Godot and Jacob: the invisible presences

Layla Hendow

The deconstruction of time and space in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room

At the forefront of Waiting for Godot and Jacob’s Room is the sense of absence. Firstly, there is a clear irony in Godot and Jacob even being mentioned in the titles of the texts; giving the impression they are major characters when in actual fact they are barely featured. Godot is only present in Beckett’s play through the dialogue of Estragon and Vladimir, and Jacob is a passive character whose life is told through others, primarily his mother, Mrs Flanders. He is referred to as a ‘fine young man’[1], but little else is revealed about him. This is epitomised in the ‘empty room’ (p. 247) that remains at the end of the novel; like his room, Jacob has been an empty character to us, and we, like the other characters in the book, have to come to terms with the fact that we do not know who Jacob Flanders is, despite following his life throughout the entire narrative. Similarly, Estragon and Vladimir are left still ‘waiting for Godot’[2], a mysterious man who never actually enters the play. Dramatic irony is lost as the audience is left in the dark as to who exactly Godot is, why the men are waiting and whether he will come. Godot and Jacob are, in Derrida’s terms, an absent presence, as, in Derrida’s words, ‘nothing… is anywhere ever simply present or absent’[3]. The whole narratives depend upon them, but the characters barely exist other than as a type of ghost that haunts the texts.

Both Jacob’s Room and Waiting for Godot are modernist texts, characterised by a focus on the inner workings of the psyche rather than complex plot lines, and innovation rather than the realism of the Victorian Age. So the texts play with the binary oppositions of real/unreal, alive/dead, true/false, and in doing so go through a process of deconstruction. As well as the missing leading character, there is an absence in the meaning supplied by language, which Derrida called différance[4]. Derrida agrees with the Saussurian idea that signifiers derive meaning from the difference between themselves and every other signifier; a spatial, synchronic approach. However, he also applies a diachronic approach, suggesting meaning is deferred in the past, always, as Eagleton writes, ‘somehow suspended, something… still to come’[5]. However, while sometimes this deferral of meaning on a ‘spatial and temporal level’ (Différance, 279) creates a sense of entrapment and frustration, at times it may instead be liberating.

In terms of space, Derrida argues that ‘the centre is not the centre’, and to capture ‘a point of presence, a fixed origin’[6] of reality and language is impossible. In these texts there is a contrast between those present in the scene, and those absent. This is characterised by movement, as while Godot and Jacob are always elsewhere, always othered, Mrs Flanders and Estragon and Vladimir seem almost trapped to stay in the centre of the scene. In a comic fashion the men in Waiting for Godot repeatedly attempt to go, declaring boldly: ‘Well? Shall we go?’(Act 1. p.54) before realising it is impossible. In the same way, while Jacob travels the world, which he describes as a ‘intolerable weariness’ (187) on his way to Greece from Italy, Mrs Flanders begins the novel making her way back to Scarborough, her home town, as ‘there was nothing for it but to leave’ (p. 3). These characters seem to have no choice in the matter. So while Derrida states that ‘nowhere exists any authority’(Différance, 293) in a world of différance, perhaps in these texts it is the country road of Waiting for Godot and the home of Mrs Flanders that provides the ‘centre’ that Derrida claims cannot be grasped. However, even this is subject to shifts, as seen in the last chapter of Jacob’s Room where Mrs Flanders says ‘Such confusion everywhere!’ (p. 247). For Estragon and Vladimir, though they remain in the same space, it is clear there is similar confusion, as Act 2 supposedly reveals a duplication of Act 1, but the characters are unaware of this, even in denial, claiming that ‘things have changed since yesterday’ (Act 2, p. 60).

The deferral aspect of Derrida’s theory is explored in interesting ways in the texts as we have already seen with the repeated scene in Waiting for Godot, in which we are, it seems, always clutching at something just beyond our reach and never really progressing. The use of repetition is reminiscent of Freud’s theory of the Uncanny[7], used to describe something both familiar and unfamiliar, which indeed is how one might describe the absent presences of Jacob and Godot. Repetitions and ambiguity are used in both texts, notably by the narrator of Jacob’s Room who repeats ‘the young man, back to his rooms’ (p. 59) and describes Mrs Flanders as ‘between forty and fifty’ (p.14), as though the narrator herself is unable to unambiguously ascribe meaning and definition. As meaning is never simply present or absent, but instead somewhere in the past, so are Godot and Jacob. Critic Linden Peach points out that in Jacob’s Room, ‘the future, which is usually read to discover, is known virtually from the outset’[8]. And so the truth about Jacob, in that he is dead, is always already hanging over the novel. It is, like the knowledge that Godot will not come, known from the beginning. The usual progression of time is distorted in the same way as space.

However, despite this haunting which hangs over the texts, there is a key difference between the attitudes of the texts to this différance. The narrator of Jacob’s Room is calm and controlled and never questions her environment, becoming liberated by what it offers in terms of the stream-of-consciousness technique, whereas the characters of Waiting for Godot, although obedient, always question their existence and the world around them. They make a conscious effort to ‘find something…to give [them] the impression [they] exist’ (Act 2, p. 69). Perhaps this is all down to the notion of closure. The other major factor to the process of différance is that in Jacob’s Room there is reconciliation, as when we finish the novel we are no longer waiting for the missing character to appear. It is revealed to us, like the climax of a Shakespearean tragedy, that Jacob has died and the only remains of him are the ‘old shoes’ (p. 247) found in his room. In Waiting for Godot, however, the men are left still waiting. It is deeply unsettling. They are left hopeful of the falsity of Derrida’s theory: that Godot will ride in on his white horse and provide a clear centre to an unstable world, a clear presence, and the result will not be, like it is for Mrs Flanders, merely another absence.

[1] Woolf, Virginia, Jacob’s Room, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) p. 24 Further page references to this text will be given parenthetically

[2] Beckett, Samuel, Waiting for Godot, (London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1965) Act 1, p.14 Further page references to this text will be given parenthetically

[3] Derrida, Jacques, Positions, ed. by Alan Bass, (London: University of Chicago Press, 1981) p.26

[4] Derrida, Jacques, ‘Différance’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edn., ed. by Rivkin and Ryan (Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004) pp. 278-299 (278) Further page references to this text will be given parenthetically

[5] Eagleton, Terry, Literary Theory: An Introduction, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1996) p.111

[6] Derrida, Jacques, Writing and Difference, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1978) p. 278 Further page references to this text will be given parenthetically

[7] Freud, Sigmund, ‘The Uncanny’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edn., ed. by Rivkin and Ryan (Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004) pp. 418-430

[8] Peach, Linden, Virginia Woolf, (London: Macmillan, 2000)


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