A book by Samuel Beckett
, originally published in 1938
. Murphy is the poet
ic story of a disillusioned
wanderer who longs to find peace outside the "order
ed" world, which he reject
s, and plants himself inside a mental institution
to find it.
Beckett’s novel Murphy focuses on a man who wishes to free himself of the outside world and live totally within his mind. As Murphy attempts to shift his being from macrocosm to microcosm, other characters in the novel continue life in the “real world” and appear quite inane and laughable. The novel exhibits a profuse range of intricate character developments and symbolic elements, and Beckett reveals all of this to the reader through humorous dialogue and droll plot situations. However, although the story is related in an ingeniously comic fashion, the novel is actually a dismal tragedy.
The character of Murphy is one constantly shown as a figure that cannot function properly in society. He disdains work, emotions, and having to make any decisions. In the first chapter of the book, when the character Neary explains his passions and describes the joys of love, Murphy insists that it is "Greek" to him. He appears not to understand such an emotion, and when he is faced with the possibility of experiencing love with Celia, the narrator states that "the part of him that he hated craved for Celia, the part that he loved shriveled up at the thought of her." Murphy denies the human part of him that cares for her because the thought of having to deal with the emotion— to expend time and energy for another person— is revolting to him. A primary component of living includes the emotion of love and caring for others. Murphy simply cannot withstand this concept and longs to break free of freedom; he does not want to be forced to make choices and experience emotions, therefore he refuses to function in the real world. Murphy’s denial of these humanistic qualities along with his feelings of wretchedness while being anywhere but within the dark of his mind are truly tragic. Essentially, the plot of the novel revolves around a terribly unhappy and confused individual not meant for this world.
This tragic theme is reinforced with the fact that Murphy eventually attempts to find understanding and companionship in patients at a mental hospital. After his catastrophic relationship with Celia, the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat briefly becomes Murphy’s personal paradise, where all of the patients live “happily” in a world of their own. At least in Murphy’s perception they appear happy, and he desires to live completely in a world of inner darkness just as they do. "I am not of the big world, I am of the little world." Murphy says, feeling that the outer world is a “colossal fiasco” and that he has escaped from it in the M.M.M. But only briefly does he find peace within the padded walls, because once Murphy is placed on night duty, his thoughts change in his solitude. He is disturbed to find that there is “nothing but he, the unintelligible gulf and they. That was all. All. ALL." He realizes the difference between himself and the patients is that he still has a “deplorable susceptibility to Celia, ginger, and so on." The patients do not. Murphy finally fully recognizes this uncrossable bridge when he gazes into the emptiness of Mr. Endon’s (a patient's) eyes, which proves a destructive final blow to his expectations. Although a humorous angle is utilized in events throughout the story, the desolate predicament of Murphy pervades the novel. He feels as though he belongs nowhere, and the following event of his death, though comic on the outside, verifies how little he could control his own environment. Murphy’s sudden end proves he is subject to the limits of humanity, and he never gets the chance to find comfort and complete pleasure before he dies. Murphy’s existence on earth appears as one long, sad, unsuccessful race for escape.
Although the rest of the characters in Murphy are humorously depicted, their pathetic whims and constant chases for and away from one another demonstrate a sad truth about life: Humans are never completely happy due partially to their own deliberate complications. This is displayed through all of the characters’ brief and constantly altering love affairs. Though Beckett depicts these characters as quite silly and simplistic in their incessant switches to seek the challenges of unrequited love, the commentary made is a sobering, dismal fact about many people. People seek happiness in love but often create their own obstacles against it, and therefore never receive that complete happiness. Like Neary states, “for every symptom that is eased, another is made worse." But this feeling of deficiency is only to each person’s perception, because a lack of something is only created in an individual’s mind. Therefore, as depicted in the novel, life is merely a mass of movement motivated by humanity’s imagined perception of need. This is the trivial and sad form of living Murphy seeks to be released from, but because he is human he naturally possesses this blemish of a characteristic and cannot become totally free of it.
Another tragic subject brought up in Murphy is the fact that humans by nature are incredibly self-centered. In the critical essay Murphy’s Metaphysics, James Acheson writes, “as will-motivated subjects we consistently treat people as the means to our own well-being." This is revealed in the book not only when characters use each other in order to find Murphy, but also in terms of mourning. For example, when the retired butler living upstairs commits suicide, Celia is said to be “mourning, like all honest survivors, quite frankly for herself." This statement suggests that Celia did not miss the individual, but only grieves for the horror she was forced to witness. It also raises questions about Murphy’s death as well. The entire time the characters were tracking him down they were doing so for their contentment, not his. (He wanted nothing to do with them!) So when he dies, they mourn for the death because it is a revelation of their own solidarity, not particularly for the loss of Murphy. This is a dismal idea Beckett gives the reader, and reinforces the tragic notion that humanity can often be cruelly and unconsciously selfish.
Celia’s enduring unhappiness and her proclivity for suicidal thoughts is another grave subject revealed in the novel. Her thoughts about killing herself are hinted at in the beginning of the book, when she contemplates drowning. The narrator states, “Celia’s course was clear: the water. The temptation to enter it was strong, but she set it aside. There would be time for that." This idea is reinforced also when she moves into the dead butler’s apartment and begins pacing the floor as he once had before committing suicide. Celia’s obvious emotions of melancholy and unfulfillment in life are so overwhelming she wishes to end it all. Her pain stems from the human’s natural drive for need fulfillment, of which she cannot escape. Though Beckett often mocks the characters for behaving as they do, he also depicts them as the unfortunate victims of life’s given game. Celia longs for comfort, companionship and understanding in Murphy and Mr. Kelly. This need was created from the solidarity she had invented within herself, but it is a natural human instinct to develop these emotions. Beckett indicates how upsetting and selfish these emotions are, and reinforces the tragedy of people’s inability to escape from them through Celia.
A tremendous amount of complexity exists in Murphy, and the beauty of it all is shown through an intricate mixture of comedy and tragedy, light and dark. Beckett’s manipulation of comedy in the novel allows the reader to absorb and contemplate the darker and more disturbing concepts given concerning the realities of life in this world. The writer depicts human lives as trivial, people as selfish, and happiness as unobtainable. Murphy strives to get away from it all and can only do so through death, after the ashes of his body are thrown onto the floor of a saloon to be “swept away with the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit." This is a genuinely tragic end.
Other works by Beckett include:
"Waiting for Godot"