Loneliness and Finality in Beckett’s Rockaby
Rockaby, one of Samuel Beckett’s later, and more minimalist pieces, centers on heavy repetition of words and phrases to bring across a point. Similar to most of his other works, as well, Rockaby has an intense tone of finality to it, whether it is immediately after some grave event or due to the end of the narrator’s life, it’s hard to say. However, the repetition, the mournful, droning quality of the recording seem to indicate that it is the woman herself who is the target of this mournful dirge, this despairing prophecy.
The most obvious repetition of words is in the phrase “time she stopped,” used frequently throughout the play, occasionally seconded by the woman in the chair. It is definitely the most telling phrase, as it seems to indicate that she is going to be stopped in time, soon, or that time is going to stop for her, one the many great finalities in this play. It doesn’t reflect the loneliness found in the other notable, repeated passages, but it is sufficiently final, and repeated over and over, a dire final mantra. Yet, it also seems to hinge upon her seemingly endless time spent in isolation or loneliness. When the record-player says “time she stopped/time she stopped/going to and fro/” (Beckett 277), it seems less like a final blow and more of a commentary on the lack of anything in the room, how eternal it seems to simply rock in the chair ad infinium, to stare out the window with nothing to do. Yet, when the recording states, “the day came/in the end came/close of a long day/when she said/to herself/whom else/time she stopped/time she stopped,” it both encompasses the finality of the work and the loneliness which the old woman experiences.
This loneliness, as is typical with much of Beckett’s work, is a tenet of Rockaby. The story that the woman and the recordings seem to reveal is one of absolute isolation. She tells the tale of searching “high and low/for another/another liker herself/another creature like herself” (Beckett 275), and the pitiable statement of how she simply “went and sat/at her window/facing other windows/so in the end/close of a long day/in the end went and sat/went back in and sat/at her window” (Beckett 277), gives a feeling of such utter isolation that the feeling of finality and despair is understandable. When absolutely alone, left to look at the window, rock, and wish for company, what is there to live for? This is the feeling of finality and hopelessness that Beckett lends us in this minimalist piece.
One issue that must be addressed, when considering the despair that this piece seems to encompass is how the woman herself continually calls for “more.” One wonders if the tape is a recording of someone else entirely, a kindred spirit to the woman in the rocking chair, or if it is simply a confession and an elaboration of the end, pre-recorded for anyone who investigates into the matter. The voice seems to be accurately describing the woman herself, so the latter seems more likely. However, Jonathan Kalb proposes that “Thus ‘in the end,’ as she rocked ‘off’ seemingly toward death, she ‘was her own other/ own other living soul’–‘other’ asserting itself in the theater as a rhyme for ‘mother'” (Kalb 2), and so one might assume from this rhyme that the recorded voice is that of the mother, speaking indirectly to her child who finds herself, many years removed, but in the same situation. This theory is further corroborated by the passage where the tape says “let down the blind and down/ right down/ into the old rocker/ mother rocker/ where mother rocked/ all the years” (Beckett 280).
The entirety of the play is, at its core, describing the empty life of an old woman who, for reasons unknown, was unable to do the things she wanted in life, and so was confined to a rocking chair for long stretches of time, perhaps because “off her head they said/gone off her head/ but harmless/ no harm in her/ dead one day” (Beckett 280). Lonely and bored, eventually the woman, presumably the mother of the woman on-stage, eventually died in the rocking chair. This depressing story, when summarized, seems to belittle the relatives of the companionless old woman. Yet, when considered in the play format, there is very little chiding about the story, merely an overwhelming weariness and burden that seems to envelop both of the rockers. It seems to gently point out that, for a life of such continued and unvaried similarity and monotony, death is simply an extension of the life they knew. When Beckett writes “dead one night/ in the rocker/ in her best black/ head fallen/ and the rocker rocking/ rocking away/ so in the end” (Beckett 280), the continued rocking of the chair seems to be a clear and chilling reflection that, in the end, nothing had changed for the woman in the chair.
Beckett’s use of loneliness and finality to illustrate the torturous waiting at the end of life is especially striking in Rockaby, where the voice on the tape and the woman, both, seem simply biding their time until the end, death takes them. The sense of the ultimate end, and the loneliness preceding it is the true essence of this work, and it’s clear that Beckett is directing our attention to those two facets of the life of this lady. By exposing the despondency inherent in the same monotonous lifestyle, I believe Beckett is trying to direct us away from a similar route. If one knows only the same scenery each day, if loneliness and the ultimate end is the only future for a person, what reason is there for the person to do anything but sit in the rocking chair and wait? Beckett does not expound the virtues of action, but he ends the depressing story with cold finality. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt what the end of the story is, the simple rocking into nothingness, and it’s evident that anyone at all could come to a similar finish.
Beckett, Samuel. Collected Shorter Plays. NY: Grove Weidenfeld, 1984.
Kalb, Jonathan. “Rockaby and the Art of Inadvertent Interpretation.” Alternative Theatre. http://www.alternativetheater.com/cgi-bin/int_archive/show_interview.cgi?ARTICLE_ID=252. (16 April 2006).