Samuel Beckett wrote this story in the early 1930s, at the very start of his writing career. Those years were a tumultuous time in Beckett’s life (he was aimless and dissatisfied and did not settle down until he moved to Paris permanently in 1937), but it was a traumatic time in Europe. The Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I created a short-lived peace but set the stage for the power struggles that would culminate in World War II. Germany was impoverished because of the war and the reparations it had to pay to the victors; out of that humiliation rose Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. At the same time, Soviet Communism was hardening into a dogma, and the Soviet Union began pursuing its own national interests, which included encouraging left-wing movements throughout the world. The bourgeois republican nations of Europe (specifically France and England) found themselves caught between two aggressive radical forces and ideas: communism and fascism.
At first, fascism took the upper hand. Benito Mussolini took control of Italy in the early 1920s, and Hitler was elected to national office in Germany soon after. In the early 1930s, Spain became a kind of proving ground for the conflict between these two forces, and a civil war broke out between workers’ groups (funded and supported by the Soviet Union, but also provided with troops from the United States) and a fascist force headed by Francisco Franco. After a bloody conflict, the fascists triumphed. The democratic powers in Europe waited and hoped for the best as fascism grew in power and, eventually, allied itself to communism with the German-Soviet non-aggression pact.
The leading democratic powers in the world at this time were Great Britain, the United States, and France. Because France is on the continent of Europe, it has been historically decimated by fighting on its soil. France has a different kind of relationship to European power struggles; in addition, France has a different relation to the history of art and culture in Europe than does London or Madrid or Berlin. In the period between the two world wars, and to a lesser degree in the post-World War II period, Paris was the center of artistic experimentation in the Western world. In Paris, bohemianism was common. Artists of all kinds could find a sympathetic group of like-minded people who would support each other both morally and, at times, financially. In the 1920s, the “Lost Generation” of American writers and artists took advantage of the low cost of living in Paris and flocked there. Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Robert McAlmon, Man Ray, Ezra Pound, and many others made Paris their home. The city appealed to American artists because it was the absolute opposite of the conservative, philistine, bourgeois culture that dominated almost everywhere in the United States. Paris also appealed to writers and artists from another repressed, religious country: Ireland.
Arguably, two of Ireland’s most important exports to Paris of the early twentieth century were James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Joyce came to Paris earlier than Beckett (in the early 1920s) but left Ireland before that, living in Switzerland and in the city of Trieste (today part of Italy) as well as in Paris. Like Beckett, Joyce was a promising young academic in Dublin, and, like Beckett, Joyce found the conservative Catholic environment of Ireland stifling to artistic creation. Most of his writings take place in Dublin, but it is a Dublin that the characters long to flee. These characters, of course, were simply versions of Joyce himself. Once he reached Paris, Joyce’s immense talent was recognized immediately by his contemporaries, and during the years it took him to compose his masterpiece, Ulysses, he was supported financially by many friends and patrons. Ulysses was published in 1922 to immediate acclaim, and Joyce spent much of the rest of his life composing a wildly experimental novel initially called Work in Progress and ultimately titled Finnegans Wake.
While he was working on Finnegans Wake, Joyce collected around him a circle of admirers. In 1928, Beckett met Joyce and quickly became a close associate, helping with the composition of the book and contributing an essay to a collection of studies of the (then unpublished) Finnegans Wake entitled Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress. Beckett, like Joyce, bothered by repressive Dublin and dubious about a career in academia, loved the bohemian life in Paris but soon had to return to Dublin. However, in 1937 he returned to Paris, this time for good. Beckett, unlike Joyce, relocated his consciousness to Paris. Whereas Joyce always wrote in English, immersed in the English literary tradition, and about Dublin, Beckett underwent a dramatic change in his writing during World War II and became an entirely different kind of writer. Whereas Joyce filled his works with particulars and details and local facts, Beckett voided his works of the particular after 1945. He also began writing in French. Whereas Joyce never returned to Ireland but also never left it mentally, in many ways Beckett (who occasionally returned to Dublin) became more French than the French, became almost the emblem of the Parisian intellectual.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Samuel Beckett, Published by Gale, 2002.