Beckett, Not I
The Speaking Epiphany in Beckett’s Not I
When reading Samuel Beckett’s Not I, one immediately notes the repeated images that Beckett uses to illustrate an elderly woman’s recollection of her first, delayed speech. The images include a flicker of light, the dull buzzing and roaring in her skull, a moving mouth, and a field in April, at first light but then entirely dark. These repeated images, however, each draw to the same conclusion- a rebirth of sorts. An epiphany where the woman’s younger self, the girl, first unleashes her torrent of words upon the world. This epiphany, stalwartly in the third person, is repeated several times in several different angles, but each coming to the same conclusion, one of a fresh, new beginning.
While the opening of the play seems bleak enough, detailing a child born prematurely, with “no love … spared that…. no love such as normally vented on the … speechless infant … in the home” (Beckett 216). Perhaps a birth defect or simple lack of interest by the parents, but whatever the reason, the girl was, or felt she was “practically speechless … all her days…” (Beckett 219). She was ridiculed as a child, and somewhat mistreated by her peers. Additionally, she seemed to believe that her speech problems were directly due to the interference of God in some manner, yet she remained religious, “brought up as she had been to believe … with the other waifs … in a merciful … God … first occurred to her … then dismissed … as foolish” (Beckett 217).
However, aside from giving clues about her background and the circumstances surrounding her predicament, Not I focuses in on one specific moment, in the field in April, perhaps the most defining moment of the woman’s life. She relates how she was “wandering in a field … looking aimlessly … for cowslips … to make a ball” (Beckett 216), when “suddenly … gradually … all went out … all that April morning light” (Beckett 217). Whether this darkness was real, from an eclipse, a cloud, simply imagined, or from something more serious like a seizure is unknown, but it is during this darkness that “she could still hear the buzzing … so-called … in the ears … and a ray of light came and went” (Beckett 217). This darkness, buzzing, and light is repeated over and over in the play, and, again, whether real or imagined, are obvious precursors to a great revelation.
In the woman’s third examination of the scene, she finally comes to the true result of the epiphany. She states that it was “all dead still but for the buzzing … when suddenly she realized … words were — what ? … who? … no! … she! … realized … words were coming … imagine! Words were coming … a voice she did not recognize … at first … so long since it had sounded…, then finally had to admit … could be none other … than her own” (Beckett 219), and so in the moment it’s clear to see that the buzzing, the ray of light culminated in her first words. This is the epiphany that she is mulling over, again and again.
A similar but more startling epiphany is found in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where he writes “his breath came faster and a wild spirit passed over his limbs as though he were soaring sunward. His heart trembled in an ecstasy of fear and his soul was in flight” (Joyce 169). A parallel “ecstasy of fear” is found in the woman’s response to the epiphany. The first thing that comes to her mind is punishment, further reflecting her religious guilt, when she says that the “first thought was … oh long after … sudden flash … she was being punished … for her sins” (Beckett 217). Yet, like Joyce, the now-speaking woman, instead of withdrawing in fear, embraces the knowledge, the gift with open arms: “as she suddenly realized … gradually realized … she was not suffering … imagine!… not suffering!… indeed could not remember … off-hand … when she had suffered less” (Beckett 217). The beam of light, the dull buzzing, the field, its clear why she spends the time reviewing the events, going over them again and again, testing her emotions at the time, and mapping out exactly what happened.
The thing to note about the epiphany, however, is that it is tempered, somewhat, by the woman’s simple disbelief and shock. It is, as they say, too good to be true, and, while she eventually comes to accept that it is not going to cause suffering, it was really happening, even in recollection she seems to try and find a loophole, a way the memories could be false, and she centers in on the light and the darkness and tries to find some hidden pain, some downside.
… just all part of the same wish to … torment … though actually in point of fact … not in the least … not a twinge … so far … ha! … so far … this other thought then … oh long after … sudden flash … very foolish really but so like her … in a way … that she might do well to … groan … on and off … writhe she could not … as if actual agony … but could not … could not bring herself. (Beckett 218)
You see that she is so very determined, during the moment at least, to pierce the façade that she tries to find a way that something is wrong, painful, torturous about the moment.
Beckett’s Not I explores the emotional reaction of a woman who was deeply affected by the epiphany that caused her to be able to speak. This epiphany is the best way to get a true sense of the woman and her personality. While she is pleased, eventually with the change and her new-found voice, she is deeply suspicious of it, expecting, from experience, pain to come about from it. Through the woman, Beckett seems to be illustrating the human inability to accept a windfall without suspicion, yet the play does end on a light note, ending with a touching acceptance of her gift by trailing off with “God is love … tender mercies … new every morning … back in the field … April morning … face in the grass … nothing but the larks … pick it up–” (Beckett 223). Even through human emotion and a desire to disbelieve what was given to her, she finally accepts it in the end. While the language is disconcerting, and somewhat bleak, in this play at least, Beckett has an uplifting message to give.
Beckett, Samuel. Collected Shorter Plays. NY: Grove Weidenfeld, 1984.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. NY: The Viking Press Inc., 1916.