Sex and Gender in Samuel Beckett’s Work

The titles of Samuel Beckett’s two early novels show a taste for salaciousness and provocation that did not disappear in later years, and led to his being expelled from the family home and censored in Ireland. If obscenity became more subdued afterwards, and if sexuality tended to disappear from an increasingly abstract universe, sex, of an often crude kind, is a recurring feature of the Beckettian text. As for sexuality, in its normative version, it is systematically thwarted by the powerlessness and horror of procreation displayed by Beckett’s male characters, whose sexual behaviour “deviates” from the heterosexual paradigm (anality, onanism).

Sex questions the relationship to the other, as a sexual partner and in its gendered dimension. But this relationship is not a straightforward one in Beckett. Before the trilogy, female characters are essentially derealized (either through idealization or belittling, see Mercier, Bryden, Ben-Zvi, McMullan), while male characters are devirilized (Bjørnerud). Moreover, the question of connection and autonomy, central to the fiction and even more to the theatre, is experienced in sexual encounters with particular acuteness. The promise of a union, or even of fusion with the other, stumbles against an impossibility that feeds the melancholy of many characters. Considering that the sexual act is both material and spiritual, it can be traumatic but is also a source of humour and comedy.

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