31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 27: “The End” by Samuel Beckett (trans. by Richard Seaver in collaboration with the author)

May 27, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Complete Short Prose 1929–1989

Samuel_Beckett_Compete_Short_ProseIn his classic study of the short story, The Lonely Voice, Irish writer Frank O’Connor delineates one of the distinctions he finds between a novel and a short story: “[T]he difference between novel and story [is] one between characters regarded as representative figures and characters regarded as outcasts, lonely individuals.” O’Connor was speaking of the Russian story writers Chekhov and Turgenev, but he might as well have been referring to the work of Samuel Beckett, whose stock in trade, be it in the mode of prose, poetry, or drama, was loneliness and anomie. Has there ever been another writer able to dramatize so insistently the essential human condition of isolation?

Beckett, of course, is best known for his plays, which is unfortunate, as S.E. Gontarski points out in the introduction to the Grove Press volume of Beckett’s collected shorter prose works, because the author insisted that his prose was most essential to his own notion of his artistic vision:

Beckett himself considered his prose fiction “the important writing.” The omission is all the more curious given that Beckett’s short pieces exemplify [William] Trevor’s characterization of the genre as “the distillation of an essence.” Beckett distilled essences for some sixty years, and through that process novels were often reduced to stories, stories pared to fragments, first abandoned then unabandoned and “completed” through the act of publication.

Gontarski quotes Christopher Ricks as suggesting that “The End” might serve as “the best possible introduction to Beckett’s fiction,” and indeed the story epitomizes the author’s quintessential themes of isolation and meaninglessness, while also remaining relatively (for this author, at least) accessible.

The first-person narrator is, naturally, unnamed. Nor are his circumstances developed to any degree. As the story opens, he is being sent out on his own, with only a new set of clothes – which he has inherited second-hand from an anonymous donor – and a few dollars in pocket change. Although the narrator’s situation is kept obscure, hints throughout the story indicate that he has been a ward at a sanitarium, and that he has possibly undergone a lobotomy. Beckett repeatedly refers to the narrator’s embarrassment at a scar on his shaven head, which he keeps hidden from view by his hat:

It was at this time I perfected a method of doffing my hat at once courteous and discreet, neither servile nor insolent. I slipped it smartly forward, held it a second poised in such a way that the person addressed could not see my skull, then slipped it back. To do that naturally, without creating an unfavorable impression, is no easy matter. When I deemed that to tip my hat would suffice, I naturally did no more than tip it. But to tip one’s hat is no easy matter either. I subsequently solved this problem, always fundamental in time of adversity, by wearing a kepi and saluting in military fashion, no, that must be wrong, I don’t know, I had my hat at the end.

The confusion here (“that must be wrong”) is typical of this particular narrator, but also of an archetypal Beckett narrator who stumbles through the world in a state of discombobulation, unsure of what the proper protocol is in any given situation, or even what context a situation might call for.

The repeated reversals, qualifications, and negations that characterize the narration of “The End” are also typical of Beckett. The story opens in a recognizable fashion, with a contradiction: “They clothed me and gave me money. I knew what the money was for, it was to get me started.” The reference to getting started, coming as it does at the outset of a story entitled “The End,” immediately puts the reader on guard, and locates the narrator in a kind of netherworld in which the accepted rules of behaviour – and even of language – don’t apply.

As the story unfolds, the unnamed narrator undertakes a picaresque journey during which he is fleeced by a Greek landlady and ends up begging on the streets and bunking down in a cabin on a bed of ferns, with only a cow for company. The allusion to the Christ child is intentional, as is the degraded aspect in the narrator’s congress with the animal:

One day I couldn’t get up. The cow saved me. Goaded by the icy mist she came in search of shelter. It was probably not the first time. She can’t have seen me. I tried to suck her, without much success. Her udder was covered with dung. I took off my hat and, summoning all my energy, began to milk her into it. The milk fell to the ground and was lost, but I said to myself, No matter, it’s free. She dragged me across the floor, stopping from time to time only to kick me. I didn’t know cows could be so inhuman.

The last line is painfully funny, but also underscores the abject nature of the narrator’s existence, the degree to which he has been brought down to the level of a beast.

“The End” is about loneliness, it is true, but it is also about an essential aspect of the human condition, an aspect that lies somewhere between resourcefulness and despair. We are all alone – that is Beckett’s crowning thematic message – and life is ultimately absurd. Do we persist, or do we capitulate? The final words of Beckett’s novel The Unnamable are “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Or, as he writes at the end of “The End”: “The memory came faint and cold of the story I might have told, a story in the likeness of my life, I mean without the courage to end or the strength to go on.”

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