Literary silence can be used to serve several purposes. Silence can be used to create a tragic atmosphere, to bring out sadness, surprise or shock, to emphasize the lines before and after it and it can also be used to build up suspense and emotion. This essay will explore the relationship between time and silence in The Outsider and Waiting for Godot.
“Silence fills this hollow world,
Silence is the choice we make,
Silence is the death of this all,
Silence is our fate.”
This extract from Okami Kamikaze’s poem, ‘Eternal silence’ seems to fit Beckett’s play perfectly.
The silence is contributed to the play by the pauses mentioned in the stage directions. In fact there is no logical thought process in the play as it is interrupted by the pauses. The pauses and silences in the play create a sterile and tragic atmosphere that the characters seem to fear. “Silence is pouring into the play like water into a sinking ship”, to quote Beckett .
The silence, sharp, resounding and resonant seems to create much anguish in the protagonists. It is this disturbing silence that the characters try to avoid through useless babble, throughout the play. The silence is a result of the disintegration of the institution of language, thus we see short dialogues, nervous laughter and long drawn pauses. The pauses and silences also help in creating an air of uncertainty that like the resounding silence envelops the entire play. This is evidenced by the fact that the characters, Vladimir and Estragon are unsure about everything from the date, time, day, to their purpose and the identity of Godot.
“VLADIMIR: He said Saturday. (Pause.) I think.
ESTRAGON: (very insidious). But what Saturday? And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday?
(Pause.) Or Monday? (Pause.) Or Friday?”
Time in waiting for Godot behaves in a curious fashion, it is nebulous. Time assumes an intangible quality and lacks definition. It seems to stand still as if it were waiting for Godot too. This static effect is created through the repetitive actions of characters like looking in their hat, taking off boots and the like. The play with the lack of any background music is enshrouded in silence, creating a static medium for time.
The tree in the background appears barren in Act I and is covered with leaves the next. The carrot in the first act becomes a radish in the second. A change normally taking weeks or probably months happens in a single night. This is also the only way the readers are made aware of the passage of time. The duo of Lucky and Pozzo also undergo a tremendous change all in the span of one night. Lucky becomes mute and Pozzo, blind. The arrival of the messenger boy signals the end of a day. The arrival of Lucky and Pozzo brings with it linearity to time, the moment they leave, time becomes nebulous again. The characters Lucky and Pozzo have therefore been dubbed the ‘Champions of Time’ by some critics. It is as if time is frozen in silence, only when the silence breaks, is time able to move, only to become frozen when the steely silence returns. Günther Andres succinctly summarizes time saying, “Although a ‘stream of time’ doesn’t exist any longer, the ‘time material’ is not petrified yet; instead of a moving stream, time here has become something like a stagnant mush.”
I feel that the characters exemplify the phrase, ‘Killing Time’. The incessant waiting, the monotonous repetition and the disintegration of language completes this activity. Even Lucky and Pozzo who in the beginning are gifted with awareness of time after a few minutes in the static time of the protagonists, lose time. In the beginning, we find Pozzo checking his watch, then the watch stops working and finally he loses his watch.
“POZZO: â€¦. Thank you, dear fellow. (He consults his watch.) But I must really be getting along, if I am to observe my schedule.
VLADIMIR: Time has stopped.
POZZO: (cuddling his watch to his ear). Don’t you believe it, Sir, don’t you believe it. (He puts his watch back in his pocket.) Whatever you like, but not that.”
Time is indeed dead in the frame of the protagonists. We see Lucky and Pozzo, whom the protagonists look up to as privileged beings due to their awareness of time, also degenerate and lose their awareness, becoming one with the stagnancy that is time.
The Outsider is a novel dealing with the existential crisis of alienation and self-alienation by French author, Albert Camus. In this book, the use of silence is subtle unlike Waiting for Godot, with its glaring silences and pauses. Unlike Waiting for Godot, silence here offers a space to think, to concentrate and wait.
The narrative style itself suits the absence of sound. It should be noted that The Outsider has very few instances of direct dialogue. Most of the book is written in indirect speech that creates an odd feeling of detachment of Meursalt with the plot of the book. As a result, the entire book seems to be encased in silence. However this remains unnoticed by the readers except when the author draws attention to the silence. Any small, tiny sound makes us realize the absence of it. This is especially seen during the imprisonment of Meursalt.
In many parts of the book, Meursalt seems to exhibit a stony silence without reacting or replying to questions and even participating in conversations. This is perhaps because of a lack of things to say. Meursalt is, as Camus describes him, “in love with a sun that leaves no shadows.” He does not lie but stands for truth. He does not even utter the harmless white lies to please society and to fulfill its meaningless customs. As a result most of Meursalt’s silence are “because he doesn’t play the game.” to quote Camus.
Unlike Waiting for Godot, the characters appear to be very aware of time. Time here is a linear entity with definite boundaries .The book has very specific details about time, morning, evening, week etc. and that suggests that Meursalt is very aware of what is going on around him.
In The Outsider there is deliberate use of silence is to in two main instances to show movement. One is the period of incarceration of Meursalt and the other during the trial. We find Meursalt eager to get it over with. He does not pay any attention to the trial and longs to be back in his cell. At the end of Meursalt’s life, he seems to hate the silence of the audience that comes to watch his execution. They seem to stand still with bated breath while he wants them to clap and hoot treating him like a hero. Silence Kills; it intensifies his limited time before his execution bringing into sharp focus the brevity of his life.
Even during his incarceration, we find him sitting in silence watching the skies change from day to night, his senses more sharp and acute than ever.
“never before had my ears picked up so many noises or detected such tiny sounds.”
The silence creates a sharp concentration to Meursalt’s senses. He waits for something to happen. He waits for someone to come. He seems to know his fate at the hands of a society that doesn’t know and understand him. He seems impatient for this time to pass into action, an action that might even send him to his death.
The author draws our attention to the silence by mentioning the tiny noises .
“like a dog’s death-rattle, my heart wouldn’t burst after all and I’d have gained another twenty four hours.”
This line shows that the deathly silence reflects the long hours of incarceration. The silence is perhaps to show the seemingly slow passing of time. Even during the vigil, the silence is almost palpable, broken only by sobs and grunts. This apart from what Meursalt considers to be an unnecessary ritual also serves to express the slow passage of time.
Although we see silence in both books, used to serve the same purpose, the effect created is drastically different. Silence and the awareness of the characters to the passage of time have successfully created poignant moments in the texts. They have revealed to us not only the minds of the characters, but have also put into perspective life and death itself. We as readers have been drawn into the vortex of these silences and time segments with anticipation and we have never been disappointed.