Beckett’s Trilogy Expands the Frontiers of Fiction Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Writing originally in French, the Irish-born Samuel Beckett published three thematically linked prose narratives—Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable—that questioned and redefined the nature and intended functions of the novel.

Summary of Event

Samuel Beckett graduated from Dublin’s Trinity College in 1927, and he embarked tentatively upon a career in the teaching and scholarship of French literature. Awarded a lectureship at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris for two academic years beginning in 1928, Beckett soon joined the circle of Irish expatriate writers surrounding James Joyce Joyce, James . Joyce, already acclaimed—and controversial—as the author of Ulysses (1922), was then at work on his second magnum opus, Finnegans Wake (1939). Along with certain other Joyce disciples, Beckett published occasional poetry and prose to some favorable notice, and he was commissioned by the Paris-based Hours Press to prepare an English-language monograph on the French novelist Marcel Proust, acknowledged along with Joyce as one of the masters of modernism in prose fiction. [kw]Beckett’s Trilogy Expands the Frontiers of Fiction (1951-1953)[Becketts Trilogy Expands the Frontiers of Fiction] [kw]Trilogy Expands the Frontiers of Fiction, Beckett’s (1951-1953) [kw]Fiction, Beckett’s Trilogy Expands the Frontiers of (1951-1953)[Fiction, Becketts Trilogy Expands the Frontiers of] Molloy (Beckett) Malone Dies (Beckett) Unnamable, The (Beckett) Literary movements;modernism Modernism;literature Molloy (Beckett) Malone Dies (Beckett) Unnamable, The (Beckett) Literary movements;modernism Modernism;literature [g]Europe;1951-1953: Beckett’s Trilogy Expands the Frontiers of Fiction[03410] [g]France;1951-1953: Beckett’s Trilogy Expands the Frontiers of Fiction[03410] [c]Literature;1951-1953: Beckett’s Trilogy Expands the Frontiers of Fiction[03410] Beckett, Samuel Lindon, Jérôme

Returning in 1930 to teach at Trinity College, Beckett soon grew bored with his job and nostalgic for life on the Continent. After some fifteen months on the job, fearing for his physical and mental health, Beckett fled during the Christmas holiday to visit relatives in Germany, resigning his position by mail. From 1932 to 1937, Beckett maintained a marginal existence divided among Dublin, London, and the Continent that was largely dependent upon handouts from his family, as he sought to establish himself as a writer. After forty-two rejections, Beckett’s second attempted novel, Murphy Murphy (Beckett) (1938), was accepted for publication at the end of 1937. Beckett had just settled in Paris, where he felt most at home; he would remain there, except during the disruptions of World War II, for the rest of his long life.

Resolutely apolitical, Beckett nevertheless participated actively in espionage activities for the French Resistance after the fall of France in 1940, primarily out of allegiance to his Jewish friends. In 1942, threatened with imminent arrest by the Nazis, Beckett and his future wife, Suzanne, fled on foot toward the south of France. In the small town of Roussillon, Beckett earned his keep with farm work, writing to stave off boredom whenever he was not working. The result was the novel Watt Watt (Beckett) (1953), the last of Beckett’s longer works to be written in English.

After the war, returned to his old apartment in Paris with Suzanne to look after his needs and protect his privacy, Beckett embarked on the most productive phase of his literary career. He began composing his works first in French to achieve an affectless style, incidentally freeing himself from the Joycean influence that had marked, and somewhat marred, his earlier writings in English. Between 1947 and 1949, Beckett composed the prose narratives Molloy (1951; English translation, 1955) and Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies, 1956), as well as the play En attendant Godot Waiting for Godot (Beckett) (pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954). To Beckett’s surprise, a publisher was soon found, albeit a financially strapped one.

Jérôme Lindon, who had spent the war years with General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French forces in England, had recently purchased the formerly clandestine publishing house Les Éditions de Minuit Éditions de Minuit . Lindon’s goal was to parlay Les Éditions de Minuit’s reputation for patriotic subversion into an equally strong reputation for the innovative and daringly avant-garde. Beckett’s oddly solipsistic texts, questioning not only the use of first-person narrative but also the functions of language itself, struck Lindon as precisely the sort of creative experiment that Les Éditions de Minuit ought to publish, even at the risk of losing money.

Divided into two separate, approximately equal parts (which, according to some critics, demand to be read in reverse order), Molloy begins with the title character, of uncertain age, in his mother’s room for more than a year, unable to account for where his mother is or how he came to be there. His job is to write pages of prose, which are collected once a week. He recalls strange scenes of wandering and violence that turn out to be circular; his narrative ends much as it began. The second part, narrated by a detective of sorts named Jacques Moran, chronicles his assigned search for Molloy, during which he loses his poise, authority, and, in time, most of his faculties, in fact “becoming” the aging, crippled Molloy. Read “backward,” starting with Moran, the narrative suggests that Moran and Molloy are one and the same—and that nothing is as it seems.

“Malone is what I am called now,” says the narrator at the start of Malone Dies, implying that Moran, Molloy, and others, including Murphy from Beckett’s earlier fiction, are manifestations of the same narrative “urge,” voice, or consciousness, manifestations to be invoked, abandoned, or “killed off” at will. Well past eighty years of age, Malone is a compulsive spinner of tall tales, recalling or inventing the misadventures of a father and son called Saposcat, at least one of whom will later resurface as Macmann (“son of man”). Alone in a room with the figments or products of his imagination (some of which could be accurate memories), the aging invalid laments the impossibility of recording his own impending death, “murdering” characters at will as his mind ranges farther afield, and darkly hinting that he might, at least once, have committed actual murder.

The narrative voice simply trails off at the end of the novel, only to reemerge from silence and darkness at the start of L’Innommable (1953; The Unnamable, 1958), originally unplanned and in fact not composed until 1949, after Waiting for Godot. As critic Richard Coe has observed, “The dramatic crisis in the Trilogy occurs in the blank space between Malone Dies and The Unnamable; for, in that space, Malone/Macmann does die . . . and his death solves precisely nothing.” Indeed, it is the perceived need (or possibility) of a “solution” that keeps the narrative voice somehow “alive” beyond death, although now without hands to transform speaking into writing.

The narrator of The Unnamable, sometimes known as Mahood, describes himself as an armless, legless remnant stuffed into a jar as though he were a potted plant, the jar’s opening just flush with his mouth. Perhaps, indeed, Mahood and his predicaments are still further inventions of the postmortem Malone. In any event, the narrator is quite familiar with all the Murphys, Molloys, and Morans who have preceded him. As in the case of Malone Dies, no solution is ever found; the narrative ends with the sentence, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

With the publication of Molloy late in the spring of 1951, Beckett’s fiction began for the first time to attract both critical attention and favorable reviews; the release of Malone Dies just a short time later brought even more positive comment, stimulating sales of Molloy as well. Although reputedly difficult to read (or understand) and pessimistic in their outlook, Beckett’s novels, with their provocative blend of challenging thought and innovative style, appealed to the informed postwar French readership. The favorable reception of Beckett’s novels helped also to prepare a receptive climate for Waiting for Godot, to which Lindon held publication rights pending production of the play.

Thanks to a grant obtained through the good offices of Georges Neveux Neveux, Georges , a playwright and screenwriter then serving with the Ministry of Arts and Culture in Paris, Waiting for Godot was accepted for production early in 1952. The play opened almost exactly one year later, to initially mixed but soon quite positive reviews. If the success of Beckett’s novels had encouraged him to seek production for the play, it would soon be the play that drew attention to his fiction. (Ironically, it is likely that Neveux, a dramatist to the core, had never read the novels when he perceived the merits of the play submitted to him.) Other Beckett champions, meanwhile, encouraged his new audience to read his novels.


Taken together, Beckett’s first novels to be composed in French broke new ground in prose fiction, questioning the functions of the writer, the reader, and language itself insofar as it relates to consciousness. Although somewhat different in form and intent from the New Novel New Novel Literary movements;New Novel that would emerge in France just a few years later, Beckett’s thoughtful, unorthodox fiction nevertheless helped prepare a receptive climate for the work of such unabashedly experimental practitioners as Michel Butor, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Robert Pinget, and Claude Simon—all of whom, incidentally, would choose (or be chosen by) the publisher Les Éditions de Minuit.

Despite a similarity of concerns linking his fiction to his plays, Beckett would continue to attract a wider audience on the stage than in print, in part as a result of the immediacy of the theater. The pattern of reception established in Paris would repeat itself worldwide; the runaway success of Waiting for Godot during the 1950’s, before such unlikely audiences as the inmates of San Quentin Prison in California (after a generally unsuccessful run on Broadway), would soon draw critical attention to Beckett’s novels as well.

By the early 1960’s, Beckett had become something of an international literary celebrity, even as he shunned publicity of all sorts. Josephine Jacobsen Jacobsen, Josephine and William Mueller Mueller, William , addressing themselves to an informed if general audience early in 1964, lamented that “the disparity between Beckett’s prestige, his influence, and even the vehemence of his detractors and the number of readers truly familiar with the body of his work is extraordinary.” Arguably, Beckett’s work remained more often discussed than read, except by professional critics in search of publication. Notably exceptional were the plays, as loosely linked to the Theater of the Absurd as was Beckett’s fiction to the New Novel.

Working (or sometimes, not working) in obscurity for the first half of his eighty-three years, Beckett achieved worldwide fame as both a novelist and a playwright. He started out, however, as a poet, albeit a rather derivative one. Jacobsen and Mueller were among the first critics to recognize that Beckett’s gifts remained those of a poet, no longer derivative, who had simply translated his talents into prose, both onstage and off. Humanity’s innate desire to know, to make sense, and above all to speak, write, or somehow to communicate, remain alive in Beckett’s work in both genres, even after the death of Malone.

During the 1960’s, in the heyday of his fame, it was fashionable to claim Beckett’s plays and narratives as influential. In fact, his work now seems to remain in a class by itself, difficult, if not impossible, to imitate or follow except through internal reflection. No doubt Beckett’s harrowing inquiries, internalized by readers or spectators with creative aspirations, have brought forth a progeny of sorts, but one in which his influence is hard to trace. Perhaps his greatest influence, shared with that of the New Novelists, has been upon postmodern criticism, in which the boundary traditionally separating creative from critical writing is frequently blurred and the nature and function of language subjected to numerous questions. Molloy (Beckett) Malone Dies (Beckett) Unnamable, The (Beckett) Literary movements;modernism Modernism;literature

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978. Prepared without Beckett’s “help or hindrance,” Bair’s study is useful for tracing the genesis and evolution of the trilogy, as well as for insights into Beckett’s creative process.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ben-Zvi, Linda. Samuel Beckett. Boston: Twayne, 1986. A good guide for the general reader, Ben-Zvi’s study is especially valuable for its situation of Beckett’s prose within the narrative tradition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coe, Richard N. Samuel Beckett. New York: Grove Press, 1970. Among the best earlier monographs on Beckett, Coe’s study is especially useful for its reconstruction and interpretation of Beckett’s “universe” as expressed both on the stage and on the page.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fletcher, John. The Novels of Samuel Beckett. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1964. Still authoritative both as criticism and as literary history, Fletcher’s is perhaps the strongest study dealing only with Beckett’s narrative prose.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jacobsen, Josephine, and William R. Mueller. The Testament of Samuel Beckett. New York: Hill & Wang, 1964. Addressing themselves to the general reader and spectator, Jacobsen and Mueller were among the first critics to explore the poetic dimensions of Beckett’s drama and fiction; their study is notable also for its analysis of Beckett as critical phenomenon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kenner, Hugh. Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study. New ed. New York: Grove Press, 1973. Kenner’s pioneering study of Beckett’s narrative and dramatic art remains among the most entertaining and informative. See also Kenner’s A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett (1973).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mooney, Sinéad. Samuel Beckett. Tavistock, Devon, England: Northcote House, 2006. Introductory study of Beckett’s works published in association with the British Council. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oppenheim, Lois, ed. Palgrave Advances in Samuel Beckett Studies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. A compilation of essays outlining the history of Beckett studies and explaining how each school of literary and dramatic theory in the twentieth century interpreted Beckett’s works.

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