The Chess Metaphor in Samuel Beckett's Endgame

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Author: K. Jeevan Kumar
Editor: Linda Pavlovski
Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,912 words

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[(essay date winter 1997) In the following essay, Kumar argues that the chess symbolism in Endgame serves as a unifying element for the play as well as a metaphor for existential uncertainty and despair.]

Samuel Beckett's drama depicts a relentless search for the central self1 or the ultimate being which remains unidentified, unseen and unattainable. Time makes this search an unending process by presenting the seeker with the illusion of being static and at the same time creating a flux, making the distinction between illusion and reality blurred. The central self which eschews the seeker is often presented in Beckett's works as a non-existent entity. In Waiting for Godot the central self that the tramps could never get at is presented as the enigmatic Godot.2 Alain Robbe-Grillet observes that "Godot is the inaccessible self."3 In Watt this non-existent central reality takes the form of Mr. Knott, who never makes his appearance and who is continuously sought out.4 In the course of this futile search, man is caught within the infinity of Time, and bewilderment at the nature of Time finds its expression in such telling phrases as Vladimir's "Time has stopped"5 or Hamm's "time was never and time is over."6 Thus an "Infinite emptiness" binds their lives, as Hamm says in Endgame (109).

In Endgame the struggle with Time itself is delineated through a central metaphor: the game of chess. That chess is the central metaphor in Endgame is more acknowledged than analysed. Benedict Nightingale reports that Beckett himself "told the Hamm in a German production" of the play that Hamm is "a king in a chess game ... trying to delay the inevitable end."7 Despite such a pertinent comment from Beckett himself, the chess metaphor in Endgame still remains to be fully explored. A careful analysis of that metaphor is essential for a fuller understanding of the multifaceted concerns and the varied levels of meaning that mark the play. This essay proposes to argue that the chess metaphor in Endgame functions as a unifying element, linking the other symbols with it and integrating movements and decor in the play, and, in the process, presents the existential angst of man, through the uncertainty and unpredictability of the last phase of a game of chess.

Beckett views the centre of existence as a void or nothingness which continuously eludes absurd man. Failure is imperative in man's journey towards nothingness: "the attempts of the individual to define himself by fixing his position within the void must be regarded as failures."8 The chess metaphor in Endgame presents this quest for, and movement towards, the non-existent central reality which is, in fact, nothingness itself.

The game of chess has been one of Beckett's "abiding passions"9 and has exerted a seminal influence on Beckett's works, ranging from the cursory reference to the "unfinished game of chess with a correspondent in Tasmania" in Rough for Theatre II to the subtle and complex employment of chess as...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420056340