In a story with Dante in the title and in which the protagonist bears a name taken from Dante, readers expect allusions to the greatest of medieval poets. In “Dante and the Lobster,” the work that in many ways commences Beckett’s career as a writer, Beckett provides these allusions in significant numbers. However, it is too simple to read this story just as a response to or a rewriting of an episode from Dante. Also present, more powerfully, although much less explicitly, is the great literary figure of Beckett’s life and the man who was Beckett’s mentor during the years when he began writing: James Joyce. At the time he wrote “Dante and the Lobster,” Beckett had a close relationship with the elder Irish writer, serving as his assistant and, at one point, even going on a date with Joyce’s daughter. If Dante was the presence Beckett wanted to have in his story, Joyce’s is the presence that Beckett could not keep out.
The literary critic Harold Bloom sees literary history as a giant trans-historical Oedipal drama: “Great poets” fall under the dominating influence of a predecessor writer, then unintentionally “mis read” that writer in an attempt to get past his influence, in effect “slaying the father.” “Dante and the Lobster” is Beckett’s attempt to bring his two literary fathers together so as to forge his own space. Dante could be acknowledged in the text, for he was so distant in history that he was not a threat to Beckett’s own identity as a writer. Joyce, however, as an Irish writer in exile in Paris, was initially a liberating and ultimately a crippling influence on Beckett. Harold Bloom might say that the absence of any explicit allusions to Joyce clearly proves Beckett’s need to repress this influence, given the story’s Joycean themes and main character.
But before discussing the Joycean resonances of “Dante and the Lobster,” it is first necessary to examine the figure that Beckett proposes as the real influence: Dante. Specifically, from the time of his Italian studies at Trinity, Beckett found himself drawn to the hellish imagery of the Inferno and, perhaps even more, to the ambivalent darkness and promise of the Purgatory. According to Mary Bryden, Beckett’s writing, “both early and late,” is “imprinted with purgatorial characteristics which resonate within a Dantean context.” In Dante, Purgatory is a locus of waiting and purgation where sinners, or other figures (from Greek and Roman times, for instance) who lived virtuous lives without knowing Christ, go to await admittance into Heaven. Salvation cannot be achieved though works performed in Purgatory, so the inhabitants of Purgatory must just wait for their time to expire or for enough members of the living to offer up prayers on their behalf.
Belacqua, the character in the Purgatory after whom Belacqua Shuah is named, embodies sloth and lassitude. At the end of the fourth book, while Dante is still in the Ante-Purgatory, Dante and his guide come upon a man “sitting with his arms around his knees” who looked “more languid than he would have been were laziness his sister.” Belacqua tells Dante that his laziness and nonchalance come from the fact that he is condemned to just wait: he must wait before the entrance to Purgatory for a period of time equal to his own life on Earth unless some living people offer up prayers to shorten his time in Ante-Purgatory. Belacqua’s sin was (appropriately enough) sloth: he never took the time or expended the energy to live as a good Christian while on earth.
Belacqua Shuah’s primary characteristic is also laziness and a lack of forward motion. In the first paragraph of the story, the narrator describes him as “stuck” and “bogged.” He takes a long time and a great deal of effort simply to get lunch; then, he dawdles on his way to the fishmonger and his Italian lesson. His intellect is also slow; he does not know that his lobster is alive the whole time he is carrying it around. The only mention of speed or quickness in the entire story is at the end. Reconciling himself to the fact that the lobster will be boiled to death, Belacqua thinks that “it’s a quick death, God help us all.” The narrator then retorts, “It is not,” undermining this one instance of anything being done quickly. Belacqua never gets anywhere, is always stuck in one place. “Where are we ever?” Signora Ottolenghi asks Belacqua. “Where we were, as we were.”
The critic Rubin Rabinovitz extends Belacqua’s sloth into his failure to do good deeds or even to be polite to others (this, of course, was the original Belacqua’s downfall). Belacqua steals cheese from a shopkeeper (who allows him to do so out of pity); he does not thank Mile. Glain when she saves his lobster from her cat, instead thinking that she is a “base prying [b ].” Signora Ottolenghi suggests, Rabinovitz points out, that Belacqua should study “Dante’s rare moments of compassion in Hell,” but, “thinking that she has only linguistic instruction in mind, Belacqua responds by quoting ‘Qui vive lapieta quando e ben morta.’ Belacqua, carried away by the cleverness of the comment, never considers the unsettling ethical questions it raises.” Rabinovitz points out that for Beckett, there are two types of compassion: one for undeserving victims (like the grocer and the lobster), and one for deserving victims (like Belacqua). The grocer and the lobster are described as being in “cruciform” posidon, like the crucified Christ, while Belacqua himself is imagistically associated with the condemned murderer McCabe. (Throughout his life, Beckett was fascinated by the image of Christ crucified between the two thieves, one of which was saved; the difference between Belacqua and the grocer and lobster could represent the difference between the saved thief and the condemned thief.)
We are all condemned to suffering and death, the story tells us, whether we live a good life or whether we avoid our chances to do good. The critic Robert Cochran argues that this is the essential core of the story:
“From Dante’s moon spots to the lobster in the pot, from the story’s beginning to the story’s end, the message is the same. The moon with its spots was Cain, ‘seared with the first stigma of God’s pity, that an outcast might not die quickly.’ The lobster does not die quickly either.”
The desire for and impossibility of achieving a quick and painless death pervades all of Beckett’s work. In his most famous plays, Waiting for Godot and Endgame, the characters wait, saying to each other the same things they have said every day in memory and the things that they will continue to repeat. Characters make comic attempts at suicide: the branch holding the noose breaks, autosuffocation fails, the limbs wither and freeze, but the compulsion to go on never ends. In the trilogy of novels he wrote immediately after the Second World War, the characters can do nothing but endlessly speak and grow ever more decrepit. Molloy fades away in a ditch, and the Unnamable ends the trilogy by saying, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” In “Dante and the Lobster,” Beckett first writes of this always-thwarted desire for a quick and painless end.
What makes this incarnation of Beckett’s master-theme unique in “Dante and the Lobster” is the influence of Joyce, a writer who loved the world and all of the sensual pleasures it offered. “Dante and the Lobster”‘s Belacqua bears many similarities with Joyce’s sensitive young scholar-hero, Stephen Dedalus. Both, for instance, have improbably obvious allusive names (Belacqua Shuah’s to Dante and the Bible, Stephen’s to the St. Stephen myth and to the Greek mythological figure Daedalus). Both are young Dublin intellectuals who find no ultimate satisfaction in what they are doing. But where Stephen is an affectionate, if self-critical, portrait of Joyce himself as a younger man, Belacqua is ultimately a comic character with few redeeming qualities. Stephen, in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, must fly free of the nets of his home country’s conservative culture, and in Ulysses Stephen seems in need of a father-figure to guide him away from narcissism. Rarified, hyperintellectual, and self-destructive Stephen Dedalus, once under the influence of the earthy and pleasant Leopold Bloom, could have become Joyce himself (but in Ulysses Stephen rejects Bloom’s offer). Joyce could have lived easily in the world of metaphysics and quodlibets and literary history, but he was also just as comfortable in drinking bouts with French barflies, and Ulysses seems to suggest that he thinks the Stephen in him benefited from the influence of a Leopold Bloom at some point in his life.
Belacqua, though, is a self-contained entity. He is Stephen made significantly more petty, more inward, more selfish and contemptuous of the world around him. Belacqua, it seems, would never attract Bloom enough to merit an offer of stepfatherhood. A sneaky and rude character who is associated throughout More Pricks than Kicks with Cain and the murderer McCabe, Belacqua proceeds in the course of the book from a smug and simplistic dismissal of a lobster’s death to his own comic and improbable demise.
For Beckett, Stephen must have been an indelible character, in many ways reminiscent of himself. How could Beckett write autobiographical short stories when another writer had already written the very stories Beckett wanted to write about himself? What character that he could create could serve as a better repository for his own traits than Stephen? His solution was to make Belacqua darkly comic and to condemn him more strongly than Joyce condemned Stephen. But in doing so, Beckett came upon the themes that would make his career: suffering, waiting for a death that never seems to come soon enough. Using the systematic afterlife Dante created, Beckett could confront the metaphysical questions that had obsessed him since his collegiate study of Descartes and Geulincx. Using the form and the characters used by Joyce, Beckett could dramatize his own worst characteristics. Later, though, in the postwar dramas and novels, the distinction between those who deserve compassion and those who do not becomes very blurry. Belacqua, the grocer, and Signora Ottolenghi meld into one another and become the eternal pairs—Hamm and Clov, Vladimir and Estragon, Molloy and Moran, Pozzo and Lucky—that are the center of Beckett’s greatest works. Could these later duos have been initially inspired by “Dante and the Lobster’ “s duo of influences, Dante and Joyce?
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Samuel Beckett, Published by Gale, 2002.
Greg Barnhisel, Critical Essay on “Dante and the Lobster,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.