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The Waiting Game: Playing For Life’s Meaning in Literature

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Most writers inspired by the theme of humans made to wait, have used it to say life is hopeless, pointless and futile. That could be seen as depressing.

The human need or compulsion to wait, is both natural as a feeling, and obvious as a theme for literature and movies. Waiting is stronger than queueing. It’s not standing in line for rations, for a ride at a theme park; it’s a wait which can take years, and perhaps with no apparent purpose.

‘It’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive to disappointment’ is an old adage. Anticipation can be fun in itself, excitement about something pleasant can add to the joy. However, dashed hopes, the wait for something intangible or terrible is more appealing to creatives. The idea of getting justice or revenge from bureaucracy has never been straightforward.

Shakespeare suggested the theme. In Hamlet, two minor messengers, Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are sent to Hamlet, to wait on instructions. Cleverly developed into an absurdist, existentialist tragi-comedy by Tom Stoppard in 1966, the pair became central characters playing games while they ponder the meaning of their existence. In the movie of the play, Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead (1990) the barren wilderness they travel through added to a sense of despair, a hell on earth.

Waiting for Godot

As soon as life’s meaning, waiting and literature are put together, most people think of Samuel Beckett’s enigmatic masterpiece Waiting for Godot (1948). Written after the war, it contained many elements of what later became known as absurdist drama, that life had lost all meaning.

Joseph P Crabb explained Absurdist Theatre as a term coined by theatre critic Martin Esslin in 1962, as drama which ‘presented on stage the philosophy articulated by French philosopher Albert Camus in his 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he defines the human condition as basically meaningless. Camus argued that humanity had to resign itself to recognizing that a fully satisfying rational explanation of the universe was beyond its reach’.

Margaret Gumley wrote in 2007 on Literature Study Online that the play is: ‘man waiting for life to unravel its mysteries. It is man and his conscience, man’s inhumanity towards man. It is the question of meaning. Is there a meaning? Are we right to look for answers or should we go blindly forward while we can, pausing only to give our feet an airing, because the answers, like Godot, will never come and nothing we think or do will make any difference’.

Some critics believe that William Gerhardie’s comic novel on Russian themes, Futility written after 1918, published in 1922, was the forerunner of what critic Michael Holroyd in 1971 called the ‘waiting motif’ that Beckett picked up on later. The central character is an Englishman brought up in Russia with a passion for the unreachable middle daughter, Nina. Her father gathered squabbling dependents and his hope of a fortune rose while his actual wealth diminished. As Holroyd explained: ‘when asked at a crucial stage what he will do, he decides: I think I’ll wait. It can’t be long now’.

Franz Kafka: Master of the Hopeless Bureaucratic Wait

For those later generations familiar with the labyrinthine workings of officialdom, and the hopelessness of individuals beating the system, a wait for years is all too normal. Dickens noted the problem in the courts. Mantex described Bleak House (1852-53) as ‘a powerful critique of the legal system. Characters waited to gain their inheritance from a will which was the subject of a long-running court case and were ruined when the delays and costs of the case swallowed up the whole estate’.

Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial (1925) was described by Cummings Study Notes as: ‘a novel that expresses the frustration, anxiety, and loneliness of a man living in a country with an oppressive government that orders his arrest and trial without ever informing him of what he supposedly did wrong. What happens to him is tragic and, at the same time, darkly humorous’. The waiting of not only the protagonist, but the hundreds of others waiting for years, without understanding, usually unquestioning is the tragedy revealed in their meaningless lives.

It was caught graphically in the movie (1962 and 1993) of the novel, and picked up by British playwright Alan Bennet in his TV play, The Insurance Man (1986), where he took the fact that Kafka had worked in a workers’ insurance claim company, and in the quest for a name for his condition caused by working in a dye factory, a young man encountered only pointless waiting, official redirecting, spirals and circles of despair.

Other Uses of Waiting in the Arts

Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) by JM Coetzee was described as: ‘the meditative and melancholy tale of an aging colonial magistrate’s futile struggle against the stupidity, brutality, and racism of a government which he had served complacently all of his life’. It was psychological realism/political allegory. Waiting to Exhale (1992) by Terry MacMillan is decribed also by eNotes as: ‘the story of four college-educated, middle-class black women who relied on one another to overcome a number of personal and professional crises’. This was socio-cultural, socio-political writing.

The Waiting City (2010) an Australian feature film, by Claire McCarthy, is described by Australia Talks as ‘the story of a young couple’s journey to India to collect their adopted baby, a journey which exposed the vulnerability of their marriage’.

In contrast to waiting concentrated on futility, the documentary Waiting for Armageddon (2008) was described by New York Times’ Jeanette Catsoulis as ‘the apocalyptic beliefs of American evangelists who illuminate a worldview marked by absolute certainty and chilling finality’.

She said: ‘The directors observe a cross section of articulate evangelicals and accompany a Christian group on a revealing trip to Israel. But whether rhapsodizing about the Rapture (when believers will be transported heavenward en masse) or teasing out the Tribulation (seven years of suffering for the rest of us), these Christians view the approaching Armageddon with eager anticipation.

For them the wait has point and purpose, because their lives do, too.

First published on Suite 101, 11 October 2011.

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