Samuel Beckett: From the Mother to the Womb.

It is hard to look at one work of Samuel Beckett without a knowledge of Beckett’s complete oeuvre. One of the elements that comes back time and time again in his body of work are the letters M and W. What is the reason behind this phenomenon and is this choice linked to other themes in his work. To understand this, the language, or languages, of Becket’s work need to be adressed.

Gilles Deleuze (1987)

Gilles Deleuze (1987)

Gilles Deleuze’s “The Exhausted” is pivotal in to understanding of the complexity of Beckett’s body of work. He argues that Beckett’s work consists of three distinct languages. First Language I, which is explained by Deleuze as follows. ”disjunctive, abrupt, jerky, where enumeration replaces propositions and combinatorial relations replace syntactic relations. –a language of names” (7). Beckett’s novels are, according to Deleuze an example of this: Murphy, Watt, Malone, Molloy, Mahood, Worm etcetera.

The second language Deleuze discusses differs greatly from Language I:

Language II is a language no longer of names, but of voices, a language that no longer operates with combinable atoms but with combinable flows. The Voices are waves or flows that direct and distribute linguistic corpuscles. When you exhaust the possible with words, you trim and chop atoms and when you exhaust the words themselves, you dry up the flow (7).

 Not I and Footfalls can be seen as being written in Language II. Both are places where voices, not characters take centre stage.

The third language, aptly named Language III, is the language in which Beckett wrote at the end of his life, and expained thusly: “What is tedious about the language of words is the way it is burdened with calculations, memories and stories: it can’t help itself. It is, nevertheless, very important that the pure image inserts itself into language, into names and voices” (9). Quad, Act Without Words I and II are the works that are identified with this language. Now that the languages are explained, how does this theory relate to the use of the letters M and W in his work?

The letter M is omnipresent in Beckett’s work; Murphy is Beckett’s first published novel about the Mind, Mercier and Camier, considered by many a bridge between different periods in Beckett’s work, Molloy , part one of his famous trilogy. Malone Dies, where nothing is more real than nothing, the character Mahood from the last part of the trilogy named The Unnamable, Mouth in Not I as one of the most fractured of Beckett’s dramatic characters, More Pricks than Kicks, his collection of shorts that got banned in Ireland, Beckett’s link to the Modernist writing movement is also notable. Regarding his personal life, his best friend Thomas MacGreevy and of course his Mother Maria, or May, a name identical to the character May in his later play Footfalls, were very influential for Beckett as a writer in their own way. With so many examples the question rises where Beckett’s fascination with M comes from?

Beckett’s first biographer Deirdre Bair has an explanation for this phenomenon. She says that the tradition started not with More Pricks than Kicks, but with Murphy. On page 242 of her book Samuel Beckett: a Biography she writes:

Beckett had chosen Murphy as the title for several reasons; Because it was the most common surname in Ireland, thus standing for the Irish “everyman”, and because he had loved Fritz Lang’s M, and wanted to pay homage in some way of his own.

 Bair’s first explanation also fits Beckett’s other novels Maloy and Malone Dies, indicating the Irish origin of the characters. What Bair does not mention is that Beckett’s intended Irishness was not mere flattery. There are traces of irony towards Ireland that can be found in Murphy. The novel is full of modes of censorship. People are not able to say what they want in fear of reprisals. For example when Celia says to Mr. Kelly: “I have not spoken to you of Murphy …because I thought it would cause you pain” (31). Not just censorship of speech, but also of urges and emotions are present in the novel: “Celia’s course was clear: the water. The temptation to enter was strong , but she set it aside” (33). The favourite pastime of the protagonist, tying himself to a rocking chair and sitting in silence can also be seen as a metaphor for the situation in Ireland. The reason for Beckett to attack Ireland for its restrictive policy towards art is the fact that More Pricks than Kicks was banned in his home country. The main theme of Murphy, the Mind, strengthens the theme of censorship. Beckett was in need of psychoanalyses after the death of his father. According to James Knowlson’s biography Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett He could not get this treatment at home because “Psychoanalysis was not allowed in Dublin at that time” (173). Because of this restriction Beckett started therapy in London, which not coincidentally is also where Murphy takes place. Censorship is also a theme closely related to psychoanalyses. The prevailing theory of the time was that the censorship of own ideas and emotions could lead to problems of body and Mind. Besides the not so flattering homage to Ireland the other reason for the M in Murphy was the film M. Beckett was a big film fan and his idea to pay homage to the film by naming his debut novel after it is proof of this love. But to tribute his obsession to the letter M only to Lang’s masterpiece would be going to far.

May Beckett

May Beckett

Luke Thurston gives yet another explanation for the use of the letter M in Beckett’s work. He claims in his article “Outselves: Beckett, Bion and Beyond” that the fascination with the letter comes from Beckett’s problematic relationship with his Mother. He quotes the opinion of Beckett’s friend Dr. Geoffrey Thompson, who said: “The key to understanding Beckett…was to be found in his relationship with his mother” ( Thurston 123, qtd. From Knowlson 178). Beckett’s work is riddled with Mother figures. The clearest examples of this can be found in Beckett’s one-act play Footfalls where the two characters, May who is present on stage and that of Voice, who is her Mother. The relationship is very strange and distant between the two. Is the Mother real or is May just thinking and talking to herself, pacing back and forth? Another example of a Mother as focus of a narrative is in Krapp’s Last Tape. The protagonist Krapp is listening to tapes from the past and one off the tapes contains Krapp, 30 years younger at age 39, talking about his Mother. When the old Krapp looks at the tape he reads the label, which says: “mother at rest at last” (484), Which is a strange thing to say. Usually it is preferred that the parents stay with their children for as long as possible. Only a painful sickbed, or a poor relationship could be the cause of such a joyful look towards a Mother’s death. When listening to his 39 year old self he hears (and says):

–Back on the year that is gone, with what I hope is perhaps a glint of the old eye to come, there is of course the house on the canal where mother lay a-dying, in the late autumn, after her long viduity.(489).

 What follow is not a scene with a poignant death scene of the Mother, but of Krapp talking about an encounter with a woman and him playing with a dog. Krapp feels loss, not a maternal one but about a black, hard, solid rubber ball.

Thurston does not simply state that Beckett’s ambivalent feelings towards his Mother led just to his creation of lukewarm Mother figures in his work. Thurston suggests that the utterance of language that signifies Maternity is critical in Beckett’s work, including the titles of most of his novels. He says: “[T]he utterance of her name which is “key” in Beckett’s writing. The name…is a linguistic element that in a crucial sense refuses translation” (129). Thruston states that  a near homonym of his Mother’s name May  is present in the names of the novels Molloy and Malone, plus in the name from a character from part three of the trilogy, Mahood. The clearest example he gives is with the character Mag in Molloy. Thurston argues that the proximity of the names Mag en May, or the abbreviation of mother, Ma, is obvious, only one pen stroke apart. As evidence he quotes the following segment. “For before you say Mag, you say ma, inevitably. And da, in my part of the world means father” (133, qtd from the Beckett Trilogy 18). But Thurston goes further by saying that the name Mag has another meaning in the English language, namely that of “chatter and tittle-tattle”(133). In page 138 he elaborates on this:

A string of altered egos is named in Beckett’s titles, where once again we often see traces of the symptomatic phonematic repetition of ma…(The letter M followed by a vowel and crachat can be heard, like variations on a theme, in Murphy, Mercier, Molloy, Malone, Moran…) …their infantile dimension, the ma-ma babble or smirking pun.

 He finds proof for his idea with a quotation from The Unnamable:

All these Murphys. Molloys and Malones do not fool me….They never suffered my pains, and their pains are nothing compared to mine, a mere tittle of mine, the tittle I thought I could put from me, in order to witness it. Let them be gone now, them and all the others…. (138 qtd from The Beckett Trilogy 278).

 Thurston gives much heed to the word “tittle.” Coming back to the name Mag and the remark Thurston made on how it differs from May or Ma with just one penstroke. He now explains that a tittle can mean a small part of something, speak in a very low voice, or a pen stroke. He says that Beckett turns a tittle (a small part of something), in this example Ma, into a title with just a tittle (a pen stroke). This theory fits neatly in Deleuze’s “The Exhausted” on the three languages in Beckett’s oeuvre mentioned earlier. Language I in particular can be used to validate this hypotheses.

From the Mother to the Womb, from Mercier and Camier to Waiting for Godot, from Mahood to his fellow The Unnamable character Worm. The letter W is also very important in Beckett’s work. The list does not end there: For instance, the revolutionary novel Watt, his last work What is the Word, Worstward Ho, seen as his last short story, Joyce’s “Work in Progress” on which Beckett got his inspiration for his award winning poem Whoroscope also deserves to be mentioned, and of course the same goes for his collaborator on Not I and Footfalls Billy Whitelaw and of course the character Winnie an Willie another Beckettian duo, this time from his play Happy Days. World War II also plays a significant role in how the author would view the world from then on. But, to end with the beginning, the Womb, being of course a part of the Mother, is of vital importance in understanding his work.

Thurston says that Beckett’s fascination for the Womb is started by attending a lecture of Carl Gustav Jung. One of the examples that Jung gives is a case of a ten year old girl who had never been born entirely. This notion of eternal pre birth pops up a decade later in the “ADDENDA” of Beckett’s novel Watt. Thurston continues with another example of Beckett’s perceptions about the Womb. In a conversation with Lawrence E. Harvey, who would later write the book Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic, it is said that “He (Beckett) described his sense of “a presence embryonic, underdeveloped of a self that might have been but never got born, an être manqué” (128 qtd from Harvey 247). This sense of being missed, the Waiting that follows it and lastly the fractured life that comes with this sensation can be seen throughout his work. Perhaps the best example of projection of this feeling can be found in Waiting for Godot. The two main characters Didi and Gogo are Waiting for a man that does not come. The play gives the audience a sense of incompleteness, of lacking. Reading about Beckett’s fascination about the Womb and a state of pre-birth it is tempting to see whether this state is also more prominent in his most famous work. Are Didi and Gogo Waiting for Godot to be born, or are they themselves in a state of pre-birth? Possible, but, the best example of a character in Beckett’s theatrical work that can be seen as a victim of never been born entirely one has to look at Mouth in Not I. The character is all that her name implies, a mouth that keeps talking about her state of being or non being. There are many clues alluding to the theory of not being born:

out . . . into this world . . . this world . . . tiny little thing . . . before its time . . . in a godfor– . . . what? . . girl? . . yes . . . tiny little girl . . . into this . . . out into this . . . before her time . . . godforsaken hole called . . . called . . . no matter . . . parents unknown . . . unheard of . . . he having vanished . . . thin air . . . no sooner buttoned up his breeches . . . she similarly . . . eight months later . . . almost to the tick . . . so no love . . . spared that . . . no love such as normally vented on the . . . speechless infant . . . in the home . . . no . . . nor indeed for that matter any of any kind . . . no love of any kind . . .(216)

Watch the BBC 2 production of Not I with BIllie Whitelaw below. A mesmerizing performance.

 Everything in the text signals something going wrong at birth. The fractured language being explained by the speechless infant, the mentioning of eight months instead of nine. This element from nothingness to something devoid of youthfulness typifies the feeling that Beckett wants to portray in his text. It is not difficult to use Thurston’s theory on the use of the letter M onto the W, by using the examples above as validation, but, unlike with the theory about Beckett’s Mother where near homonym of Ma or his mother’s name May could be found in the first two letters of the titles, this is not the case with Womb.

Maimaitiming Aila does give an explanation for both the letters M and W. He says in his article ““Nothing but Dust”: A Philosophical Approach to the Problem of Identity and Anonymity in Samuel Beckett’s Trilogy” the following:

The repeated M and W of characters’ names in the text- …raise a question as to whether they are the same character expressed at the different stages of the narrative process…One could even assume that the whole trilogy is a magnificent exhibition of a stream of one all-encompassing consciousness wherein each of these characters represent one level of consciousness within this multileveled singular consciousness (142).

 Alia argues that characters disappear and voices remain. Again this theory can be supported by Deleuze’s theory of Beckett’s oeuvre and Alia claims that the novels are written in a fusion of Language I, the language of names and Language II, the exhaustion of voices.

Alia’s theory would entail that Beckett used a sort of code to hide his intentions about an “all-encompassing stream of consciousness” According to Marjorie Perloff, Beckett was no stranger to the coding of text because of his experiences in World War II. She says in her essay “In Love with Hiding” about the influence of the War on Beckett’s work:

The coding of messages and transfer of microfilm, hidden in matchboxes, toothpaste tubes and so on, has interesting implications for Beckettian dialogue…the so-called ‘cut-cut’ system, for example, whereby each cell member reported to the next in line, often unknown to him or herself, surely stands behind particular sequences in Watt, which Beckett was writing in the early forties (78).

 One of de sequences Perloff could be talking about is the part about the frogs, a great example of her notion of the cut-cut system:

 Beckett Code



This system could also be transplanted onto Aila’s idea of the M and W characters, each M and W voicing their own part of one stream of consciousness without knowledge of the rest.

Beckett’s fascination of the letters M and W shines through Beckett’s work. It is certain that they are there for a reason, ranging from simple hommage to deeper psychological reasons. Thurston’s explanation for the letter W as Womb and in particular the letter M as Mother, May and Ma binds this fascination to his life. A combination of the theories of Alia and Perloff explains further what binds these letters to Beckett’s literary meaning. Gilles Deleuze’s theory about Beckett’s oeuvre supports the claims of al three essays. To end with Beckett’s last poem What is the Word. If the main exclamation can be interpreted as a statement, the word is What, if it is a question it would fit the rest of his oeuvre if the word started with an M.


Works Cited

Aila, Maimaitiming. ““Nothing but Dust”: A Philosophical Approach to the Problem of Identity and Anonymity in Samuel Beckett’s Trilogy.” Anonimity in Beckett’s Trilogy.” The Philosophical Forum Volume 40, Issue 1, pages 127–147, Spring 2009. Print.

Bair, Deirdre. Beckett: A Biography. New York: Hardcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. Print.

Beckett, Samuel. The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1929-1940. ed: Fehsenfeld, Martha Dow. Overbeck, Louise More. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print.

 —. “Waiting for Godot” I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On. Ed. Seaver, Richard. E. New York. Grove Press, 1994. 365-476

 —. “Krapp’s Last Tape” I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On. Ed. Seaver, Richard. E. New York. Grove Press, 1994. 477-504. Print.

 —. “Not I” Samuel Beckett Collected Shorter Plays. London: Faber and Faber, 2006. 213- 224. Print.

 —. The Beckett Trilogy: Molloy, Malone, The Unnamable. London. Calder Publications, 1994. Print.

 —. Watt. London: Calder Publications, 1953. Print.

 Deleuze, Giles. “The Exhausted.” Trans. Anthony Uhlmann. Substance, Vol. 24, No. 3, Issue 78 (1995), p 3-28.

 Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame: Life of Samuel Beckett. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1996. Print.

 Perloff, Marjorie. “In Love with Hiding.” Iowa Review, 35 no. 2. (2005). 76-103. Online. 

 Thurston, Luke. “Outselves: Beckett, Bion and Beyond.” Journal of Modern Literature Volume 32, Number 3. June 2009. p. 121-143