English and Modern Languages


Master of Arts (MA)


Karen Swallow Prior


Abject, Freud, Lacan, Liminal, Samuel Beckett, Scatology


English Language and Literature | Literature in English, British Isles | Rhetoric and Composition


In the final novel of Samuel Beckett's trilogy, The Unnamable, the eponymous main character whose monologues, musings, and diatribes comprise the entirety of the work bemoans his inability to harness the communicable properties of language: "'s like shit, there we have it at last, there it is at last, the right word, one has only to seek, seek in vain, to be sure of finding in the end, it's a question of elimination" (Three Novels 368). Beckett's work is consumed with this question of elimination. In this sense, language is parallel to scat in Beckett's work. Beckett's absurd language, circular dialogue, and emphasis on the play of language through puns and double entendre mirror the function of scatology in his works--the excess of excrement and the excess of language each express an ill-defined element of Beckett's characters. The scatological images Beckett uses in his novels and short fiction similarly present readers with an absurd world in which, as Vladimir says in Waiting for Godot, there is "[n]othing to be done" (11). It is through scatology that Beckett expresses his characters' absurd internal condition; not only is the world around them absurd, but their relationship to their own being, how they understand and perceive themselves, is also fractured and absurd. Vladimir's lament that there is nothing to be done extends to the excremental failures of Beckett's characters; they are not in control of their own excretory functions. The failures of these characters' excretory functions depicts the human condition as liminal--marked by a perpetual state of transition rather than conclusion or resolution. Beckett forces his characters to exist in the suspension of liminal space, unable to move forward or backward. I will examine this suspension through the works of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, and Julia Kristeva. Each one complicates the relationship between the subject and the object, emphasizing the ultimately unknowable nature of the other and, therefore, our inability to engage in relationship with the other. Due to the Freudian psychology that represents the central methodology connecting my critical lenses, I will be employing a predominantly psychoanalytic approach. Through the work of Freud, Lacan, and Kristeva, I will connect the absurd futility of language in Beckett's work to his scatological images and argue that the parallels between these motifs create an absurd universe that denies its characters resolution, rather trapping them in liminal space.