Samuel Beckett’s ‘Murphy’ and Systems

Even from the early stages of his career, Beckett was an author writing against broad swathes of the novelistic tradition as he understood it. Beckett’s narratives undermine and satirise the formal modalities of the novel, with particular attention to its dependence upon rational or ordered fictional worlds; the ‘chloroformed’ tendencies he perceives in Honoré de Balzac, for example. This is not to suggest that every novel written until the early-twentieth century took these mechanisms for granted. Don Quixote (1605), a text that is in some chronologies of the genre cited as the first novel, incorporates into itself a vigorous satirical streak and this deconstructive tendency can be said to be as present in the novel’s history as mimetic writing.

To take the example of his second novel, Murphy, features a protagonist, likewise named Murphy, who is unrelentingly solipsistic. Most of the novel consists of the unrepentantly indigent Murphy resisting his girlfriend Celia’s demands for him to get a job. Murphy prefers instead to pursue self-abnegation, by tying himself securely to a rocking chair in order to subdue the activities of his mind. Beckett dubs this aspirational state, the womb-tomb.

Murphy is also abides by a particular system of living, determined by an astrological horoscope written by Ramaswami Krishnaswami Narayanaswami Suk. Murphy was born under the sign of the Goat, a sign for which Suk provides a number of days and dates that suit those born under the sign of the Goat to begin new endeavours (1936, 1990 and Sundays) and potential dangers they should be aware of (‘Bright’s disease and Grave’s disease, also pains in the neck and feet.’)

This is where Beckett’s satire of systems and those who follow them enter into the novel. One can see that Murphy’s presence in the world of social relations makes it impossible for him to live by pre-ordained structure; there is an apparent asymmetric quality to human relationships that disrupt processes such as these. Suk’s system makes Murphy inaccessible to Celia as well as Miss Counihan, who is in turn pined after by Neary, who also pines after Miss Dwyer, who, oblivious to his affections, craves the attention of

a Flight Lieutenant Ellman, who loves a Miss Farren of Ringsakiddy, who loved a Father Flitt of Ballinclashet, who in all sincerity was bound to acknowledge a certain vocation for a Mrs. West of Passage, who loved Neary.

This endlessly differential network of human desire recalls Paul Murray’s memorable line in his novel Skippy Dies (2010) about how inherent these untethered desires are to human existence:

Our universe, one could almost say, is actually built out of loneliness; and that foundational loneliness persists upwards to haunt every one of its residents.

But, Beckett, not prone to saying things quite so baldly, nests such critiques within Murphy’s formal tendencies, through which his personal disdain for novelistic clockwork universes manifests itself.


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