As someone writing on the fringes of modernism, Samuel Beckett demonstrates the movement’s influence on his fiction while simultaneously trying to transcend the movement’s constraints, to not only explore the individual mind, but to question how this mind forms its identity in relation to the outside world and whether this identity can be reconstructed through concentrated effort. Beckett’s ideas on the self stem from his identification with existentialist philosophy, where the individual is a separate, self-sufficient being (as if suspended in the air) who defines himself with personal action, not with one of society’s many reductive labels, i.e. criminal, school teacher, white person, TGI Friday’s hostess, etc. This evasion of cultural mold is apparent in the liquid nature of Beckett’s protagonists – Molloy and Moran in Molloy, Malone and his fictional alter-egos in Malone Dies – and their avoidance of a definitive place in society. Once the individual has been established as an entity separate from popular culture and society’s power structures, the question of purpose behind existence naturally comes into play, as the individual is no longer dependent on these structures to inform him of why he is here (wherever “here” might be) – why be alive at all, and what distinguishes this state from death?
Existentialism is a selfish practice in that the protagonist is perennially searching for his purpose in life, or – rather – what distinguishes his existence from non-existence (death and its many forms). In the novel of the same name, Beckett’s character, Molloy, contemplates the distinction between the two states: “The confusion of my ideas on the subject of death was such that I sometimes wondered, believe me or not, if it wasn’t a state of being even worse than life. So I found it natural not to rush into it […]” (63). Beckett’s characters are typically complacent to remain alive despite the morose nature of their realities, because life is a known state over which they possess modest control and manipulation, while death presents the possibility of leaving the body, of departing from the safety of self into the chaos of other. Whether it be Moran and his desire for confinement within his home’s walls or Malone and his attachment to his stubbed pencil, Beckett’s characters are dependent on the kind of consistent creature comforts that cause a person to withdraw further inside himself (Molloy and his stones are no exception, despite his meandering). Naturally, Beckett’s solipsistic characters cannot seek their true identities through social interactions, but instead through writing (an inherently lonely process), documentation, where journaling is a detective search to uncovering the self. Beckett’s narrators in Molloy and Malone Dies present their stories and existential queries through lengthy, dense prose, as a means of advancing their lives toward death through the written word.
Just as Beckett’s men are eager to stay alive to document their existence (to write themselves toward the future), however, they are equally eager to take the lives of others with their words: the narrators in these two novels collectively display a propensity for violence, an ability to kill or discuss murder, without a trace of empathy. By doing this, Beckett could be downplaying the importance of death to juxtapose it with the significance of life, making the pen and sword equally mighty so that one may scratch out the existence of another being with the same motion in which he defines his own existence – a method of emboldening his own existence, even. As Malone states toward the beginning of his narrative, “Live and invent. I have tried. I must have tried. Invent. It is not the word. Neither is live. No matter” (189). If Malone believes he has not succeeded in creating (or living), then perhaps he has succeeded at destroying, an important binary to creation. Malone has, after all, with the admission of applying a razor to a butler’s throat, killed numerous men: “There was the old butler too, in London I think, there’s London again, I cut his throat with his razor, that makes five” (229). As exemplified by Malone (and Molloy and Moran), what is worth exploring in Beckett’s novels is not simply the existentialist meaning of life or death, but rather the act that catalyzes the transition between the two states – murder. Through the casual nature in which his protagonists engage in murder, Beckett is making a statement about morality when all social constraints are discarded, asserting that a true existentialist possesses power over death, and commenting on the disposable nature of lives whose meanings are not contemplated.
Murder is a theme so prevalent, it bonds Beckett’s characters in both novels. Molloy bludgeons to death a stranger in the woods at the end of his narrative; while waiting on his son to return to the woods, Moran meets a stranger, documentation becomes hazy, and perhaps a few hours later, he finds the stranger’s “head in a pulp” (145); aside from Malone’s passing line recounting his five murder victims, Malone recounts Lemuel’s (an asylum attendant’s) murder of two male employees with a hatchet in the final two pages of his 100-page narrative, describing (in passing) the murders in less than a paragraph. Malone relates the murder with his dying breaths, as if the act is not important enough to deserve an entire excerpt, but rather to be hurriedly mentioned right before his perishing. Again, the insignificance with which Beckett treats these crimes demonstrates how the effort placed into death (killing) is paltry when compared with the effort placed into life (consider the trials of Malone, Molloy). After devoting an extensive amount of text to the search for his lost pencil, the murders in Malone Dies aren’t even described by Malone, as much as mentioned: “[…] Lemuel released MacMann, went up behind Maurice who was sitting on a stone filling his pipe and killed him with the hatchet […] A little later Ernest came back to fetch them. Going to meet him Lemuel killed him in his turn, in the same way as the other” (280). Perhaps because Malone – like Beckett’s other characters – has cast off all other social constraints, he has cast off morality, as well, and murder is an act equivalent to mopping the kitchen floor in its significance to him. The existentialist goal would be to downplay the importance of the action, to strip it of significance. What purpose is there in reflecting on the body after its life (soul?) has already been taken? For the existentialist, purpose comes from interrogating the living individual, not contemplating the trivialities of the dead.
Molloy’s murder of a benign stranger whom he encounters in the forest is treated with much more textual detail, but the act still lacks any kind of personal reflection. For about half a page, Molloy recounts the callous details of the murder, stating:
I smartly freed a crutch and dealt him a good dint on the skull. […] Seeing he had not ceased to breathe I contented myself with giving him a few warm kicks in the ribs, with my heels. […] Then, nicely balanced on my crutches, I began to swing, backwards, forwards, feet pressed together […] in an ever-widening arc, until I decided the moment had come and launched myself forward with all my strength and consequently, a moment later, backward, which gave the desired result (78-79).
Molloy seems to develop anger over the course of his act – at the very least, frustration – taking more than the necessary steps to kill the man (his final step “sank in something soft”), relishing in the details of his crutched action. He is of the opinion that this stranger does not deserve to live, and he takes it upon himself to erase the man from existence. The existential protagonist in Beckett’s novels lives a thoughtful, though tormented, life, a life composed of endless self-reflection and exile to his (to borrow a phrase from David Foster Wallace) skull-sized kingdom. The quickness with which Beckett’s protagonists take the lives of others is symbolic of their opinions about the undeserved nature of these lives and the speed at which they might as well be lived. If the person living does no contemplating in his life, why should he exist, and why should his murder deserve contemplation? Life is to be questioned; death is to be simply talked about. In the opinion of Beckett’s protagonists, men who do not contemplate their lives are expendable, insignificant as objects. As Malone states casually in his narrative, his pockets are “full of pebbles to stand for men and their seasons” (247).
Who, though, bestows Beckett’s protagonists with the right to decide whether another man is expendable, with the right to take his life without consequence? Their decisiveness can be viewed as a power of the existentialist – the ability to alter someone’s state from life to death, and, in this way, assert a certain control over death in a similar fashion to how death asserts control over life in societies where people are worried about religion and what happens at the end of their personal narrative arcs (Is there an afterlife? How should I alter my life to assure myself a place in this afterlife? Etc.). As previously stated, to the existentialist, death could be “a state of being even worse than life.” So, the existentialist maintains power over death not only by exercising its same ability through murder, but also by refusing to validate death with suggestions of it being better than the current state (a paradise even), which would make it a dangling carrot, something to look forward to.
One could argue more validly, however, that Beckett’s protagonists bestow the right upon themselves through their most evident form of action: writing. Their sole existences rest on the foundation of their written words; these words bring them into existence at the beginning of each novel, and the depletion or eventual withholding of words escorts them out of existence at the conclusion. In fact, words are so vital to the existence of these men, the last breaths of one of Beckett’s protagonists, Malone, are represented by the diminishing length of his sentences:
or with his pencil or with his stick or
or light light I mean
never there he will never
any more (281)
Malone’s life gradually fades to a white page; he has written himself in and out of existence. Just as these protagonists depend on words to bring themselves to life, perhaps it is only through their words that they have the power to take the life of another human being. The pen is not mightier than the sword, but simply equivalent. It is used to carve images and alter them, to stab what is unwanted and take its life, to whittle the self down via reflection, word by word, toward a more basic understanding. For these characters, writing is not only the entire purpose of life, it is the action of the living. Toward the beginning of the novel, Molloy writes, reflectively, “The fact is, it seems, that the most you can hope to be is a little less, in the end, the creature you were in the beginning, and the middle” (28). Molloy, as well as Beckett’s other protagonists, accomplish this in two ways: 1) By gradually eliminating the influence of others, or – more accurately – eliminating others (murdering them); 2) By writing down the thoughts inside his head, extracting them, thus reducing the brain’s weight. Molloy is less the creature he was in the beginning because he has spent his life donating his experiences to the page.
As writers, Beckett’s protagonists are familiar with the ephemeral nature of life, which could be why they engage only in self-exploration; the action of life advances as quickly as the turn of a page. It would appear that writing is not a hobby, but that an existentialist must write, because he has no other way of answering questions about himself – communicating via dialogue would only allow someone else to provide him with definition. If the writer slays others with his sword along the way, it is for the sake of self-preservation. One must remain insulated to succeed at the process. The fragile balance between purpose and the possibility of failure for the existentialist (writer) is summarized best by Malone, himself: “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with” (247). Although similar in its exploration of the self, existentialism is not some Buddhist philosophy of Zen and reincarnation, but rather a philosophy of action, of constant striving, and an understanding that this striving will always fall short, that there will be a definite end to the labor, but one must labor nonetheless because that is how one identifies himself as inhabiting the state of life rather than the state of death.