Waiting for Godot

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Waiting, Boredom, and Nihilism 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.
Waiting, Boredom, and Nihilism Theme Icon

As Beckett's title indicates, the central act of the play is waiting, and one of the most salient aspects of the play is that nothing really seems to happen. Vladimir and Estragon spend the entire play waiting for Godot, who never comes. Estragon repeatedly wants to leave, but Vladimir insists that they stay, in case Godot actually shows up. As a result of this endless waiting, both Vladimir and Estragon are "bored to death," as Vladimir himself puts it. Both Vladimir and Estragon repeat throughout the play that there is "nothing to be done" and "nothing to do." They struggle to find ways to pass the time, so they end up conversing back and forth about nothing at all—including talking about how they don't know what to talk about—simply to occupy themselves while waiting. The boredom of the characters on-stage mirrors the boredom of the audience. Beckett has deliberately constructed a play where not only his characters, but also his audience wait for something that never happens. Just like Estragon and Vladimir, the audience waits during the play for some major event or climax that never occurs. Audience members might at times feel uncomfortable and want, like Estragon, to leave, but are bound to stay, in case Godot should actually arrive later in the play.

All of this waiting for nothing, talking about nothing, and doing nothing contributes to a pervasive atmosphere of nihilism in the play. Broadly defined, nihilism is a denial of any significance or meaning in the world. Deriving from the Latin word for "nothing" (nihil), it is a worldview centered around negation, claiming that there is no truth, morality, value, or—in an extreme form—even reality. This seems to describe the world of the play, largely emptied out of meaning, emotion, and substance, leading to characters who blather on endlessly in insignificant conversation. Given the play's deep exploration of the absurd humor and feelings of alienation that arise from this nihilistic understanding of the world, one could say that Waiting for Godot is, at its core, about nothing.

Waiting, Boredom, and Nihilism ThemeTracker

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

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

Nothing to be done.

Related Characters: Estragon (speaker)
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

These are the first lines of Beckett’s play. They come after a series of simple stage directions that describe Estragon in a barren landscape trying to remove a boot. Even without any context, this quote sets the desolate scene and the desperate tone of the play.

What is remarkable about the pithy line—and this is characteristic of the play—is how many different ideas it references. On the most pragmatic level, Estragon is struggling to remove his boot. But the “nothing” could refer to the general lack of movement and action in the play, and it could also be a nihilistic rejection of a human’s ability to do anything. In that sense, the boot becomes a symbol of the fruitlessness of life. So already in the first sentence, we have an introduction of Beckett’s main themes: language that negates instead of affirms; hopelessness and despair; and the finding of deep philosophical meaning in actions as banal as removing shoes.

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One daren't even laugh any more.
Dreadful privation.
Merely smile. (He smiles suddenly from ear to ear, keeps smiling, ceases as suddenly.) It's not the same thing. Nothing to be done.

Related Characters: Estragon (speaker), Vladimir (speaker)
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

These lines follow Vladimir’s laughter at the suggestion that the two repent being born, perhaps as if doing so would allow them to escape their horrible predicament. Vladimir first denies the validity of that laughter, then tries to mimic its feeling with a smile, before rapidly denying the smile’s efficacy.

Rejecting the value of humor, even dark humor, helps clarify the depths of nihilism in which the play exists. Though Vladimir has a natural impulse to laugh at the joke, he self-censors—as if something about the environment renders any levity entirely unacceptable. Then he tries to artificially perform a similar smile, but that attempt results in a repetition of the play’s opening denial line. "Nothing to be done," then, refers also to the loss of certain human emotions and the inability for Vladimir to recover joy or laughter in the current situation.

Yet this is not to say that Waiting for Godot as a work of art is entirely devoid of humor. Beckett deemed it a tragicomedy, implying that it was supposed to create at least a partially humorous effect for the reader. And Estragon’s line about “dreadful privation” is rather ironically funny: His high-flung vocabulary strikes as intentionally out of place and out of character. It is a humorous line for the audience even if it can only create a failed false smile for Vladimir.

You're sure it was this evening?
What?
That we were to wait.
He said Saturday. (Pause.) I think

Related Characters: Estragon (speaker), Vladimir (speaker), Godot
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

The two speak here about their anticipation for the play’s titular “Godot.” Yet instead of expressing confidence in his arrival, they reveal a complete lack of certainty.

The vagueness of their knowledge parallels the earlier stage direction which specified only “evening” with no indication as to day or era. That choice left the viewer or reader untethered to time, and these lines shows that the characters exist in a corresponding state. (It is always important, with Beckett, to distinguish when certain confusions or clarities are inherent to the world of the text and thus experienced by the characters, or whether they stem from the audience’s distance from the world.) Here, the play’s bizarre, timeless space is a common feature between audience and character. In particular, Estragon and Vladimir are deeply challenged by the simple activity of arranging a meeting. In their their reality, time cannot be tracked, so even the most basic social functions break down.

What do we do now?
Wait.
Yes, but while waiting.
What about hanging ourselves?
Hmm. It'd give us an erection.

Related Characters: Estragon (speaker), Vladimir (speaker)
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

This exchange takes place after a brief silence during which Estragon gazes at the tree—one of the only elements of the stage’s set. The two express the desperation induced by the prolonged wait for Godot, and the desolation of the environment surrounding them, as well as the tragic humor lying within that horror.

That Estragon and Vladimir cannot propose anything to do except “wait” recalls the opening line about “Nothing to be done.” It is characteristic in this play for any moment of silence to be followed by Estragon’s asking what the two should do next. But Vladimir’s answer is generally to continue waiting, and his more active suggestions are never acted upon. Here, for instance, suicide is not presented so much as a weighty decision, but rather a flippant reference that they forget about moments later.

It is notable that “hanging ourselves” is not actually suggested as a response to sadness, but rather to boredom. Beckett implies that the most torturous part of the characters’ existence is not active pain but rather the lack of motion. The idea that suicide could cause some kind of stimulation through an “erection” gives great excitement to Estragon: He is not enticed by death itself, but just the fact that suicide bestows on him greater agency in dictating his reality. Thus Beckett uses these lines to show how deeply one’s perceptions and ideas can be warped by the simple process of waiting. It bestows a passivity that leads the characters to crave action in any way possible, even if that way requires death.

So that I ask myself is there anything I can do in my turn for these honest fellows who are having such a dull, dull time.
Even ten francs would be a help.
We are not beggars!

Related Characters: Estragon (speaker), Vladimir (speaker), Pozzo (speaker)
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

In an unusual moment of generosity, Pozzo offers his assistance to Vladimir and Estragon. As he did with the chicken bones, Estragon immediately requests some tangible benefit (in this case money), whereas Vladimir reproaches him for the discourteous behavior. Pozzo, however, somewhat snidely notes that talking to the two of them should be sufficient payment.

The lines notably introduce money into the play for the first time. This detail might seem unimportant, but Beckett’s text could easily take place in a post-apocalyptic world in which economical systems have entirely disappeared. (After all, time seems to have stopped or at least behaves in very odd ways.) So the idea that francs could actually benefit Estragon and Vladimir reveals that currency still plays a role in the world of the play—or at least that Estragon believes it will. Vladimir, similarly, upholds a sort of social norm by not wanting to grovel before Pozzo.

Pozzo’s decision to withhold money seems simply ruthless. But, in a sense, his conversation has given more to the characters than ten francs would: It has offered a temporary antidote to nothing happening. And indeed, his comment that they “are having such a dull, dull time” shows an odd awareness of the value of action amidst boredom. Beckett seems to be making a sly joke that anything staving off the nihilistic horror of boredom is worth more than currency.

Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful!

Related Characters: Estragon (speaker)
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Estragon repeats what is by now the chorus of the play. He articulates once more the horrifying boredom that evidently cannot be abated even by the actions of Pozzo and Lucky.

Estragon notably expands the opening line—“Nothing to be done.”—into a series of longer formulations. First, we learn that “Nothing happens”: no external events take place. Then, he focuses on the actions of people, for “nobody comes, nobody goes.” Yet all of these statements are incorrect, for Lucky and Pozzo have arrived and have, in fact, caused a good deal to occur. After all, there is sufficient content in these parts for a play, indeed one of the most celebrated plays of the twentieth century.

This tension produces one of the great ironies and fascinations about the work. Lots of things are indeed happening, even if the characters do not perceive it, and the horror of their boredom provides an action endlessly analyzed by audiences. Thus even as the characters lament their fate, Beckett seems to put the responsibility on the artist and the audience to find significance in the seemingly empty scenes.

Let's go.
We can't.
Why not?
We're waiting for Godot.

Related Characters: Estragon (speaker), Vladimir (speaker), Godot
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

After Pozzo and Lucky depart, Estragon immediately becomes bored once more and recommends that he and Vladimir leave as well. Vladimir reproaches him again, reminding the forgetful Estragon of their reason for staying in the same spot.

The lines reiterate the fickleness of Estragon’s memory; his mind immediately resets after every interaction, as if each moment is the beginning to a new play. In this way, he is much like a child who cannot track the progress of time or link earlier events to previous ones. He lives purely and perpetually in the present. Before, we might have believed in Vladimir as a voice of authority through his ability to form narratives and recall events. But by now the pointlessness of waiting has begun to seep in. The audience begins to wonder whether Estragon is perhaps correct in wishing to abandon their quest of waiting, and whether an eternal present might actually be a better response to a world without meaning. Beckett, then, has set up a scenario to call into question our presumptions about who holds authority in a situation of desperation. He demands that we be more skeptical of those who promise a future spiritual salvation, though Beckett never offers a clear alternative.

Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won't come this evening but surely tomorrow.

Related Characters: Boy (speaker), Godot
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

After the interrogation from Vladimir and Estragon, the Boy finally gives his message. But that memo does not convey much real meaning, and rather serves to revert the characters to their bored state of waiting.

This rhetoric of expected arrival further casts Godot as a religious symbol. Though he is presumed to offer some kind of eternal salvation for the characters, his presence is constantly delayed and merely promised by others. At this point in the play, the emptiness of these words is not quite clear, for the Boy has only appeared once. But already Vladimir’s comments on how events and people seem to be repeating themselves indicate that the Boy may have said these words before. That is to say, perhaps the lengthy, nihilism-induced wait for Godot has been caused by a series of forgotten “but surely tomorrow”s.

Act 2 Quotes

Say, I am happy.
I am happy.
So am I.
So am I.
We are happy.
We are happy. (Silence.) What do we do now, now that we are happy?
Wait for Godot.

Related Characters: Estragon (speaker), Vladimir (speaker)
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

As act two begins, Vladimir and Estragon seem to undergo a radical emotional shift. With no real pretense, both claim to be happy, yet when they wonder what to do with this new good mood, they can come up with no suggestion besides waiting once more for Godot.

The way the two profess their happiness merits some skepticism. After all, no events have transpired to change their lives from the previous day. And rather than offer any rational basis for being in a good mood, the two will themselves into the state by verbally exclaiming its existence. Vladimir commands Estragon not to be happy but to “say” that he is happy, and this indicates that the next series of comments might be untruthful speech acts instead of honest descriptions of their mental states. The sing-song rhythm created by the repeated phrases also casts it more as a ritual than an earnest expression—and makes the entire endeavor seem cynical.

That this supposed happiness will not do anything to change the men's actual actions speaks to the division between language and behavior that pervades this play. Though Vladimir and Estragon claim to have acquired a new disposition, they are no more active than before. Thus happiness is not taken as a way to fight back against boredom and nihilism, but rather as a temporary, even false, distraction.

We came too soon.
It's always at nightfall.
But night doesn't fall.
It'll fall all of a sudden, like yesterday.
Then it'll be night.
And we can go.
Then it'll be day again.

Related Characters: Estragon (speaker), Vladimir (speaker)
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

After Estragon once more suggests leaving, Vladimir must remind him that they have not moved in order to wait for Godot. This disagreement causes them to reflect on the specific way time is repeating.

Estragon’s position can be summarized, here, as rejecting the linear development of time toward an expected goal: the arrival of Godot. He denies that they have arrived at the right moment, then rejects the imminent arrival of that correct moment: when night will fall. What Estragon is taking issue with here is not exactly time as such, but rather the progressive motion between different moments in time. Rejecting the dynamic process of night falling, he instead repeats the model of the eternal present in which it is night at one moment, day in another. Nothing, in this account, would ever occur that would allow them to “go.”

Vladimir, on the other hand, defends the potential for change to take place if they continue waiting for Godot. From his certainty in the way twilight fell yesterday, he extrapolates that a similar change will take place—and that another change will allow them to be finally mobile and “go” once Godot arrives. In this way, Beckett seems to present faith (in Godot or in any sort of redemption) as an indicator of one’s specific belief in time: the anticipation of future events based on past ones is deemed necessary to belief in or hope for a savior.