Critical Essay on "Dante and the Lobster"

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Author: Greg Barnhisel
Editor: Carol Ullmann
Date: 2002
From: Short Stories for Students(Vol. 15. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,763 words

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In a story with Dante in the title and in which the protagonist bears a name taken from Dante, readers expect allusions to the greatest of medieval poets. In "Dante and the Lobster," the work that in many ways commences Beckett's career as a writer, Beckett provides these allusions in significant numbers. However, it is too simple to read this story just as a response to or a rewriting of an episode from Dante. Also present, more powerfully although much less explicitly, is the great literary figure of Beckett's life and the man who was Beckett's mentor during the years when he began writing: James Joyce. At the time he wrote "Dante and the Lobster," Beckett had a close relationship with the elder Irish writer, serving as his assistant and, at one point, even going on a date with Joyce's daughter. If Dante was the presence Beckett wanted to have in his story, Joyce's is the presence that Beckett could not keep out. 'Dante and the Lobster' is Beckett's attempt to bring his two literary fathers together so as to forge his own space.

The literary critic Harold Bloom sees literary history as a giant trans-historical Oedipal drama: "Great poets" fall under the dominating influence of a predecessor writer, then unintentionally "misread" that writer in an attempt to get past his influence, in effect "slaying the father." "Dante and the Lobster" is Beckett's attempt to bring his two literary fathers together so as to forge his own space. Dante could be acknowledged in the text, for he was so distant in history that he was not a threat to Beckett's own identity as a writer. Joyce, however, as an Irish writer in exile in Paris, was initially a liberating and ultimately a crippling influence on Beckett. Harold Bloom might say that the absence of any explicit allusions to Joyce clearly proves Beckett's need to repress this influence, given the story's Joycean themes and main character.

But before discussing the Joycean resonances of "Dante and the Lobster," it is first necessary to examine the figure that Beckett proposes as the real influence: Dante. Specifically, from the time of his Italian studies at Trinity, Beckett found himself drawn to the hellish imagery of the Inferno and, perhaps even more, to the ambivalent darkness and promise of the Purgatory. According to Mary Bryden, Beckett's writing, "both early and late," is "imprinted with purgatorial characteristics which resonate within a Dantean context." In Dante, Purgatory is a locus of waiting and purgation where sinners, or other figures (from Greek and Roman times, for instance) who lived virtuous lives without knowing Christ, go to await admittance...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420040621