The Unattainable in the Works of Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett: Altering My Focus

      I am entering my third week of researching the works of Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett. I have read the Beckett trilogy, including the books Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, and I have also read Woolf’s novels, The Waves, Between the Acts, and To the Lighthouse. I am currently reading Woolf’s The Voyage Out. I still need to re-read Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, and read his novels, How It Is and Watt. Of Woolf’s work, I still need to read The Years.

     As I read through these works, I find that my initial research question may not be as applicable as I thought it would be. Originally, I wanted to answer the question: How do their narratives styles compare, and to what extent is the notion of the unattainable carried throughout their works? I had built this research question upon having only read To the Lighthouse and Waiting for Godot. In both of these works, there are glaring things that cannot be achieved, whether they be the lighthouse for James, reaching Z in the alphabet of mental greatness for Mr. Ramsay, or finally meeting the mysterious and unseen Godot.

     As I began to read their other works, I thought the unattainable would be a consistent element of both authors’ plots. In The Waves, Bernard wants to create the “perfect phrase.” He says, “I conceive myself called  upon to provide, some winter’s night, a meaning for all of my observations — a line that runs from one to another, a summing up that completes” (Woolf 83). He wants to write a phrase that encompasses all of humanity; however, he is never able to. In Beckett’s novel, Molloy, the half-senile Molloy spends most of his narrative trying to reach his mother, who may or may not already by dead. As told by the first line of the novel, “I am in my mother’s room” (Beckett 7), Molloy has reached his mother’s dwelling, but there is no specification of whether or not he actually reaches his mother. In that same novel, the character Jacques Moran is tasked with finding Molloy by his mysterious boss, Youdi, who never appears and seems like a Godot-esque entity. However, the reader is unsure whether or not Moran actually finds Molloy, and Moran devolves into madness. In The Unnamable, the unnamed, seemingly paralyzed narrator longs to go silent, but is forced to continue speaking by some other unnamed force in his seemingly purgatorial or hellish gray landscape. These unobtainables can reflect the difficulty of story-writing that perhaps Woolf and Beckett felt, evident in Bernard, the Unnamable, and the character Malone, narrator of Malone Dies. Bernard, Molloy, and Moran’s unnattainables can also mirror the difficulty of creating and maintaining human connection in a world where our own thoughts seem unfathomable.

     However, Woolf’s novel Between the Acts and The Voyage Out do not seem to be as focused on unachievable goals. Both seem to be more focused on the intensity of individuality, and how one person can never really know another. In Between the Acts, Woolf writes, “We aren’t free, each one of them felt separately, to feel or think separately, nor yet to fall asleep. We’re too close; but not close enough” (Woolf 65). In The Voyage Out, Richard Dalloway exclaims, “How little, after all, one can tell anybody about one’s life! Here I sit; there you sit; both, I doubt not, chock-full of the most interesting experiences, ideas, emotions; yet how communicate?” (Woolf 78). Woolf asserts that a human being can never fully disclose his or her inner self. There is also a confusion of the self in The Waves, as the other five characters may or may not be merely fragments of Bernard’s own mind.

     This question of one’s self also arises in the works of Beckett. Moran and Molloy may be the same person mentally split in two. The Unnamable tries to eliminate his use of the first person “I” and cannot remember who he was prior to the narrative.

     As a result of these findings, I think I am going to have to alter my research question. I will continue searching for things that cannot be attained in the works I still have to read, but I will also begin to study if the fragmentations and isolations of the self stem from the unattainables of the works, or if the unattainables are the result of fragmented identity. I will read the rest of the books, and then I will begin reading scholarly articles on this topic. I will have to choose the most relevant works to write my paper on, and I will choose the books that best answer my new research question.

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