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Patrick Bixby (Arizona State University)
Rethinking the Trilogy: Beckettian Failure and the Postcolonial Subject

Beckett’s trilogy, my paper will argue, explores the failure of developmental narratives that sustained bourgeois culture in post-independence Ireland, thus challenging both colonialist and nationalist claims to the unified subject. While the conventional Bildungsroman, or novel of development, is dedicated to composing the integrity of personal identity—an integrity which accompanies identification with the social collective—Beckett’s parodic rewriting of the genre undermines the guarantees of individual formation, coherence, and integration. Remnants of the Bildungroman tradition appear, for instance, in repeated references to the education of the trilogy’s narrator-protagonists. The genre often calls on Enlightenment narratives of education as a key to what Wilhelm von Humboldt called the “spiritual and moral training of the nation,” which promotes the development of the individual into a fully identified and socialized citizen of the nation-state. Education, in this sense, assists in realizing the autonomy of the individual to such a degree that he or she is suited to the ethical demands of social integration. Colonialism calls on the same narrative of development to justify its educational process, which in claiming to promote the ethical and economic advancement of the native populations, also allowed it to solidify control through the requirement that these subjects adopt the cultural forms and internalize the values of the occupying power. Beckett’s parody of the bildungsroman produces “counter-narratives” of development, of a postcolonial identity that is divided, ambivalent, and in constant flux, as it questions the formation of autonomous subjectivity through a series of regressive narrative voices.

Molloy, projecting one of these regressive narrative voices, regrets a failure in his education that has prevented him from living up to the bourgeois ideals of the former colonizer:

And if I have always behaved like a pig, the fault lies not with me but with my superiors, who corrected me only on point of detail instead of showing me the essence of the system, after the manner of the great English schools, the guiding principles of good manners, and how to proceed, without going wrong, from the former to the latter, and how to trace back to its ultimate source a given comportment (25).

Here, the English school system, with its focus on manners and comportment, serves the project of individual development insofar as it prepares the citizen for integration into the nation-state as a fully formed ethical subject. For Molloy, however, imperfect mimicry of these manners has allowed him to take off on a line of flight, to avoid becoming bound up in lingering forms of colonial control. The process of education is ultimately a failure, since Molloy can accept neither local social practices nor the cultural forms offered to him by a foreign school system. For this postcolonial subject education is less a process of development than that of mimicry and exclusion, which leaves him stranded between two dominant cultural formations. His failure, in turn, suggests a refusal of the pedagogical culture that serves to reconcile the individual subject and the bourgeois nation-state and to legitimize its domestic and imperial hegemony. The critical thrust of Beckett’s counter-narrative project, then, is to never arrive at the autonomous, authentic, or unified subject postulated by bourgeois liberal humanism, inaugurating instead a continual process of displacement and deferral in the postcolonial subject.

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