Samuel Beckett's early fiction and drama: A study of artistic theory and practice
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
Though Beckett is best known for Waiting for Godot, his first published work was not a play but a critical essay. That essay, "Dante • • • Bruno • Vico • • Joyce" (1929), a defence of Joyce's "Work in Progress," was the first of a number of occasional essays and reviews he was to write over the next quarter century. Beckett's main ambition during this period was to establish himself as a creative writer; he did not set out to develop a literary aesthetic. Nevertheless, there emerges from these occasional pieces a consistent theory about the relationship between art and the limits of human knowledge, a theory he puts into practice in his early fiction and drama. What Beckett argues in the essays, in essence, is that absolute knowledge lies beyond human reach, and that art must reflect this. If the human artist were possessed of the omniscience and omnipotence of God, he would be able not only to mirror in art the infinite complexity of the world at large, but to devise a succession of works independent of anything previously created. It is because the artist's knowledge and power are limited that he is able only to hint at the world's complexity in works that derive, inevitably, from earlier art. Thus, in his first (as yet unpublished) novel, "Dream of Fair to Middling Women," Beckett uses Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women, Tennyson's "A Dream of Fair Women," and Henry Williamson's The Dream of Fair Women: a Tale of Youth After the Great war as points of departure for the creation of an original novel concerned with the impossibility of making sense of the complexity of life. Similarly, in the novel that follows it, More Pricks Than Kicks. he draws on the comic epic form pioneered by Fielding to present us with a modern innovation: a comic epic of relativism designed to demonstrate that absolute knowledge is unattainable. Subsequently, in Murphy, Hatt, the Nouvelles and Mercier and Camier, Beckett makes it clear that there can be no definitive answers to either metaphysical or epistemological questions; while in his trilogy of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, he demonstrates that it is impossible to know anything with absolute certainty about the human mind. Between Malone Dies and The Unnamable, Beckett wrote his first major play, Waiting for Godot, which focuses, like the novels that precede and the stage plays that follow it, on the relationship between art and the limits of human knowledge. As we read the novels in the order in which Beckett wrote them, we become aware of his increasing sophistication in respect of artistic form. This is also the case when we read the plays, and what is especially interesting about them is his experimentation with what can be done not only on stage, but on radio, television and film, to demonstrate the implications of the fact that human knowledge is limited.