Death/ the End
“Endgame” is about living in an existence always threatened by death. Clov's prologue: “Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished” (p. 1) refers to the end of the game, the end of life. Hamm too knows it is the end. He says, “it’s time it ended and yet I hesitate to—“ (p. 3). The characters never know how they will make it through the day, or which will be the last day. At the end of the play Hamm has put the handkerchief on his face, saying, "It's the end, Clov, we've come to the end. I don't need you anymore" (p. 50). Clov finally decides to go: "I leave you. ... There is nothing to say" (p. 50). We seem to witness the last move of the game, the end of Hamm’s life, but the play is ambiguous on this point, as on every point, because Clov, who had threatened to leave, is still in the doorway watching Hamm as the curtain falls. The end is always present but always deferred. Beckett points out that humans live under a death sentence. This affects their every thought and move. Scarcity is the correlative of death. There is not enough of anything in this room to sustain life. Clov keeps announcing things they have run out of: bicycle wheels, light, painkiller, pap. Clov keeps looking out the window for any sign of life but sees only a gray horizon and “zero.” Hamm is blind, and Clov worries because he keeps seeing the light dying, and finally, “the light is sunk” (p. 30).Hamm says, “The whole place stinks of corpses.” Clov replies, “The whole universe” (p. 46).
Clov and Hamm keep thinking and fantasizing about the end. Clov says, “It will be the end and there I’ll be, wondering what can have brought it on” (p. 69). Although there is nothing but repetition in this world and routine, the characters believe there will be an end to it. Clov reminds us that things do change: “Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap” (p. 1). Things pile up until there is change, and Clov believes Hamm when he says it is the end and gets his coat ready to leave but stays on the doorstep nevertheless. The action is thus circular with death and life mingled and no change really happening though Clov announces hopefully, “Something is taking its course” (p. 32). The only change is the appearance of the little boy, some new life stirring, out the window at the end of the play, and this is the signal to Hamm that his death is at hand. Though lamenting his own death and afraid of it, he seems even more afraid of life, of something new happening unless he has thought of it. The play is constructed to present the paradox that there is no end or beginning. Everything just repeats endlessly.
Creating Meaning in Life
Beckett presents a naked universe with no apparent plan or meaning. The characters must deal with this trauma and insecurity. Clov says,'Why this farce, day after day?' Hamm’s answer is “Routine” (p. 32). Routine, however, is a way to cope; it does not provide meaning in life.
Hamm tells Clov a strange experience he had inside his chest at night: “There was a big sore,” and Clov tells him he felt his own heart (p.32). Hamm wonders, “We’re not beginning . . . to . . . mean something?” (p. 32). He imagines that some “rational being came back to earth” and observed them all. Perhaps that person would find “it won’t all have been for nothing!” (p. 33). Hamm tries to be that rational person observing and imagining some meaning from this endgame, day after day. He makes stories out of his own experience. He feels the soreness of his heart, a human experience that allows him briefly to imagine connecting with others, though he turns his back on his chance to do so. He laments about “All those I might have helped” (p.68). His pessimism does not allow him to give in to compassion for others: “Use your head, can’t you, use your head, you’re on earth, there’s no cure for that” (p. 68). Hamm rationalizes not helping others because life is an endgame without meaning. Why prolong the agony? He denies his heart and uses his head to create meaning and stories as he sits in his chair, dying, waiting for the end.
He is slightly comforted by his own ability to tell a story and make other people into characters: “I’ve got on with my story. (Pause.) I’ve got on with it well” (p. 58). Clov notes that Hamm has been telling his story to himself all his days. Hamm, like an artist, is proud of his “technique” (p. 59), his turns of phrase, although he complains of being drained by “the prolonged creative effort” (p. 61) of this constant storytelling to make his life mean something. He remarks, “Moment upon moment, pattering down . . . and all life long you wait for that to mount up to a life” (p. 70).
It is up to Hamm to make his own life, he realizes. He makes himself into the tragic hero of his story: “Can there be misery—(he yawns)—loftier than mine?” (p. 2). He blows himself up only to feel deflated: “the bigger a man is the fuller he is. (Pause. Gloomily.) And the emptier” (p. 3). Hamm feels no innate purpose to his life. Like Milton’s Satan, Oedipus the King, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Hamm is a Giant Ego, constructing the universe around himself and his own needs. The others in his story are mere characters. He is the hero and artist at work. He is finally checkmated when there is an item outside his story. Clov looks out the window and sees a little boy, “A potential procreator” (p. 78). This is the moment Hamm knows he is defeated, and the end has come. He did not invent the little boy. He has created a story of the end of life and a universe of death, and this sign of life is not part of his story. It is unexplained, like life itself. He gives up. We do not know if there really is a boy, or if Clov knew this was the way to shut Hamm down by contradicting his story.
The Nature of Human Consciousness
Beckett was a critical scholar of both James Joyce and Marcel Proust, Modernist authors whose works reflect on the nature of human consciousness to make sense of the world. In Beckett’s dramas, such as “Endgame” and “Waiting for Godot,” there is a lot of “waiting,” or “pausing.” There is a rhythm in the plays between quiescence and activity, as in human consciousness. Humans sleep then wake, act and then reflect, live and then remember, dream and then create. As “Endgame” begins, Clov uncurtains the two windows and takes the sheets from the characters, a metaphor for waking up. The two windows are like the eyes in a skull, and the room is a human brain reflecting on experience and the nature of life as it looks out on the world and spins its inner interpretation.
Nagg speaks of the delights of sleep and of being rudely awakened by his son Hamm. Hamm prefers wakefulness so he can create, tell stories, and have an audience. Hamm enjoys his dreams but only so he can create from them. Human consciousness has many modes, and it is the primary attribute of being human. Beckett shows characters using their consciousness alone in a bare landscape as a tool of survival, of relationship, of continuity, of creativity, of making meaning. Nagg and Nell use their consciousness to remember the old days when they were happy. They went courting on Lake Como. They had sexual urges. This consoles them in their current state of helplessness in the ashbins. Now all they can conceive of is sleeping or eating. Hamm is disgusted by their mere animal awareness, thinking of himself as the superior artist.
Humor is also an act of consciousness, as when Nagg tells the joke about the tailor and the pair of trousers. It turns out to be a joke about God making the universe badly, showing that humans can reflect on and evaluate their world. Clov and Hamm also tell jokes showing the human urge to rise above circumstances through humor.
Clov’s role is primarily the one of reacting and commenting on what Hamm is doing or demanding of him. He thinks of himself as long-suffering and plans his escape. He is what one would call co-dependent on the consciousness of another. He does not initiate. He carries out the routine that Hamm has set up. He brings the food, the toy dog, the painkiller, or looks out the window at the right time. Hamm is the tyrant who oddly enough can control through his consciousness alone, since he is blind and unable to walk. He depends entirely on Clov for physical existence and yet is able to bully him. As the creative person in the room, Hamm convinces the others of their plight and options, of the rules of the game. They may not go out or they will die. They must do things a certain way. He continues to retell his story, inventing new bits or phrases each time; in this way feeling superior to whatever may happen to him. By stripping the action of the play to the minimal requirements, Beckett takes it out of a social context and places it in a universal one. This is the basic predicament of human life, he implies, as he shows the human mind coming into contact with bare existence. He shows what it is like for humans to be aware of their own existence, both the source of their suffering and their triumph.