As would be expected from a story that alludes to Dante in its title and has a protagonist named after a Dantean character, “Dante and the Lobster” is rife with allusions. The allusions, in fact, give the story much of its meaning. The Divine Comedy, of course, is the primary text Beckett alludes to, but Christianity also appears prominently in the text in many explicit and implicit ways. The lobster, for instance, represents Christ and man in general in many ways (going through the travails of life only to be sacrificed), but smaller events and details in the story also carry Christian meaning: Belacqua’ ‘scoops up” his copy of Dante and holds it flat in his hands like a priest holding a Bible; the narrator refers to the “canti of the moon” as a “quodlibet,” or a theological debate; the grocer, “instead of washing his hands like Pilate, flung out his hands in a wild crucified gesture of supplication.” Christianity and Dante, Catholicism’s most important poet, are the texts, or stories, that form the allusive backbone of “Dante and the Lobster.”
Allusions are a very characteristic technique of the modernist writers. Although Beckett is not considered precisely a modernist, at the time “Dante and the Lobster” was written, Beckett was profoundly influenced by the most important of all modernists, James Joyce. Joyce’s novels take place on many different symbolic levels, levels that can be disentangled and examined only by studying the allusions (to mythology, to Christianity, to literary history, to politics) embedded in the text. Many modernists felt that all of history simply repeated itself over and over again, and by using allusions these writers sought to underscore the similarities between stories and events that took place in different periods of history. As Beckett’s writing evolved, he buried his allusions deeper into his text. In his later writings, he would not make such explicit allusions as he does here, although he continued to allude (albeit elusively) to such ideas as God in texts like Waiting for Godot.
The voice that narrates “Dante and the Lobster’ ‘ is a third person narrator who can see inside the head of Belacqua and, at one point, inside the head of the grocer. For the most part, this is a traditional narrator, reliable, who plays no games with the reader and who subsumes any personality he or she has into Belacqua’s personality. We hear Belacqua’s thoughts, and the narrator reports them as if they were his or her own: ‘ ‘the first thing to do was to lock the door. Now nobody could come at him.” However, at isolated points in the story, the narrator exhibits signs of a personality, of editorial judgments made about the characters and events of the story. The most notable instance of this is at the end of the story when the narrator notes that Belacqua, thinking about the imminent demise of his lobster, comforts himself that “it’s a quick death, God help us all.” The narrator, making almost the only direct assertion of the story, responds that “It is not.” Because of this separation of the narrator and the main character at the very end of the story, the reader’s impression of Belacqua changes. For the vast majority of the story, the narrator reports Belacqua’s thoughts without commenting, and from this we have no reason to doubt Belacqua’s authority. He is a reliable character, no matter what judgments we may make of his personality and character flaws. But this flat contradiction of Belacqua’s idea makes Belacqua seem smaller, more foolish, sillier. It gives the reader a reason to judge Belacqua more harshly.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Samuel Beckett, Published by Gale, 2002.