genre, representation, and etiquette, as well as an interest in language and thought prioritized above action and plot. However, the play can also be seen as somewhat Postmodern, belonging to the literary and artistic period following Modernism. Both Modernism and Postmodernism are rather vague terms, often used differently by different critics. Moreover, it is also debated whether Postmodernism continues the aspirations of Modernism, or is a more radical break with it. In any case, Beckett's play sits on the fence between these two movements.

While Postmodernism is difficult to define exactly, Waiting for Godot displays a number of the defining features of a Postmodern conception of the world. One of these is an alienation from tradition and a questioning of the grand narratives that were previously seen to have some kind of authority. This includes grand narratives of historical progress—that history is the story of human life continually getting better—as well as religious narratives like the Bible. There are some biblical and classical references in the play, but they are only used ironically. Estragon compares himself to Christ in act one, for example, but the comparison is rather ridiculous. And Pozzo invokes "Atlas, son of Jupiter!" but doesn't actually believe in the force of this classical reference (what's more, he gets his mythological family tree wrong). The religious and cultural traditions of the past have lost their authority and centrality in the world of the play. Another Postmodern feature of the play is a pervasive sense of entrapment or enslavement, but a lack of any central authority. Characters are often unable to move or get up from the ground for no apparent reason. Vladimir and Estragon are, in a sense, trapped in their place of waiting, even though no one is forcing them to stay. Pozzo is Lucky's master, but he is far from free or powerful. Everyone in the play seems to be trapped or enslaved in some way, but no one seems to be the master. The characters of Waiting for Godot are also profoundly disoriented: they don't know where, or when, they are. At times, the characters don't even know who they are, as Estragon cannot remember his own past, for example. Finally, some of Beckett's characters feel a separation from reality. Both Vladimir and Pozzo question, in act two, whether they are actually awake or are simply dreaming. This confusion of reality with a dream or a false representation is a central, common feature of Postmodernism.

Seeing Beckett's play as Postmodernist is more than just labeling it as part of a particular literary movement; it gets to the heart of the world Beckett represents, one defined by alienation, entrapment, disorientation, and a questioning of reality. With the play's lack of specifics regarding its place or time, the circumstances of its events, or the particular back stories of its characters, Waiting for Godot can even be seen as a kind of allegory for the Postmodern condition. Beckett wrote his play before Postmodernism really coalesced or was written about as a distinct period or movement. Nonetheless, while in some ways still belonging to Modernism, the play presciently depicts many of the defining aspects of a Postmodern world. In representing these negative features, the play can be seen as either a pessimistic indictment of the present or as a chilling warning of what the future might look like: as how Beckett saw the world to be or as he feared it might become.

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Modernism and Postmodernism ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Modernism and Postmodernism appears in each act of Waiting for Godot. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Modernism and Postmodernism Quotes in Waiting for Godot

Below you will find the important quotes in Waiting for Godot related to the theme of Modernism and Postmodernism.
Act 1 Quotes

But what Saturday? And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday? (Pause.) Or Monday? (Pause.) Or Friday?

Related Characters: Estragon (speaker)
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

Estragon presses Vladimir on the specifics of the day of the meeting. First he points out that “Saturday” alone does not specify a certain date, and then he goes on to question whether it is even a Saturday at all.

The “I think” of the previous statement, here, grows into a series of frantic days, and it becomes evident that the two cannot at all temporally locate themselves. Estragon’s entire faith in the calendar has broken down. Though Vladimir, as the more "sane" character, tries to reassure him, there is a growing sense that neither can make statements with much conviction. As a result, there is no clear indication that the two are in the right spot or at all close to the right time. Already, Beckett implies that their entire waiting experience may be foolhardy. For though they may be performing the correct action—waiting—their inability to keep track of time or track narratives undermines any chance at actually meeting Godot.


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We're not tied?

Related Characters: Estragon (speaker)
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Estragon asks this question twice, with an interlude in between in which he eats a carrot. The first time, the inquiry concerns his and Vladimir’s rights, specifically whether they have “lost” them. When Vladimir responds that the process was not so passive and that they actively got rid of their rights, Estragon wonders “feebly” if this gives them more or less agency.

The metaphor of being tied returns the characters to the question of potential suicide by hanging themselves from the tree. That Estragon imagines rights as a process of being “tied” to something implies that rights are a restrictive force—which would perhaps explain why the two got rid of them. And the imagistic connection to suicide also casts being tied in a negative light. Yet Estragon seems more disheartened than elated at the idea of having been, so to speak, cut loose. The implication is, perhaps, that Estragon and Vladimir have left the bonds of normal society and, in doing so, abandoned their rights and entered into a nihilistic and untethered space.

The image will also resurface when Pozzo arrives holding Lucky on a rope. Unlike Vladimir and Estragon, who seek emotional codependence but also seem emotionally adrift, the other two characters are physically bound to each other. Yet doing so has turned Lucky into a slave, removing his rights. Beckett seems to be interrogating, here, the advantages and disadvantages of being socially obliged to others or to a society. Rights can be a form of being tied: They can restrict one, but they also prevent loneliness and offer a sense of connection and social well-being.

To Godot? Tied to Godot! What an idea! No question of it. (Pause.) For the moment.

Related Characters: Vladimir (speaker), Godot
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

Vladimir responds, here, to Estragon asking if they are currently tied to Godot. He explains that such an idea would be ridiculous, but then implies that it might be possible and even desirable in the future.

One of the beauties of the play is that “Godot” can be taken as a symbol for many different things: God, a bond to civilization, a rescuer, etc. In the broadest sense, he offers some kind of redemptive alternative to the desperate, unmoored characters. Currently the two remain, without question, not “tied to Godot,” for they have not yet made a social connection with them. But whereas Estragon continues to see that lack of being tied as positive, Vladimir implies with the artful pause and line “For the moment” that they may indeed want to be. Perhaps, after all, escaping the scene would mean becoming “tied” to Godot. On one level, this might simply mean having forged a social connection that requires humane treatment and gives emotional support. On another level, it might mean using Godot to reconnect themselves to a society with rights and social norms.

You are human beings none the less. (He puts on his glasses.) As far as one can see. (He takes off his glasses.) of the same species as myself. (He bursts into an enormous laugh.) Of the same species as Pozzo! Made in God's image!

Related Characters: Pozzo (speaker), Estragon, Vladimir
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

During the first moments of their conversation, Estragon tells Pozzo they they are not from this area. In response, Pozzo makes this odd appeal to their common humanity, stressing how the characters are all fundamentally the same, in particular through their connection to God.

Pozzo focuses on visual consistencies. Beckett signals this emphasis through the stage direction of putting on and removing glasses. And he indicates that the assertion that they are “human beings” must be confirmed by visual data. Pozzo then moves first into a scientific register of speech with the repetition of “species” and then swaps in religious language with “God’s image.” This appeal to God would presumably define a social bond between the three of them, but Pozzo speaks the lines mockingly.

The fact that he cites a universal humanity is particularly empty considering his inhumane treatment of Lucky. Taking the two actions together would imply either that Lucky is not human, or that the way Pozzo treats Lucky could be applied to any human—based on their commonality as the “same species.” And in the nihilistic setting of the play, in which both God and society seem to have vanished, neither the religious nor the Enlightenment ideal of common humanity has many practical consequences.

Why he doesn't make himself comfortable? Let's try and get this clear. Has he not the right to? Certainly he has. It follows that he doesn't want to. There's reasoning for you.

Related Characters: Pozzo (speaker), Lucky
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

After a series of confused attempts to ask Pozzo why Lucky continues to carry so many bags, Vladimir and Estragon are finally able to communicate their question. In response, Pozzo gives this strange definition of his human autonomy, claiming that Lucky is indeed able to rest.

Pozzo elevates the status of his statement with the phrases “Let’s try and get this clear” and “There’s reasoning for you.” He implies that other dialogue was perhaps not so lucid, and that he will be able to offer a more direct and useful understanding of their dynamics. Between these two phrases lies a distorted proof. Pozzo claims that Lucky is indeed fully autonomous, and that therefore each action he performs is out of complete volition. But, of course, the audience and other characters remain skeptical, for Lucky does not in fact seem to have this professed agency. Pozzo articulates a common despotic or slaveholding justification, in which people with power claim that others could do anything—whereas in reality they are trapped by their circumstance. Beckett seems to showcase the emptiness inherent in forms of human agency: A presumed ability to act only reveals how social forces keep one entrapped.

The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep, somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh. (He laughs.) Let us not then speak ill of our generation, it is not unhappier than its predecessors. (Pause.) Let us not speak well of it either. (Pause.) Let us not speak of it at all.

Related Characters: Pozzo (speaker), Lucky
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

Pozzo offers this theory of world suffering because Estragon has begun to cry after Lucky kicks him in the shins. Previously Lucky shed tears, and Pozzo thus interprets the tears' transfer from Lucky to Estragon as proof that happiness in the world is constant.

To construct this theory, Pozzo begins with the physical detail he has just observed: “quantity” is “constant” because when Lucky stopped crying, Estragon started. Applying the same idea to laughter casts Vladimir’s earlier insistence that he not laugh in an intriguing light: It is as if Vladimir was generously leaving the laughter with others, whereas Pozzo steals it without a second thought. And from these two principles on crying and laughing, Pozzo concludes that no evaluative assessment can be made of any “generation,” for all eras have a consistent distribution of joy.

The philosophical underpinning of this relativism is that happiness and sadness are constantly being redistributed. Yet two sub-interpretations of this philosophy are possible: Either this is a pseudo-spiritual model in which happiness is regulated by a universal (perhaps divine) force, or it is a model in which human agents themselves change quantities of happiness by taking it away from others. In the second option, Lucky stopped crying only because he harmed Estragon. Beckett puts emphasis on this distinction by making Pozzo a slave-owner: He has profited from Lucky’s misery and thus has more resources than Estragon or Vladimir, who have a more equitable relationship. After all, it's to Pozzo's advantage to have formulated a theory that justifies his spiteful and selfish behaviors.

He used to dance the farandole, the fling, the brawl, the jig, the fandango, and even the hornpipe. He capered. For joy. Now that's the best he can do. Do you know what he calls it?
The Scapegoat's Agony.
The Hard Stool.
The Net. He thinks he's entangled in a net.

Related Characters: Estragon (speaker), Vladimir (speaker), Pozzo (speaker), Lucky
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

After Lucky performs, Pozzo observes sadly that he used to be far better. He lists the previous more artful dances Lucky once knew, and then asks Estragon and Vladimir to guess at the name of the recent one.

Most simply, these lines reconfirm that Lucky has degenerated from a previous more talented condition. But the more interesting side of the passages lies in how Estragon, Vladimir, and Pozzo describe the dance. The potential titles from each describe a state of hopelessness: Estragon points at how Lucky is a scapegoat for Pozzo’s hatred; Vladimir puns on stool to mean both an immobile seat and a painful bowel movement; and Pozzo describes the dance as expressing entrapment. Beckett implies that Lucky’s previous talents have—perhaps due to Pozzo, perhaps due to other forces—been reduced to a constant sense of being stuck and punished. Even a talent defined by movement is reduced to a lack of movement.

It is notable, too, that whereas the other dances are all recognizable forms and thus are lowercase, non-proper nouns, the actual dance has a unique title. Beckett seems to present it as an experimental form of art, more an expression of the self than a routine performance of previously-designed steps. This may be a subtle reference to twentieth-century modern dance, which deviates from pre-established form to such an extent that the motion often becomes grotesque.

Then adieu.
Silence. No one moves.

Related Characters: Estragon (speaker), Vladimir (speaker), Pozzo (speaker)
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

This tragicomic scene of failed goodbyes comes after Pozzo observes how badly Estrange and Vladimir smell. He says he must leave, but the characters seem somehow unable to part.

The exchange reiterates the lack of mobility and agency. But more specifically, it shows how an expressed wish to perform an action does not cause that action to take place. Pozzo conveys a motivation for leaving and goes through the necessary social code to depart, yet even after saying the right words he remains rooted to the ground. Indeed, the group tries twice to complete this simple social gesture, demonstrating that their entanglement in Lucky’s metaphorical dance-net is so tight that they cannot correctly execute the most basic of interactions.

That “Adieu” translates to French literally as “to God” offers one potential explanation. If we take Godot as a metaphor or stand-in for God, then going toward God would actually imply staying stationary in order for Godot to appear. Furthermore, this interoperation would show how the logic of waiting and apathy have so deeply invaded the characters’ minds that their very phrases fail to operate. The word “Adieu” itself has taken on a new meaning in a world where God is absent and constantly delayed.

Christ! What has Christ got to do with it. You're not going to compare yourself to Christ!

Related Characters: Vladimir (speaker), Estragon
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

Estragon is prompted to compare himself to Christ because he too lacks shoes. Yet Vladimir is outraged at the trivial analogy, harshly reprimanding Estragon for making a religious allusion.

This moment builds on a dynamic in Estragon and Vladimir’s relationship, in which the first will make a naive but honest comment and the second will find it flawed for some social or conceptual reason. Here, Vladimir is outraged because Estragon has inappropriately applied a traditional, spiritual narrative to their meaningless and empty lives. It’s intriguing that the martyr comparison—one that many make in times of desperation—is deemed so unacceptable, especially considering the clear parallels between Godot and God as messianic forces of salvation. Vladimir directly challenges both Estragon and the audience on that type of one-to-one allegory. He demands that we think more broadly about what type of salvation Godot could possibly bring. Alternatively, we might argue that Beckett has set the play in a spiritually vacant realm, in which any comparison to Christ is deemed ridiculous by the characters, even if their actions are mirroring those of religious adherents. They may be denying the efficacy of religion, but they are desperate for its salvation all the same.

Well, shall we go?
Yes, let's go.
They do not move.

Related Characters: Estragon (speaker), Vladimir (speaker)
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

These final lines of the first act come after Estragon and Vladimir debate separating, decide not to, and then propose to move on together. But instead of actually departing, they just verbally suggest it and remain immobile.

Once more, this exchange shows the depth of the stagnancy of the characters. They start with the most radical proposal—to separate—then reduce it to moving together, and yet they cannot even accomplish that. As with the “Adieu” sequence, the two perform the requisite speech acts of “Yes, let’s go,” but they cannot transfer language into action. Indeed, this distinction is one of the key themes in Beckett’s works, for action certainly lies within language for the audience, and at times for the characters when they are able to make conversation. But at other times, language is shown to directly contrast with action, when it functions as a delay mechanism or explicitly fails to perform its proper purpose.

The placement of these lines just at the end of the first act returns us to the play's beginning. Nothing was to be done, we were told, and here we see, indeed, nothing being done. Beckett, however, stresses not the necessary nihilism of the play, but rather the specific lack of agency or energy in each of the characters. Nothing can be done here because no one causes anything to be done, even when they might wish it to be different.

Act 2 Quotes

It must be the Spring.
But in a single night!
I tell you we weren't here yesterday. Another of your nightmares.

Related Characters: Estragon (speaker), Vladimir (speaker)
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

Estragon and Vladimir try to make sense of their environment’s first real change: The tree has grown leaves. For Estragon, this is proof that their life is not repeating, whereas Vladimir wonders whether the seasons have shifted in a day.

This passage presents two models of time and implies that each model bestows a different type of significance on the characters. Vladimir relies on his memory that they were in the same place the night before and that the tree had no leaves—but now the tree has leaves, so spring must have arrived in a single night. He takes two perceptual pieces of information, believes in their connection, and arrives at a daring conclusion. Estragon, on the other hand, lacks a memory and therefore presumes that spring could not have come so rapidly. He takes the logical end result and extrapolates backwards to assume that Vladimir’s information must be the result only of “nightmares.”

Thus we have two different options for the reality of the play: Either we accept that the normal logic of the seasons is perverted, but concede that Vladimir’s perceptions are generally correct, or we deny his claims as mere nightmare and affirm the eternal present as experienced by Estragon. This passage serves to further undermine Vladimir’s authority in the relationship and to show how fickle our adherence can be to time models: They can be abandoned with the sight of one blooming tree.

Suppose we got up to begin with?
No harm trying.
They get up.
Child's play.
Simple question of will-power.

Related Characters: Estragon (speaker), Vladimir (speaker)
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

Pozzo, Vladimir, and Estragon have all by now fallen on the floor and seem unable to rise. Yet after waiting for a bit and expressing a new wave of boredom, they suddenly stand up, self-congratulate, and render it an act of will.

These lines are quite humorous, for their simplicity directly contrasts with the earlier empty discussion about standing up. Whereas before words could not translate into action, here action takes place when there is a void of words. The characters may consider this an act of “will-power,” but it seems far more to be a factor of them having had no other task. After all, that standing is considered “child’s play” only serves to reiterate the ridiculousness of their previous immobility. It is deeply infantile, the act of a child, to be so obstinately apathetic—but it is also a reality of their world. Are we to take “will-power” then as earnest or ironic? Certainly, we laugh at the way these characters use the phrase, but Beckett also seems honestly invested in the value of the will. Instead of waiting, the three have actually accomplished something minuscule by standing up, seeming to indicate that a set of similar actions could potentially produce some personal benefit.

Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now?

Related Characters: Vladimir (speaker)
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the play, Vladimir’s self-confidence has been deeply shaken. He no longer knows whether to rely on his own perceptions of time and reality and considers with deep skepticism whether he is even awake.

That skepticism is presented in two stages: First, Vladimir questions his memories, wondering if what he presumed to be reality was in fact a dream. This is familiar territory for the play, but the second question more radically calls into question his present mental state. Not only memories, but also present perception, can be warped to such an extent that Vladimir loses the stable foundation from which to comment on their significance.

The allusion to suffering presents misperception as more than a matter of self-delusion. It has specific consequences for the “others,” perhaps the billions of others to which Estragon referred, whom Vladimir ignores while sleeping. Beckett seems to be refer to a mode of denial, in which perpetrators and witnesses ignore the suffering of others and live in an alternative and self-constructed reality.

Well? Shall we go?
Yes, let's go.
They do not move.

Related Characters: Estragon (speaker), Vladimir (speaker)
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

These are the final lines of the play. Vladimir suggests they depart and Estragon affirms the choice, but the two remain just as immobile as ever.

By finishing the work here, Beckett returns the action back to two earlier moments in the text: The first is an almost identical set of lines at the end of act one. The second is the opening sequence in which it was immediately established that nothing was to be done. This invites a first reading that the text moves nowhere and serves to argue that the characters will wait in boredom and nihilism forever. Yet a few key changes from act one should be noted.

Whereas at the end of act one, Estragon was the first to suggest leaving, at the end of act two, it is Vladimir who first says, “Well? Shall we go?” Beckett also breaks up the line “Well, shall we go?” into two separate questions. Vladimir’s sentences thus seems more pointed—less a casual expression reached from boredom and more an explicit wish to change. And, indeed, this decision is significant coming from his character, for Vladimir has previously demanded the two must remain still to wait for Godot. Perhaps the skepticism he has expressed at the mission of waiting for Godot has finally led Vladimir to abandon the quest—which may give rise to increased agency and movement.

The final stage direction, however, undermines any such idea. Even, it seems, if the two wish to depart, they remain caught in the game of language over action, of expressing a desire without actually bringing it to fruition. Beckett ends the text on an appropriately divisive note: the stagnancy is devoid of meaning for the characters, but within that stagnancy lies a world of meaning for the audience.