Journal of Modern Literature 29.1 (2005) 133-152
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Reading for the Plotless:
The Difficult Characters of Samuel Beckett's A Dream of Fair to Middling Women
Samuel Beckett's short story collection More Pricks than Kicks—despite linguistic obscurity, extremely quirky characters, and a lack of exposition—is a paragon of normative narrative lucidity compared to A Dream of Fair to Middling Women, the complex work that served, to a certain extent, as the ur-text for More Pricks than Kicks. A Dream of Fair to Middling Women,written in the summer of 1932, was Beckett's first major creative effort. There has been scant critical inquiry about A Dream of Fair to Middling Women in its own right, as it was never published in Beckett's lifetime and has suffered a poor aesthetic reputation for several possible reasons. The first may be due to Beckett's derogatory attitude towards it. He called his first novel "immature and unworthy" (as quoted in Bair's Samuel Beckett 146), but Rubin Rabinovitz (1) and Richard Seaver (v–vi) have plentifully demonstrated that Beckett made derogatory remarks about almost all of his works.
The second reason that it has not so far received critical attention may be the notion that A Dream of Fair to Middling Women is nothing but, as Raymond Federman claims, a "rough, unfinished, unpublished first draft" (13) of More Pricks than Kicks, or, as John Pilling puts it, a "practice-pad" ("Beckett's English Fiction" 21) for More Pricks. Since More Pricks than Kicks was out of print for many years and considered only a marginal success compared to Beckett's later work, his first novel, then, could be construed as being interesting only to the most pathologically obsessive of Beckett specialists. This attitude, however, is at least mathematically and formally misguided. With the exception of "A Wet Night" and "The Smeraldina's Billet-Doux" in More Kicks than Pricks, most of [End Page 133] the material in the short story collection is new, which means that the bulk of A Dream of Fair to Middling Women is in essence a different text and shouldn't be regarded as some sort of first draft of the later work.
The third reason for critical inattention to A Dream of Fair to Middling Women that I can imagine is related to the second: to wit, the notion that if A Dream of Fair to Middling Women is a mere "first draft" of More Pricks than Kicks—if it is really inferior to Beckett's inferior work—then it is not especially worthy in itself as a matter of study.1 To some degree, this attitude comes about because Beckett's style in A Dream of Fair to Middling Women is nothing like his sparse later (read "mature") style. If Beckett's first novel is as verbose as, contrarily, his plays and the novel trilogy are succinct, and the latter works are good, then perhaps (according to binary logic) one must conclude that the former is bad. In this view, Dream is treated like juvenilia. For example, Michael Robinson dismisses Dream in passing as "an apprentice work" (65),2 and John Fletcher calls Dream "a rambling, discursive story with little unity of purpose or theme" and "an exercise in fiction" (15), later amplifying upon his notion of its weaknesses: "at its worst it is pedantry pure and simple, which, arrogantly disdaining simpler formulations, prefers to employ an esoteric manner more effectively to cloak the vapidness or banality of thought" (21).
The style of A Dream of Fair to Middling Women does not sound much like the "mature" Beckett, and does resemble that of his mentor, James Joyce. Moreover, because of the ebullient, semiotic-sundering precocity of voice and the rhetoric of narrative unsteadiness, Beckett's first novel sometimes resembles novice fiction. In spite of this, I would argue that this novel is much more than an "exercise."
That the style is under the influence of Joyce...