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Reviewed by:
  • Beckett's Masculinity
  • Susan Mooney
Beckett's Masculinity. Jennifer M. Jeffers. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Pp. xii + 203. $80.00 (cloth).

Following the recent turn among many Beckett scholars towards the inclusion of archival and biographical information in their study of this author, Jennifer Jeffers insightfully historicizes critical thought about Samuel Beckett's portrayal of men throughout his oeuvre. She argues that Beckett's men should not be read as asexual representations of the human condition, but understood on a more personalized and specifically masculine level. She explains how Beckett became imbued with a particular sense of manhood through his upbringing in a prosperous Anglo-Irish Protestant family, in a "tribe" that "dictated his gender and ideological formation as a child and a young man" (3). To accept Jeffers's reading, one must appreciate how she interprets the Anglo-Irish Protestants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as having a modicum of localized power but never really possessing "hegemonic masculine political power."

Jeffers applies a pronounced biographical reading to Beckett's texts, relating them both to his childhood in Ireland and to aspects of his life concurrent with the composition of each of his works. Thus, novels like Murphy are read juxtaposed with Beckett's struggles with psychotherapy and with unemployment in London in the 1930s, while he was being goaded by his demanding mother and haunted by the loss of his beloved father. Here, as much as elsewhere in her reading of Beckett, Jeffers sees him as having experienced a dual masculine trauma in his youth: the Irish Protestant community's loss of status in the Irish Republic and the death of William Beckett. She uses Cathy Caruth's writings on trauma and its aftermath, particularly its symptoms of repetition of the painful experience in the sufferer's imagination, and relates these to Beckett's repeated motif of the lone, roaming man without home or nation, who bears traces of an Anglo-Irish youth and education. Through his writing, Beckett returns to the sites of loss by using these characters and scenarios of abandonment and solitude.

Jeffers recognizes Murphy as "Beckett's first full-fledged enactment of the trauma of emasculation and exile" (47). One of the finer aspects of her reading is her exploration of psychoanalyst Alfred Adler (1870-1937) and his influence on Beckett's composition and store of ideas. From the late 1920s through the 1930s, Dr. Wilfred Bion gave the writer psychoanalytic treatment in London, and Bion's eclectic therapy included Adlerian ideas and concepts. Beckett's notes ("Psychology Notes") show his extensive reading of Adler and suggest that he may have related some of these concepts to his own literary writings as well as his self-perceptions. Jeffers recognizes how Adler differed from Freud on several crucial points, including neurotic compulsion and what Adler termed the "masculine protest" and "masculine fiction." Beckett took substantial notes on both topics. It is easy to see a relation between Murphy and the Adlerian compulsive neurotic who tends "to construct a subsidiary field of action in order to be able to flee from the main battle-field of life & fritter away time that might otherwise compel him to fulfill his individual tasks" (a quotation from Adler copied directly by Beckett in his notes; quoted by Jeffers, 43). Even more compelling, though, is Beckett's interest in the connection Adler established between the (male) neurotic and the masculine protest: "The goal, especially in neurotics, is the erection of the masculine protest against an effeminate self-estimation" (46). Jeffers notes how Beckett [End Page 933] creates in Murphy a neurotic Irishman in full-fledged masculine protest, and even suggests how Beckett may use this character to exorcise some of his own demons: the weighty demands to live up to his mother's ideal of a strong male provider and the impossible literary challenge of writing his Irish life while caught between competing conceptions of his nationality: he was not considered Irish within the Republic but was constantly dismissed as a "Paddy" in London.

Beckett's Masculinity makes use of biographies such as James Knowlson's Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, Anthony Cronin...