In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Samuel Beckett

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British and Irish Literature Samuel Beckett
Luke Thurston
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0004


“You must choose,” Samuel Beckett’s title character Molloy tells us, “between the things not worth mentioning and those even less so.” The choice facing the Beckettian bibliographer today, though perhaps less invidious, is no less onerous, for a vast, rich, and still contentious field of scholarly debate surrounds Beckett’s work, dealing at times with its many contexts and genetic complications, and at others with its formidable intellectual frameworks or its ongoing significance for thinking in the 21st century. And if Molloy’s advice seems perhaps a shade too uncharitable—since in this bibliography every effort will be made to mention things that distinctly are worth mentioning—it nonetheless might serve as a timely reminder at the outset that Beckett was always profoundly skeptical about academic interpretations of his work. There is no doubt that Beckett still poses, in one sense, a fundamental challenge to critical discourse and to the academic institution, though there has been no shortage of critics keen to take up that challenge. By accepting the task, both difficult and delightful, of interpreting Beckett, critics have come to ask questions not only about the significance of one man’s literary work, but also about the interpretation of literature—and thus of life—in general.

General Overviews

“I hope this preamble will soon come to an end and the statement begin that will dispose of me,” murmurs the Unnamable. Beckett’s writing is always investigating its own limits, probing the question of its innermost meaning or essential statement—a question that bears also on the supplementary relation between critical commentary and the text “itself.” As is shown by the popular currency of the adjective “Beckettian,” meaning stripped down to a minimum of discourse or ornament to reveal existence as such in its full bleakness (the very antithesis, one might add, of “Joycean”), there is often a search by commentators for the essence of Beckett, for some scene, line, or image that can be used as a handy summary of the whole work. This tendency to find one consistent Beckettian “vision” across a body of work marked by such obvious changes of genre (not to mention the changes of language) may no longer seem critically plausible today. Indeed, that tendency owes much to the views of the first generation of Beckett scholars, the so-called humanist critics like Hugh Kenner, Ruby Cohn, and Martin Esslin, who began writing academic studies of Beckett in the 1960s (and who are discussed in more detail under Humanism and Absurdism). In this section, the different interpretive frameworks developed by the first two generations of Beckettians are represented. Introductory studies or essay collections produced by the earlier, “humanist” critics tended to concentrate exclusively on Beckett’s work, which they still felt had to be explained to a largely baffled reading public. For more recent scholars, however, working in a more theoretically oriented critical environment, the task of introducing Beckett often involves the discussion of a wide range of interpretive perspectives and methodologies.

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