Samuel Beckett’s Murphy

MurphyThis was, embarrassingly, my first entry into Beckett’s novels, facilitated somewhat by my familiarity with his plays and the unique challenges their sparsity presents, and it occurred to me, by the book’s end, how greatly Beckett’s reputation as a prose writer is obscured by James Joyce. In life, the two were friends, bonding over a shared passion, but the friendship was uneven from the beginning. The younger Beckett was profoundly influenced by Joyce, and that influence can be felt throughout Murphy, in both style and content.

The titular character is a “seedy solipsist” and “committed non-reader,” whom we first encounter naked and strapped to a chair, rocking back and forth, and whose mind is described as “a large hollow sphere, hermetically sealed to the universe without.” What Murphy is after is hinted at from the novel’s famous first sentences: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free […].” Murphy wants alternatives, wants the freedom to act (or not act) without compulsion (a freedom even denied to the sun), and the novel’s only real plot consists in him avoiding these duties that society, his friends and lovers seek to impose on him. A visit to a market, for example, calls to mind “the frenzied justification of life as an end to means,” which validates “Murphy’s prediction, that livelihood would destroy one or two or all three of his life’s goods.” (Pause, for a moment, to consider the fitness of that word, “livelihood,” rather than “employment”– how does a “livelihood” end up being antagonistic to “life’s goods”?) When he does finally find work that suits him, it is in a mental institution, where the aimlessness of the patients puts him at ease.

Murphy dies, as anyone who seeks what the sun cannot have and society must not permit is fated to do, but he does so offstage, as it were, his death reported rather than described, and mere paragraphs before his final moments Beckett returns to the celestial imagery: “An hour previously the moon had been obliged to set, and the sun could not rise for an hour to come.” We have come full circle, and Murphy has not succeeded in lifting the obligations imposed on him, anymore than the sun and moon can break their routines.