Identity in Beckett’s Rockaby
In his play “Rockaby” as well as in many other works, Samuel Beckett calls into question our identities as human beings and how we interact with the world around us. The structure of the play itself and the powerful minimalist images on stage immediately force the audience to enter Beckett’s world. The only character, an older woman identified only as “w,” hardly speaks throughout the performance; most of the speaking is just a recording of the woman’s voice that plays while she rocks back and forth in a rocking chair. The recorded voice, which is referred to as “v,” tells the story of her search for bonds with other human beings, her retreat into isolation, and her death. The voice could represent her consciousness and internal thoughts or possibly her memory. The separation between the woman and her internal voice create the framework for the issues addressed in “Rockaby” – self-identity and self-control in communication with outsiders, consciousness, and death.
Throughout the first half of the play, the voice recounts the woman’s search for “another creature like herself.” The main image at first is her eyes, which are constantly looking frantically “to and fro” on “all sides” for someone like herself, for another living person to be with. The woman feels the uncontrollable desire to connect with other human beings in the mental and emotional sense, but the only way to interact with others is through physical activities, primarily through spoken language. However, language is only an imperfect approximation of thought and emotion, which is a problem that Beckett finds particularly troubling. After the second long pause (the first occurring in the very beginning), “v” begins speaking of a window with raised blinds that “w” would sit in front of all day looking for other people. She sees “only other windows” with “all blinds up,” though, which is symbolic for the inadequacy of language. The panes of glass represent the impenetrable boundaries of the conscious mind, barriers that imperfect language can’t breach. The format of “Rockaby” accentuates this issue of language because the woman’s identity is mostly defined by the word choice of her inner voice, so she is “trapped… within these verbal structures that possess [her] mind” (Lyons 1982-83, 301).
Despite her hopeless situation, the woman is unable to control her instinctive need for contact with people. This is evident in the cyclical narrating of the voice; certain phrases such as the following are repeated over and over again:
till in the end
close of a long day
time she stopped
going to and fro
time she stopped
Not only are the individual lines rhythmic and repetitive, they are also repeated constantly throughout the piece with variations. One major effect of this “compulsive or habitual repetition” is that the words over time “have less and less significance to the mind in which they evolve” (Lyons...