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Getting Closer to the Truth: Old Age and Decay in Beckett’s “The End”

By Adam Chatelan

In a letter to his friend and poet Thomas MacGreevy dated 1935, Samuel Beckett humorously hints at his sexual attraction to the elderly when declaring that he “begin[s] to think [he] has gerontophilia” (Fehsenfeld and Overbeck 274). Old age is ubiquitous throughout the Irish writer’s oeuvre, and the narrator in “The End” exemplifies Beckett’s fascination with aging. While the protagonist’s identity is ambiguous, his expulsion from the care institution, along with the story’s title, signals that he is close to death and thus frames the text as an account of old age. The decrepitude of Beckett’s narrator in this account largely aligns with British historian Peter Laslett’s theory of the Fourth Age, which he propounds in “A Fresh Map of Life: the Emergence of the Third Age.” In the latter, Laslett identifies life’s ultimate stage, marked by “dependency and frailty” (Siegel 363), and distinguishes it from the preceding period of independence that one has despite already being old. “The End” likewise portrays an account of old age marked by infirmity and decay; however, Beckett’s modernist aesthetic suggests that decay has revelatory functions, and therefore, old age uncovers existential truths, which otherwise remain concealed.

First, Beckett depicts aging as a process of corporeal decay by exploring the narrator’s declining physiological state. He indicates that the protagonist bears a head wound, for he is ashamed of “the state [that his skull] was in” (Beckett 79), and subsequently struggles to conceal it so others “could not see [it]” (83). While the nature of the injury is untold, the deformed skull symbolizes both physical and psychological damage, and Beckett thus signals the completeness of the physiological impairment that aging engenders. He also develops the nature of this impairment through images of shrinking. For example, the speaker comments that the clothes he receives from the institution belonged to a smaller, thinner person, and that they “did not fit [the narrator] so well at the beginning as they did at the end” (78). Hence, the author implies the protagonist’s gradual thinning as he approaches the titular “end.” Through these reductive images, Beckett uses what Rush Rehm describes as “a poetics of subtraction” (165). Rehm, a professor focusing on Beckett’s theater, underlines Beckett’s insistence on images of decline and impoverishment to represent old age. Instead of portraying the narrator’s growth, Beckett progressively diminishes the narrator’s physical identity and thereby portrays aging as a process of loss and disintegration.

The narrator’s frailty aligns with Laslett’s Fourth Age by prompting a state of dependence, which Beckett illustrates through a loss of agency. At the outset of the text, the narrator is immediately opposed to a collective “they” (78). These people provide him with initial resources, which bases his survival on reliance. In addition to this initial dependence, the protagonist further displays a lack of agency as he physically deteriorates. For example, he observes that his hat is initially too large but “it got used to [him]” (79). The directionality of the adaptation illustrates the protagonist’s fixedness and undermines his agency relative to his surroundings. Similarly, the speaker eventually comments that “the ebb was carrying [him] out” (99) on his boat. These passive images portray the agency of the external world on the narrator, to which he finds himself subjected and against which he does not resist. In light of the narrator’s implied terminal state, Beckett conveys the powerlessness of the character whose old age undermines his independence.

The narrator’s obsession with utility further conveys his growing dependence on others because it expresses his awareness of his own decreasing value to society. He tells the institution that he “could make [him]self useful” (80) to try and preserve his place within it. This request points to the relationship between one’s usefulness and one’s social position – the narrator virtually commodifies himself to measure his social worth. However, his request is futile, for his decrepitude makes him a burden to others, and the commodification ultimately measures his decline in value to them. The narrator projects this self-awareness onto his surroundings, such as when he observes “the sky clear[ing] too late to be of any use” (81). Not only does this projection express the psychological influence of old age, but it also associates tardiness with uselessness. Given the temporal link between lateness and growing old, Beckett hence affirms that aging engenders a person’s social irrelevance and the disintegration of their identity.

While Beckett explores aging as a form of disintegration – socially, physically, and psychologically – his aesthetic vision suggests this process is revelatory. In a letter to Axel Kaun, written in German and dated 1937, the Irishman expresses his frustration with the English language and the desire to “bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it – be it something or nothing – begins to seep through” (Fehsenfeld and Overbeck 514). Beckett’s declaration shifts the focus on destruction from the loss it causes to the substance it reveals; in his view, the loss engendered is not a gap but rather a space for something else to take its place.

Beckett’s portrait of aging in “The End” mirrors this desire for linguistic disintegration, as indicated by the motif of holes in the text. This motif appears in the narrator’s remembrance of the stool, which has a “hole for [his] cyst” (Beckett 80); in the comparison of his face to “two holes and a slit” (91); in his comments on his anal orifice (98); and in the “hole” (99) he makes in the boat to see through and ultimately sink it. These images, despite referring to different kinds of holes, portray their constant usefulness.. Holes either enable the narrator to see through, beneath and behind something, or to let things pass through what otherwise constitutes a barrier. Even the two holes in the narrator’s face evoke the usefulness of his eyes, which grant him the faculty of sight. Together, these holes echo those Beckett wants to make in the English language, and, as correlates to the general decay associated with aging, they signal the revelatory function of old age. 

Beckett also appeals to this revelatory decay by using a reductionist style. First, he displays this reductionism by originally writing “The End” in French because it is supposedly “easier to write without style” (Rabaté 133). Like piercing a hole, writing in a foreign language removes English and reveals something that lies beneath it. Beckett describes French as inferior because English, as his mother tongue, is attached to an established style which disappears in the foreignness of the other language. The author’s intention to write simply and purely thus conforms to his desire for disintegration. He also exhibits reductionism through simple, mostly monosyllabic diction and limited forms of punctuation. Namely, Beckett omits speech marks and instead internalizes the dialogue within the narration. This does not only undermine the dialogue and illustrate the protagonist’s social deprivation, but it also highlights the punctuation that remains in the text. Considering the use of declarative sentences, what remains consists largely of punctuation marks. Knowing that the term for punctuation traces its etymology to the Latin word pungere, meaning “to prick [or] pierce” (“Punctuation”), the style of “The End” mirrors the images of disintegration that it depicts. The punctuation marks, like holes in the text, create the sentences which convey the narrative; the periods bring an end to phrases and create gaps between words, emphasized by the rare conjunctions. As a result, Beckett implements a reductionist style to convey how absence and loss can produce meaning. This reductionism parallels the story’s account of a destructive old age and ultimately amplifies the author’s portrait of decay as revelatory.

Importantly, Beckett does not define exactly what aging reveals about a person; in fact, his letter to Kaun acknowledges that it may be “nothingness” underlying it all (Fehsenfeld and Overbeck 514). However, the Irishman’s appetite for destruction presupposes the need to search for existential truths and presents aging as a means to do so. Beckett therefore challenges the perception of aging as a disease by underlining its ubiquity in life. Rehm argues that the author perceives aging as the “only way out” (164) of being born. The structure of “The End,” which opens with the narrator exiting the care institution, concords with this idea of aging being fundamental; the narrative excludes accounts of the character before his decrepitude and thus suggests he is born old. Moreover, his anonymity and the ambiguity of his personal history reveals that the portrait drawn by the story is a universal one.

In their revision of the Fourth Age propounded by Laslett, sociologists Gilleard and Higgs depict the gravitational effect of old age, which pulls the elderly in an irreversible and undesirable decline. The gerontologists’ comparison of this phenomenon to a “black hole” (Gilleard and Higgs 125) reflects the penultimate image of “The End,” in which the narrator is “crushed […] in a mighty systole” (Beckett 99) by the space around him. While Beckett challenges the undesirability of old age, the metaphorical black hole captures the attraction he feels towards the end of life. Like the narrator who orchestrates his death by piercing his own boat, the author is intellectually pulled towards the titular End, whatever it may be. Hence, he evokes this attraction as gerontophilia, and explains the value he ascribes to aging through his conception of revelatory decay. Ultimately, Beckett defends the unexpected virtue of aging as bringing one “closest to what one really is” (Sheinberg 3).

Works Cited 

Beckett, Samuel. “The End.” The Complete Short Prose of Samuel Beckett 1929-89, edited by S. E. Gontarski, Grove Press, 1997, Accessed 17 March 2022. 

Fehsenfeld, Martha D., and Lois M. Overbeck, editors. The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1929-1940. Cambridge University Press, 2009. 

Gilleard, Chris, and Paul Higgs, “Aging Without Agency: Theorizing the Fourth Age.”, Aging & Mental Health, vol. 14, 2010, Accessed 30 March 2022. 

“Punctuation” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2022, Accessed 2 April 2022. 

Rabaté, Jean-Michel. “Excuse My French: Samuel Beckett’s Style of No Style.” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 16, no. 3, 2016, pp. 133–50, Accessed 1 Apr. 2022. 

Rehm, Rush. “Beckett on Aging: A Brief Introduction.” Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd’hui, vol. 28, no. 2, 2016, pp. 161–67, Accessed 1 Apr. 2022. 

Sheinberg, Lawrence. “Exorcizing Beckett”, The Paris Review, 1987, shainberg. Accessed 3 April 2022.

Siegel, Jacob S. Population and Development Review, vol. 16, no. 2, 1990, pp. 363–67, Accessed 1 Apr. 2022.

About the Author: Adam is a fourth-year French student completing a double major in English Literature and Economics as well as a minor in Philosophy. Although he is aiming to pursue graduate studies in economics, he will always cherish his time as an English student because it was the most challenging yet most gratifying part of his undergraduate degree.