Seen and Unseen Narratives in Beckett's Cryptic Novel Murphy
Close observation of Murphy, commonly described as the most traditional of Beckett's novels, reveals it to be a cryptic text, a member of the same category of literature as the later novel Watt, Henry James's "The Figure in the Carpet," and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Gold-Bug." Minimally, this means that it poses problems designed to engage the reader in hermeneutic quest. For the Murphy reader, the object of quest is a covert narrative that exists within the overt story. My study aims to bring it to light. I begin by considering the last two chapters, which present a case of double closure: chapters 12 and 13 both convey the sense of finality associated with end-of-the-novel chapters. I initially correlate the twofold ending with the main issue dealt with at the overt level: the mind/body conflict that afflicts the eponymous hero. The correlation is reflected in the distribution of chapter content: chapter 12 deals with the death and destruction of Murphy's body; 13 with the fate of his non-physical self. Tracing the complex narrative processes leading to and indeed necessitating the bifurcated ending, I conclude, however, that the non-physical self is not the mind but a barely mentioned third element: the soul. Accordingly, the semi-farcical overt story of a man headed toward physical annihilation also turns out to be the tale of a soul's progress toward salvation. The redemptive ending is figured in the closing vision of a kite rising into the upper reaches of the sky and vanishing joyfully. Theoretical implications regarding closure and cryptic literature are discussed in my closing section.
cryptic text, hermeneutic quest, closure, Beckett, Murphy
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Samuel Beckett's early novel Murphy (1938) ends unusually: with two ostensibly unrelated closural chapters. Its penultimate twelfth chapter details the sequence of events that follows the young protagonist's death: the postmortem examination of his charred body (attended by friends and functionaries), the identification of his remains, the reading of his will, his cremation, and the disposal of his ashes. An end has definitely been reached. However, a seven-page chapter, different in tone and content from all that precedes it, stands between the end of chapter 12 and the actual end of the novel. How it fits in with the rest of the narrative is not clear. Its main event concerns an old man in a wheelchair on a kite-flying outing at the Round Pond in London's Kensington Gardens. Assisted by his granddaughter, he gets his kite aloft, watches it rise out of sight and then awaits its reappearance, eager "to determine the point at which seen and unseen met" (280). That wish satisfied, he carefully winds in, lies back in his chair, and falls asleep. The winch springs from his fingers and violently strikes the railing. The string snaps. The kite vanishes "joyfully" in the darkening sky (282).
Both chapters employ end-of-day schemata as closural devices. Murphy's ashes land on the floor of a saloon at "closing time"; his "body, mind and soul" are "swept away with the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit" (275). Chapter 13 is entirely framed in end-of-day terms. Beginning at late afternoon, it coordinates the few remaining events of the narrative with the few remaining phases of the day. The kite vanishes at the last phase, which coincides with the end of the novel. The last line, "All out"—the third and final call of the park rangers ushering out the visitors—puts a virtual seal of closure on the novel as a whole (282).
Of the two last chapters, the penultimate, 12, seems to have made the stronger impression, for the view generally conveyed in scholarly studies and newspaper articles is that Murphy effectively ends with the hero's death. Robert McCrum's 2014 Guardian piece, which lists Murphy among the 100 best novels of all time, is representative: "The novel ends with a game of chess between Murphy and Mr Endon in which Murphy resigns and then soon after dies." Ato Quayson takes a close look at the progression of events leading from that game to Murphy's death, but leaves the concluding kite-flying chapter untouched. A. Alvarez deemed the novel over, philosophically as well as narratively, with Murphy reduced to ashes: "All Murphy's grand philosophical aspirations come down to this in the end: . . . just ash on a barroom floor" (27). Hugh Kenner's early but still popular A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett has little to say about chapter 13.
One critic that has given it serious thought is Peter Murphy, who presents a Joycean analysis that links the closing events in the novel with the aesthetic theory expressed in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Beckett's letters, one of which describes the deep impression made on him by his visit to the Round Pond, where he observed "shabby respectable old men . . . flying kites immense distances," have led to increased interest in the last chapter (Letters 274). According to his biographer James Knowlson, Beckett was already 9,000 words into the book by then. Knowlson writes [End Page 104] that "the scene provided him with a powerful image of freedom and release" for the novel's "preordained ending" (197).
The brevity of the last chapter and the presumed symbolism of kite flying suggest that it might have been intended as an epilogue, but another letter, written after Beckett finished the novel, reveals that he considered but decided against the idea (Letters 350). With this possibility eliminated, we are left in something of a quandary: first, because the connection between chapter 13 and the previous chapters remains unclear, and second, because there is much in the last chapter that is itself perplexing.
Let us look at some of these puzzling elements. To begin with, it is rather surprising that the man with the kite, Mr. Willoughby Kelly, formerly a marginal figure, has become an object of intense interest. Similarly surprising is the precision of detail invested in the smallest aspects of the scene—for example, the positioning of his wheelchair relative to the lay of the land: "the north-east corner of the plot between the Round Pond and the Broad Walk" (278). A sense of high drama, punctuated with humor and horror, informs the action, as though the business with the kite were a matter of life and death. Which indeed it seems to be, given the choice of phrase—"absolutely at the end of its tether" and "end of the line" (280, 282)—applied to the soaring kite. These words seem to apply no less well to Mr. Kelly, who has, to start with, "plenty of vigour in his arms and torso" (277), but ends up "a ghastly, lamentable figure" tottering on his legs, "throttled sounds" jostling in his throat (282)—those sounds being what is commonly known as a death rattle.
Among the obvious questions that come to mind are: What does kite flying signify? Why is Mr. Kelly brought to the brink of death just when the kite is about to disappear? Certain oddities connected to characterization intensify the mystery. Thus, Mr. Kelly is endowed with qualities that identify him in some unexplained way with the protagonist Murphy. One linking element is chair. Kelly moves about in a wheelchair; Murphy is deeply attached to his rocking chair. The text draws attention to the communality of the item: "He [Mr. Kelly] was as fond of his chair in his own way as Murphy had been of his" (276). Both love fast, rocking movement.
Complicating the situation, Mr. Kelly is also associated with Mr. Endon, the psychotic mental patient with whom Murphy had vainly sought to forge a reciprocal relationship. That connection is established through a shared head/body ratio. Endon's body is "tiny," his skull "immense" (186). Correspondingly, Mr. Kelly has an exaggeratedly large head and a very small body, as is descriptively noted: "He wore his kiting costume, a glistening slicker many sizes too large for him and a yachting-cap many sizes too small, though the smallest and largest of their kind obtainable" (276). No information is given about the size of Murphy's head and body but we are told that Mr. Kelly's granddaughter Celia, a prostitute by default and Murphy's intended, has a small head. The Kelly-Endon link is reinforced by the fact that Mr. Kelly's "glistening slicker" cross-references with the quality of luminosity associated with Mr. Endon (276). Light spurts off him "north, south, east, west and in fifty-six other directions" (241). We note that Murphy, very late in the narrative, leaves Mr. Endon's bedside feeling "incandescent" (250).
Despite the fact that questions of consequence remain unresolved, there is no sign in the critical literature that readers of Murphy feel they have been left hanging. [End Page 105] That can be credited to two factors: the strong closural mechanisms we have noted, and hidden, behind-the-scenes potencies. By the latter, I mean that readers experience closure because closure is actually achieved, not at the overt or surface level of the narrative, where closure-resistant questions arise, but at the covert level, where they are answered. This explanation is based on two premises. First, Murphy is a two-tiered novel made up of an overt narrative—that which readers grasp on a first reading (which they may retain without significant change on subsequent readings)—and a covert narrative that exists in potentia within the overt and needs to be brought to light by an interpreting reader. The overt narrative is riddled with holes; the covert is complete and coherent. But even in its latent state, the covert narrative's presence permeates the whole and contributes to the strongly felt sense of closure engendered in first-time and repeating readers alike. Thus, reaching the last part of chapter 13, one feels that something of great consequence is coming to an end. The immeasurable importance Mr. Kelly attaches to the flight of his kite, and the state of extremis he falls into when its execution takes an unpredicted turn, tell us that something of enormity must have happened, though we do not really understand what or why.
The second premise is that Murphy is a cryptic text. In an essay on "The Figure in the Carpet" I define cryptic text as "a narrative designed to pose perplexing problems, the answers to which constitute hidden meanings or secrets" ("Is There" 519). In Murphy and James's tale, the overarching secret takes the form of a concealed narrative. (James's concealed narrative, the figure in his carpet, is summarized on 555–59). It is, however, too early for me to say whether all cryptic texts have covert narratives, though all have concealed ideas, which is why they merit the designation cryptic. On the assumption that the nature of a text dictates how we go about interpreting it, it follows that problem solving is what the cryptic text calls for. That entails perceiving intentional problems, formulating them, and working out solutions. My opening question has already been formulated: Why does Murphy end with two closural chapters? My concluding question is: What is the meaning and significance of Mr. Kelly determining the point at which the seen and the unseen meet? In between, I take up problems as they arise. These include but are not limited to the puzzling elements noted.
Tentatively and with utmost brevity, my answer to the question of why Murphy ends with two closural chapters is that there are two Murphys, the one identified with the body, the other with the mind. The mind/body dichotomy, the core issue of the novel, is discussed under a host of equivalent names: the little world of the mind and the big world of the body; the microcosm and the macrocosm; inner reality and outer reality; and, accentuating the radical nature of the division, the mental Murphy and the physical Murphy—as though the two were separate and independent persons. The mortuary chapter (12) pays last respects to the physical Murphy; the Round Pond chapter (13) to the non-physical.
However, no sooner than stated, this simple answer runs into the objection that Murphy is also referred to as a three-part self: "body, mind and soul." The expression is used three times: first by the asylum medical superintendent, Angus Killiecrankie, [End Page 106] in reply to an inquiry about incineration: "Dr. Killiecrankie confessed to a small close furnace of the reverberatory type, in which the toughest body, mind and soul could be relied on to revert, in under an hour [. . .] to ash of an eminently portable quantity" (271); second, in the reading of Murphy's will, specifying how he wished his "body, mind and soul" to be disposed of (flushed down the toilet of the Abbey Theatre) (269); and third, in the narrator's description of its actual disposal: "By closing time the body, mind and soul of Murphy were freely distributed over the floor of the saloon . . ." (275). These mentions of a three-way split clash with the dominant dualism developed until that late point in the narrative, and so the question naturally arises as to whether the three-term expression is meant to be taken seriously or ironically. Ackerley and Gontarski call it "a huge Democritean joke," referring to the pre-Socratic philosopher's belief in an atomistic, material, and mortal soul (388). But mind, apparently, is no laughing matter, for they describe the ending in these terms: "The novel closes elegiacally at the Round Pond, Mr. Kelly's kite a final emblem of the separation of body and mind" (388). Ackerley more specifically identifies kite as "a Cartesian emblem, the kite of the mind tenuously attached to the hand of the body" (Demented Particulars 57). I identify the kite as the soul and further propose that the release of the soul is the telos toward which the covert narrative aspires.
In sharp contrast to the abundantly discussed terms mind and body, soul is not overtly discussed in the novel. For now, I adopt the standard dictionary definition of soul as immaterial, immortal, and separable from the body at death, but I will elaborate as we go on. Surprisingly, the better known terms mind and body are also in need of definition as they are not used in the familiar Cartesian sense. In Murphy, they implicate differentiated modes of consciousness. Body aligns with ordinary waking consciousness and mind with hypnotic dream consciousness. Murphy's mental experience, which is depicted without delay in the novel's opening pages, takes the form of lucid dreaming (in the first two of the three zones of his mind). Under conditions of self-induced hypnotic trance, achieved by applying two techniques—rhythmic rocking in a rocking chair and eye fixation (staring at a spot of light)—Murphy immerses himself in a hallucinatory reality. As in the case of nocturnal dreaming, he passes from the waking state to trance consciousness when his body falls into some sort of sleep. The celebrated mind/body dichotomy in Murphy is thus based on a non-Cartesian model that contrasts the ordinary "day" mind with the "night" mind that operates under conditions of hypnotic trance as well as actual sleep.
The next step in my analysis involves introducing my central thesis: that the doubled ending of Murphy is the outcome of two dialectically constructed narrative processes, the prototypes of which are Hegelian.
The Dialectic of Progress and the Dialectic of Recognition
The narrative design of Murphy is doubly dialectic: Beckett mounts a multi-phased dialectic of recognition on a dialectically constructed narrative frame that stretches from an initial situation, in which the hero is likened to a prisoner in a cage (the world of the body), to a final sublation, rendered through the symbolic action of the [End Page 107] ascending kite. Its significance for closure lies in the fact that the two processes must reach completion for the novel to end. Complications of various kinds keep that from happening, the most noteworthy of which is the inability of the non-communicating, self-immersed Mr. Endon to recognize Murphy as the mental entity he fancies himself to be. How this hurdle is overcome will occupy a good part of my discussion.
The two processes may be delineated as follows: The dialectic of progress refers to the overarching process by which Murphy proceeds from his initial to his end state. Its characteristic features are opposition, conflict, and a consequent search for resolution, where the principal conflict is that between the needs and demands of his body, which he professes to hate, with those of his mind, which he loves. The second dialectic involves acts of witnessing and being witnessed. These are the means by which the conflict is eventually overcome. Both processes are made up of individual phases that unfold in succession. Thus, Murphy does not reach his end in one big leap, but fumbles ahead on an obstacle-strewn path that moves towards its ultimate goal in distinct stages. The two processes intertwine: acts of witnessing are located on individual stations along the dialectical path of progress and shape its development. With the notable exception of the eye-gazing scene in which Murphy attempts to gain Mr. Endon's recognition, these acts may seem to be unrelated instances of one or another character merely looking at someone or something. Seen from a Hegelianinformed perspective, they constitute "moments" in a dialectic of recognition.
Let me illustrate what I mean by an act of witnessing with the instance of Celia's identification of Murphy's dead body by his birthmark, a "huge pink nævus on the pinnacle of the right buttock" (29). This early featured detail is held in reserve until the mortuary scene of chapter 12 (237 pages later) when, like Chekhov's gun, its relevance for the plot finally emerges. The coroner calls on those in attendance to identify the dead body. Celia alone is capable of doing so: "She put her finger lightly on the spot and said: 'Here he had a big birthmark'" (266). Celia, whose profession and small head align her with the world of the body, appropriately witnesses Murphy's body.
A number of textual allusions direct the reader to Hegel. Dialectical progression is alluded to by a gesture that parodies the famous Hegelian triadic movement consisting of a thesis, its anti-thesis, and a synthesis. Beckett uses terms closer to the Hegelian original—position, negation, and sublation. It is performed on three separate occasions by three different characters and observed by persons familiar with Hegelian thought. It is first performed by Neary, Murphy's mentor in the occult arts, and observed by Murphy:
Neary clenched his fists and raised them before his face. [. . .] The knuckles stood out white under the skin in the usual way—that was the position. The hands then opened quite correctly to the utmost limit of their compass—that was the negation. It now seemed to Murphy that there were two equally legitimate ways in which the gesture might be concluded and the sublation effected. The hands might be clapped to the head in a smart gesture of despair, or let fall limply to the seams of the trousers, supposing that to have been their point of departure. Judge then of his annoyance when Neary clenched them again more violently than before and dashed them against [End Page 108] his breast-bone.(4–5; my emphasis—note how early the passage appears in the narrative)
Twenty pages later we find another version performed by Mr. Kelly, this time successfully. The hands return to their "point of departure" (24). That counts as a legitimate form of resolution for Murphy, if not for Hegel. In the third instance, eleven pages on, Celia goes through the same routine. Here too, the notion of legitimacy is invoked: "She despatched her hands on the gesture that Neary had made such a botch of [. . .] and resolved it quite legitimately, as it seemed to Murphy, by dropping them back into their original position" (35; my emphasis).
I draw attention to the two types of legitimate resolution because they correlate with the novel's two closural endings. The return of the hands to their point of origin fits in with the ashes-to-ashes ending; the clapping of hands to the head with the rising kite. Dialectical progression is specifically alluded to in chapter 13 as well, with the rising movement of Mr. Kelly's kite likened, in apparent dismissive jest (but nonetheless likened), to the course of historical progress: "Mr. Kelly let out a wild rush of line, say the industrial revolution, then without recoil or stop, gingerly, the last few feet" (279–80). The release of the kite brings the process to a final sublation. The German for "to sublate" is Aufheben, meaning to lift up, elevate, or transcend (as well as negate, cancel, or abrogate). Seen as an instrument for sublation, the choice of kite as a symbol makes perfect sense.
Like so much else in the novel, the narrative divides into two parts: a main plot and a subplot. The main plot deals with Murphy's mind/body conflict and is set in London. The subplot is concerned with his cast-off Irish friends—his former love interest Miss Catherine Counihan and her suitors—who share the goal of finding their absconded friend. Murphy himself is unaware of the fact that he is the object of pursuit and dies before they succeed in tracking him down. To gain an unimpeded view of Murphy's onward and upward progress, I omit the subplot from my discussion and focus on the chain of events that lands him in the Endon domain. There, in an ostensibly failed dialectic of recognition, the narrative reaches a climax.
Curiously enough, the starting point for the tale of Murphy's progress is a medical problem. A flashback reveals the young man to have a dialectically malfunctioning heart, "one moment in such labour that it seemed on the point of seizing, the next in such ebullition that it seemed on the point of bursting" (3). After his condition proves resistant to the attempts by Neary to "blend the opposites in Murphy's heart" (4), Murphy discovers that love, given to and reciprocated by Celia, can palliate his condition. But the seeds of contradiction, present from the start, rapidly ripen into conflict. Chronically unemployed, Murphy can survive on the small handouts he receives from a relative, but that is not enough for the two of them. Unwilling to sacrifice the time and freedom he requires for his retreats into his mind, he recoils against entering the "mercantile gehenna" (40). Celia, on the other hand, cannot ply her trade [End Page 109] (prostitution) and maintain a relationship with Murphy. Thus, Murphy needs Celia and indeed plans on marrying her but rejects the conditions attached to a shared life. The extent of his need is brought out by the fact that he has a heart attack when she threatens to leave. "So you see [. . .] what a difference your staying with me makes," he tells her (30). (It will soon make no difference.)
Dilemma follows dilemma. Once Murphy's heart problem is resolved, the resulting work crisis sets in. That, too, finds a resolution when he is offered a job at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, which he leaps at, more for the opportunity of exploring the world of the insane than for stabilizing his relationship with Celia. Indeed, her importance fades as he acquaints himself with a segment of humanity different from any he has known. In keeping with the general developmental pattern, a new and serious conflict manifests itself shortly after he begins work. Where his previous concern had been how to manage a two-world life, his great wish now is to become a "microcosmopolitan" (240), a term he applies to the "higher schizoids" and others similarly cut off from the outer world (180). Murphy sees the patients as a select band of men who have chosen a life of the mind over life in the physical world and aspires to enter their ranks. One measure of his progress is "his success with the patients" (180), which he takes to mean that "they felt in him what they had been and he in them what he would be" (184). In other words, he sees himself as an incipient madman. Here is a statement summarizing his analysis of his situation: "The issue [. . .] as lovingly simplified and perverted by Murphy, lay between nothing less fundamental than the big world and the little world, decided by the patients in favour of the latter, revived by the psychiatrists on behalf of the former, in his own case unresolved. In fact, it was unresolved, only in fact. His vote was cast. 'I am not of the big world, I am of the little world' was an old refrain with Murphy, and a conviction, two convictions, the negative first" (178).
To turn conviction into fact, Murphy creates a strategy designed to reset the relationship between his incompatible selves. That involves disassociating himself from the staff members, whom he despises, and identifying with the patients, for whom he feels awe and reverence. The strategy meets with impressive but nonetheless only partial and temporary success. The possibility of defining himself as a member of the little world breaks down when, alone on night duty with no staff members around to contrast himself against, he is perforce thrown into the role of other vis-à-vis the patients, whom he feels have locked him out. Ever resourceful, he concocts a scheme for working himself out of this dilemma too. Fastening his hopes on Mr. Endon, the acme of inwardness, he makes a bid to gain his recognition, hoping thereby to resolve his case along lines matching those set out by Hegel for a comparable purpose in the section on "Lordship and Bondage" of The Phenomenology of Mind.
One major parallel between Beckett's narrative and Hegel's philosophical epic is that both feature protagonists in the grip of an identity crisis. Hegel's "protagonist" Geist, variously referred to as Mind or Spirit in English translations, is an entity that transverses the stage of history in search of absolute self-knowledge and acts toward that end through individually questing human minds. At the stage relevant for the comparisons I am interested in making, Geist's efforts are conducted by individuals that have achieved mere self-certainty—a subjective sense of selfhood. Murphy's unsubstantiated [End Page 110] declaration, "I am not of the big world, I am of the little world" (178), and the narrator's editorial comments regarding that declaration make it clear that, like Geist in a comparable situation, the task ahead is to convert self-certainty into objective knowledge. In both cases, success is dependent on the cooperation of an outside party or other capable of affirming the identity that the self-certain consciousness ascribes to itself. In effect, Murphy's unsubstantiated self-certainty mirrors not only the situation of Geist but also the general condition of human beings that have yet to establish that they are what they take themselves to be.
The conditions outlined by Hegel are favorable to this goal as the individual in need of self-confirmation and the individual capable of granting it are intrinsically identical, bifurcated aspects of Geist that share the same need. In principle, then, A should be able to recognize B as the self-consciousness it takes itself to be and B should be similarly able to recognize A. In practice, however, the process goes awry. For reasons having to do with the immaturity of understanding that characterizes the Hegelian parties at this stage of their development, what would seem to be a reasonable bilateral interest—the granting of mutual recognition—develops instead into a bitter contest between adversaries. Each sees the other not as a self-consciousness like itself but as an alien entity. A life-and-death struggle ensues. The factor determining the outcome is courage, the victor being the one who withstands the fear of death, preferring to lose his life than to capitulate.
The above sketch outlines the circumstances leading to the emergence of Hegelian master-servant (or master-slave) relations: the vanquished party becomes bondsman to the victor. This is a point of relevance for Beckett's novel as Mr. Endon and Murphy constitute a covert master-servant pair. Importantly, within the framework of their encounter we discover an analogue to the Hegelian life-and-death struggle: the game of chess, which is a form of mock warfare. It ends with Murphy's willing surrender, referred to as an "act of submission" (245), confirming what was in any case apparent: that the self-immersed Mr. Endon, wholly indifferent to Murphy's presence and personhood, is a master figure. Though the game itself has been ably analyzed by Taylor and Loughrey, its thematic significance calls for a Hegelian reading.
Murphy's moves are governed by his need to prop up his thus far unconfirmed belief that he is a man of the microcosm, a true counterpart of Mr. Endon, whom he fancies his friend. He is about to learn that his latest and last strategy for resolving his two-world conflict—being acknowledged by a bona fide microcosmopolitan—is based on false conceptions of himself and Mr. Endon, the other in whom he had placed his hopes. A victim of his own willful blindness, he ascribes reciprocal feelings to Mr. Endon. The gap between belief and reality is pointedly noted by the wise and omniscient authorial narrator: "Mr. Endon would have been less than Mr. Endon if he had known what it was to have a friend; and Murphy more than Murphy if he had not hoped against his better judgment that his feeling for Mr. Endon was in some small degree reciprocated. Whereas the sad truth was, that while Mr. Endon for Murphy was no less than bliss, Murphy for Mr. Endon was no more than chess" (241–42; my emphasis).
Murphy makes every attempt to imitate Mr. Endon's moves, but playing White, he makes a first move that Endon does not repeat, thus dooming the possibility of [End Page 111] successful imitation. He persists nonetheless in his quasi-imitation with the apparent aim of salvaging what he can of the Hegelian principle of reciprocity. "The movement," Hegel writes, "is [. . .] the double movement of the two self-consciousnesses. Each sees the other do the same as it does; each does itself what it demands of the other, and therefore also does what it does only insofar as the other does the same. Action by one side would be useless because what is to happen can only be brought about by both" (112).
The persistence with which Murphy pursues reciprocity is revealed both in his chess strategy and in his post-game attempt at gaining Mr. Endon's recognition. The latter event is modelled on the following development in the Hegelian scheme: Once master-servant roles are established, the servant accords the master recognition but his act is not reciprocated, he being, as it were, beneath the master's notice. However, owing to the implicit identity obtaining between master and servant, each being an individual manifestation of Geist, the servant witnessing the master also perceives himself. He is, however, unable to identify with that refracted image since he continues to see the master as wholly other. It is only later, through his exertions on behalf of the master, that he comes to see himself in the fruits of his labor, while the master, relieved of effort, stagnates. While this late outcome of the life and death struggle is commonly stressed in discussions of "Lordship and Bondage," the focus in Murphy is on the problematic mutual recognition scheme.
From the perspective of the overt narrative, Murphy's obviously doomed attempt to get Mr. Endon to acknowledge him as a kindred spirit brings the dialectic of progress to a standstill. His death follows shortly after, carrying with it the implication that the narrative itself has reached a dead end. That would account for the fact that chapter 13 is usually ignored in Beckett criticism. However, if we think of chapter 13 as an integral part of a narrative progression that ends with the vanishing of Mr. Kelly's kite, and further, if we define this culminating act as the telos of the narrative, then we are obliged to explain how a stalled process manages to reach its destined goal. To make progress on this front, I find it useful to move on to the end, and then look back, better informed, at what happens and does not happen when Murphy's mutual recognition scheme breaks down.
A Turn in the Dialectic of Recognition
The opening paragraph of chapter 13 unobtrusively picks up the narrative where chapter 12 leaves off. Murphy's incineration in a furnace and the dispersal of his ashes end the old chapter; smoke rising from a chimney and other death-related images begin the new. "Late afternoon, Saturday, October the 26th. A mild, clear, sunless day, sudden gentle eddies of rotting leaves, branches still against the still sky, from a chimney a pine of smoke" (276; my emphasis).
Against this somber background, which hints at an afterlife for Murphy, three events of significance unfold. In order of occurrence: Mr. Kelly's kite rises out of sight in the empty sky; the old man winds in, fixing his eyes on "the point at which seen and unseen met" (280). Next, a child's tandem kite is caught in a high wind and falls [End Page 112] to the ground. Finally, the winch of Mr. Kelly's kite springs from his fingers, the string snaps, and the kite vanishes. In the aftermath of these events, Mr. Kelly is wheeled home by Celia.
The first two events are foreshadowed in chapters 2 and 8 respectively. It is in 2 that the kite is first introduced. The scene features Celia unburdening herself to her bedridden grandfather about her troubled relationship with Murphy. He tells her to sever the "connexion" (24)—advice she does not follow. Before she leaves, he asks her to bring him his kite and starts repairing some loose tassels in preparation for the next day, when he will "fly her out of sight" (25). A mysterious detail appears in Mr. Kelly's imaginary construction of his proposed outing: "Already he was in position, straining his eyes for the speck that was he, digging in his heels against the immense pull skyward" (25; my emphasis). The foreshadowing in chapter 8 concerns the child with the tandem kite, described in a scene of unusual tenderness that serves the practical narrative purpose of creating the conditions for a twofold comparison. Whereas in chapter 8 the child maneuvers his imperiled kite to a successful landing, a day later, as reported in chapter 13, it falls and breaks into pieces. This disappointing result contrasts with the successful flight of Mr. Kelly's kite (and its subsequent unintended release). The possibility of the child's failure resulting from his lesser experience is ruled out. "The child was expert, he played them [his two kites flown from a double winch] with a finesse worthy of Mr. Kelly himself" (152). The diversity of fate met by these kites has theological underpinnings but can be otherwise understood as a narratorial maneuver meant to highlight kite flying and create tension regarding the flight of Mr. Kelly's kite—will it succeed or fail? In addition, it prods the reader into looking at these happenings in symbolic terms. For outside of a symbolic interpretation, made virtually obligatory by the attention lavished on kites and their fates, the business of kite flying would count for little.
To appreciate subsequent developments, we now need to bring some light to the notion of soul. The key to the matter is the mysterious item noted in connection with Mr. Kelly's envisioned outing. It appears in other contexts as well and is variously called speck and point, and sometimes appears together with line and/or seen and unseen. Thus, at the end of the Murphy/Endon eye-gazing scene, Murphy sees himself as "a speck in Mr. Endon's unseen" (250; my emphasis). In his vision of his future outing, Mr. Kelly similarly refers to himself as a speck: At the end of the narrative, his desire to see the point at which the seen and unseen meet is realized. Other instances of speck appear moments earlier in connection with kite flying (152, 279).
In two instances, point and speck refer to a self of some kind. Murphy is a speck in Mr. Endon's unseen; Mr. Kelly strains his eyes for the speck that was he. Most interestingly, the same self-referential relation between person and point obtains in the much different context of Murphy's mind, as described in chapter 6. There, in the dark third zone, Murphy is said to be "a point in the ceaseless unconditioned generation and passing away of line" (112; my emphasis). The semantics connect this instance with the others. That gives us three contexts in which point plays a vital role: kite flying, eye gazing, and the third zone of the mind. I assume that irrespective of context, speck/point has a single reference: the soul. Let us consider the last context. [End Page 113]
The third zone is qualitatively different from the other two, where Murphy spends his time devising scenarios and contemplating mental landscapes. No such activity takes place in the third. In a state of utter passivity, he is carried along in "a flux of forms, a perpetual coming together and falling asunder of forms" (112). Little else is said about the special qualities of this zone, but that little coordinates well with the elements at play in the Round Pond scene. Thus, the third zone sensation is said to be that of "a missile without provenance or target, caught up in a tumult of non-Newtonian motion" (112–13). The parallel for missile is kite, and the associate of tumult is the wind at the Round Pond (281). In the third zone experience, Murphy is described as an object in motion, moving not on his own volition but carried away by the medium in which he is immersed, like a kite in the wind. Taken as a whole, the world of the mind is repeatedly spoken of as a place in which Murphy enjoys freedom, in contrast to the prison-like constraint of the physical world. But the supreme state in his hierarchy of prized states is not freedom but the condition of "will-lessness" (111). Two other features that have parallels in the Round Pond scene are darkness, which gives further point and purpose to the end-of-day-scheme, and pleasure. All three zones are exceedingly pleasurable, but the ultimate pleasure is experienced when Murphy surrenders control and abandons himself to the flow: "Here he was not free, but a mote in the dark of absolute freedom" (112). This peak experience is replicated in the untethered flight of the kite vanishing joyfully in the darkening sky.
In the light of these clarifications, let us return to the dialectic of recognition, which we left in a state of impasse with Murphy desperate for Mr. Endon's recognition and predictably unable to get it. Two acts of witnessing occur in the framework of their encounter, one before the chess game, the other after. In the first, Murphy observes Mr. Endon through the shutter of his cell, an apparatus common to cameras and eyes as well; in the second, kneeling beside his bed, he takes Mr Endon's head in his hands and looks into his eyes (248). Looking at the two witnessing scenes in conjunction, I conclude that the object perceived in both cases is the soul. That enables us to reach the generalization that what fails as a dialectic between minds succeeds as a dialectic between souls.
Witnessing and Being Witnessed
The shift from mind to soul is transitionless and sudden. Unexpectedly, the camera-eye picture does not show us Mr. Endon the "biddable gaga" (250), but a meditating figure sitting upright in bed with legs crossed. "An impeccable and brilliant figurine in his scarlet gown," he radiates a preternatural light of the kind found in pictures of the Buddha and figures revered in other traditions (241). The light spurts off him "north, south, east, west and in fifty-six other directions" (241), which is to say, in sixty directions on the analogy of the divisions of a clock. How Murphy reacts to the strange sight is left unsaid by the frequently editorializing narrator. Thus, the reader alone must judge what this emission of light signifies. On the assumption that the possibilities of interpretation are limited to body, mind, and soul, I take the [End Page 114] radiantly luminous aspect of Mr. Endon newly revealed in this scene to represent the outward manifestation of his soul.
In the second witnessing act, Murphy unexpectedly sees his own image in Mr. Endon's eyes, "horribly reduced, obscured and distorted" (249). The idea of shrinkage brings the image into line with the littleness of the speck. In both cases then—Murphy's witnessing the radiant Mr. Endon through the shutter of his cell and his witnessing of himself in Mr. Endon's eyes—the object witnessed is the soul under different but comparable guises. However, the terms used to describe Murphy's soul ("horribly reduced," etc.) suggest that in contrast to the soul of Mr. Endon, his is in urgent need of repair.
That the dialectic of recognition has evolved into one involving souls is evidenced by the debut of Murphy's soul into the pages of the novel. I am referring to the unprecedented entry into his consciousness of words demanding to be spoken, which he channels, like a spiritualistic medium: "Murphy heard words demanding so strongly to be spoken that he spoke them, right into Mr. Endon's face" (250). These words are recorded in the form of a poetic composition set off by indentation, with poetic lines and explanatory commentary. They bear the imprint of truth, as is manifest in this summarizing statement: "The relation between Mr. Murphy and Mr. Endon could not have been better summed up than by the former's sorrow at seeing himself in the latter's immunity from seeing anything but himself" (250). The statement expresses Murphy's disappointment over the collapse of his hopes. Having arrived at the late understanding that Mr. Endon is incapable of acknowledging him as a kindred spirit, he is saddened. At a deeper level, however, it reveals a truth known to the narrator, amply demonstrated to the reader but, until now, not realized by Murphy.
"There's none so blind as those who will not see," says an old proverb. What Murphy newly perceives in Mr. Endon's eyes is his own blindness. Willful blindness lies behind his mistaken first impressions of the world of the insane, as the narrator points out: "Nothing remained but to see what he wanted to see" (176); "Nothing remained but to substantiate these [impressions], distorting all that threatened to belie them" (176). That same blindness enables him to conceive of the self-immured non-communicating Mr. Endon as a potential partner and friend in a mutually reciprocating relationship. It similarly prevents him from seeing Celia as anything but a body, when, by way of contrast, the narrator reveals her eagerly engaging in the same trance-inducing practices he engaged in. Her self-absorbed paramour knows nothing of her inner life.
Murphy's discovery of his blindness constitutes a turning point in his life and in the development of the narrative. The section as a whole has all the makings of an Aristotelean anagnorisis, with Murphy recognizing his own true state, Mr. Endon's true state, and the true nature of their relationship. As a complex moment of recognition, it easily grafts onto the larger design of the novel's dialectic of recognition which, corrected as to course, continues toward its goal, transformed from an impossible affair between minds to a still problematic but promising engagement of souls.
The cause of the turnabout, I surmise, is Murphy's surrender at the chessboard, which I take to signify the abdication of his will, for that is the source of his blindness. The resulting will-lessness, the most highly prized state in his microcosmic experience, [End Page 115] yields immediate and dramatic consequences. The first is his unanticipated perception of his blindness in Mr. Endon's eyes. A second is his falling into a trance unaided by his rocking chair, his eyes having been "captured" by Mr. Endon's radiant being (245). A third is his hearing of those words demanding to be spoken. A fourth is his unwilled seeing of visions. The abdication of the will is temporary: Murphy decides to return to Celia shortly afterwards.
Let us pause to examine the fourth happening. Following his exit from Mr. Endon's ward, Murphy lies down naked on the grass, and tries to envision the things he wishes to see (his mother, his father, Celia and all the characters and animals in the story): "In vain in all cases" (251). Two well-defined images then emerge in succession: the child "waiting to feel the knife" from a Giovanni Bellini circumcision scene and, also implicating a knife, eyeballs being scraped, "first any eyeballs, then Mr. Endon's" (251). Together, they generate the metaphor circumcision of the eyes, a variant of the biblical notion of circumcision of the heart, itself a metaphor derived from the actual act of circumcision. The metaphor is comparable in meaning to scales falling from one's eyes. The upshot is that Murphy not only discovers his blindness, but is also cured of it. As the circumcised heart can newly feel, so circumcised eyes can begin to see.
One might want to argue, however, that the eyeball scraping vision represents what Murphy wishes were the case. A clear-sighted Mr. Endon could grant him recognition. But that would mean that the deluded protagonist, hoping for the impossible, remains deluded to the end. I see this gruesome image instead as indicative of the transformation of Murphy's inner self. From the perspective of the dialectic of recognition, the image of Mr. Endon's eyeballs being scraped is an objectification of what is happening to Murphy. Having perceived his blindness in Mr. Endon's eyes, he now sees it being remedied. This conception of a self seeing itself in a moment of change through the agency of an other is complemented by a further element in the dialectic, now near completion: Murphy's felt incandescence upon leaving Mr. Endon's bedside. Incandescence denotes strong, brilliant light. To be incandescent is to emit such light. Were it not for the fact that we just read of Mr. Endon's incandescent splendor, we might not notice this small detail: "In contrast to the foredawn, which was pitch black, cold and damp, Murphy felt incandescent" (250). The acquisition of incandescence means that he achieved parity with Mr. Endon.
I attribute this newly acquired luminosity not to the abdication of Murphy's will per se but to what transpires in his post-surrender trance. Progressively experiencing three varieties of nothing, the spiritually depleted protagonist draws Godliness into his soul. That is my reading of this statement: "Murphy [. . .] continued to suck in, through all the posterns of his withered soul, the accidentless One-and-Only, conveniently called Nothing" (246). I identify One-and-Only with the Hebrew "Echad v'Yachid," a fundamental concept referring to the unity and singularity of God. I understand Nothing (in this context) to refer to the Infinite God (Ein Sof) of which nothing (Ein or Ayin) can be apprehended by the human intellect. Accidentless belongs to the lexicon of negative theology.
For the dialectic of recognition to reach its preordained end, the now clear-sighted luminous protagonist needs to be witnessed by a compeer. As Mr. Endon cannot [End Page 116] perform that task, it is turned over to Mr. Kelly, who is both like and unlike Mr. Endon. In view of the fact that the two men are endowed with equivalent qualities, they may be termed fungible. Fungible characters may perform equivalent functions if they possess requisite qualities. Mr. Kelly and Mr. Endon possess the quality of luminosity, manifested in the former by the glistening slicker, as well as inwardness, reflected in the big head/little body ratio. Importantly, however, Mr. Kelly and Mr. Endon not only share common qualities but differ with respect to the quality most needed by a witness.
Where Mr. Endon's blurry bloodshot eyes disqualify him, Mr. Kelly's exceedingly keen vision, described by such superlatives as "hypermetropic in the extreme" (280), make him an ideal witness. The great emphasis on eyes, sight, and blindness in Murphy (and other Beckett works) warrants a separate study, but there are three critical points to be made here. First, the notion of clear-sightedness refers not only to eyesight but also to insight, the ability to perceive oneself and others accurately, objectively, and with acumen, such that things are seen as they are and not as we wish them to be. Though no paragon of virtue, Mr. Kelly has insight, as demonstrated by his ability to size up Murphy on the basis of Celia's account of their relations. Second, the hypermetropic quality of his eyes enables him to see distant objects in the sky, important for the mission of witnessing Murphy's ascending soul. Third, it further means that he is a visionary who can see into the future, a point of major relevance for the grand finale of the narrative, as will soon be seen.
By the end, all the components of Murphy's being—his body, mind, and soul—are witnessed. The small-headed Celia witnesses Murphy's body. He in turn had witnessed her in the extra-long gaze marking their first meeting (14). Celia's big-headed grandfather witnesses Murphy's soul. From the fact that he is shaken to his depths when he finds the kite gone, as though his own soul had taken flight, it is clear that he identifies himself with the kite—the speck that was he. But viewed in the light of the long trajectory of the narrative, the joyfully vanishing kite cannot be anything but Murphy's soul. Here, too, fungibility plays a crucial role: a shared attachment to chairs—the one to his wheelchair, the other to his rocker—and the shared quality of luminosity secure that point. Ironically and comically, Murphy's Endon-identified mind receives its due as well. While Murphy is deep in trance, Mr. Endon leaves his bed and flips the light switches off and on, thereby creating the impression among the asylum staff that Murphy (whom they believe responsible) went mad. And if, as seems likely, his unwilled experience of auditory and visual hallucinations are meant to be understood as a lapse of sanity, their erroneous belief would be right.
With the help of the fungibility principle, Mr. Kelly's witnessing the point in the sky brings the dialectic of recognition to a close, and with the breaking away and vanishing of the kite, the dialectic of progress comes to an end. The two processes are conditionally linked: recognition must be achieved before the dialectic of progress can reach its goal. With their mutual completion, we may suppose the novel to have reached the finish line. That indeed is what I had thought, before I began to inquire into the last question I set myself: What is the meaning and significance of Mr. Kelly's wish to determine the point at which the seen and the unseen met? [End Page 117]
The Meeting of Seen and Unseen
I preface my answer with the observation that the two-term body/mind and three-term body/mind/soul divisions are compatible. To clarify: mind, as conceived of by Murphy, encompasses three differentiated zones. The first two accommodate imagined scenes; the third houses nothing, so to speak, but the point or mote in the flux of forms. Having identified Murphy's soul with the point, it follows that the third zone is the seat of the soul. As a component of the totality of the world of the mind, the third zone contrasts with the world of the body, but looked at separately, as the seat of the soul, it contrasts not only with the body but also with the first two zones. The terminology is context dependent and elastic, such that Murphy may be variously characterized by the two-term phrase mind and body, or by the three-term expression body, mind, and soul, with no risk of contradiction. In my discussion below, mind is the appropriate term for one context, and soul for another.
We now need to clarify the meaning of seen and unseen. Two possibilities are open: they may refer to a new pair of entities or to body and mind, newly named for this context. I believe both are intended. Given that the mind is not perceptible, it may be called the unseen, while the body, being perceptible, may be designated the seen. I further postulate that the worlds of the mind and the body have higher order correlates which may be designated the Unseen and the Seen. I take the Unseen to be Heaven, the celestial counterpart of Murphy's blissful and paradisical little world, and the Seen to be Earth, the counterpart of his personal big world. This gives us two pairs of corresponding worlds. One pair, the non-visible, is the realm of pleasure and pleasantness, the other pair, the visible, is filled with pain and misery.
To determine the nature of the vision that so delights Mr. Kelly, let us consider what it means for the point to be the site of a meeting. The soul is two-directionally oriented: it is oriented toward the physical world (with which it interacts through the agency of the body) and toward its spiritual source (from which it comes, to which it is always attached, and to which it returns in the end). But given the great differences between these worlds, the one spiritual and infinite, the other material and finite, the one pleasurable beyond words, the other at best tolerable, in what sense can these opposites be conceived of as meeting?
Rather than working step by step toward an explanation, I would like to leap ahead with a thesis and then defend it. In briefest terms, the Seen that meets the Unseen is not the gross physical world sardonically depicted in Murphy. Nor is it an ontologically different world. Instead, it is that same physical world transformed into what it is destined to become in the Era of Redemption: a world perfected and redeemed. The old man's rapturous vision replaces a fractious reality where opposites clash, with the prospect of a perfected world where, in the words of Isaiah (11:6 KJV), "The wolf [. . .] shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid." Opposites (the physical world and the spiritual world, body and soul, the wolf and the lamb) remain opposites but coexist in peace and harmony. In this reading, the old man with the kite and the hypermetropic sight is enraptured by a vision of the End of Days and is treating himself to a foretaste of that goodly end. By virtue of that vision, [End Page 118] the novel ends (at the end of the day) not only with Murphy rising out of the debacle but with the debacle itself negated and superseded.
In defense of this reading, I want to stress the magnitude and intensity of Mr. Kelly's experience. This is shown not only through Beckett's choice of words (enraptured, ecstasy) but more obliquely by the exceptional semantic resources he brings to it. These are drawn from Keats's sonnet "Upon First Looking into Chapman's Homer," which aspires to express the inexpressible. Keats employs two analogies. The first invokes Herschel's discovery of the planet Uranus, the second the discovery of the Pacific Ocean by Balboa (in the poem, Keats speaks of Cortez). Beckett alludes to them almost verbatim. Compare what is said of Mr. Kelly: "He fixed with his eagle eyes a point in the empty sky where he fancied the kite to swim into view, and wound carefully in" (280; my emphasis) with this:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skiesWhen a new planet swims into his ken;Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyesHe star'd at the Pacific—and all his menLook'd at each other with a wild surmise—Silent, upon a peak in Darien.(9–14)
Beckett further aligns Mr. Kelly's experience with the breathtaking Keats moment by means of a third analogy, one of his own making, which picks up on Keats's allusion to Uranus. "The pleasure accruing to Mr. Kelly would be in no way inferior to that conferred (presumably) on Mr. Adams by his beautiful deduction of Neptune from Uranus" (280). These three analogies provide the measure for judging the supreme pleasure felt by the old man.
The discoveries invoked by Keats had the effect of revolutionizing earlier conceptions of the world. Prior to Herschel, the bodies in the sky were believed to be limited to the six planets known from antiquity. Prior to Balboa, the earth was believed to contain but one ocean. Beckett's borrowings from Keats, involving the skies above and the earth below, and his own complementary contribution (the Mr. Adams reference) thus invest Mr. Kelly's perception of the point at which seen and unseen meet, which precedes the breaking away of the kite, with extraordinary significance. Accordingly, we are bound to ask: What is Beckett getting at? What idea relevant to the understanding of Murphy could be comparable in scope and intensity to the Keats moment? My answer is, nothing less than the prophetic vision of the End of Days, as seen at the end of the day and revealed at the end of his unseen narrative.
Having made liberal use of theological concepts in this essay, I should point out that I do not attribute theological beliefs to Murphy, though he is characterized as a former theology student, nor to Beckett. But I do ascribe a theological outlook to the novel and impute it to the authorial narrator, who tells the tale of a soul's progress through an unredeemed world to its native home. I consider Beckett's own attitude to the religious dimension of the novel hermeneutically irrelevant and in any case non-determinable in view of his statement to Harold Hobson: "I am interested in the shape of ideas even if I do not believe in them" (quoted in Ackerley 175). It is [End Page 119] noteworthy that his example of a sentence that "has a wonderful shape" is drawn from the religious domain: "Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned," which he attributed to Augustine and quotes in both Waiting for Godot and Murphy. On the possibility of salvation in the play, Beckett told Hobson "I take no sides." His one cinematic work, the silent film generically titled Film, with Buster Keaton in the lead role, well exemplifies his ability to detach artistry from belief. Its governing idea, taken from the philosopher George Berkeley, is stated at the head of the script: Esse est percipi ("To be is to be perceived"). An explicit disclaimer follows his synopsis: "No truth value attaches to above, regarded as of merely structural and dramatic convenience" (11). His statement to Hobson—"It's the shape that matters" (Ackerley 175)—is no less of a disclaimer though broader in scope, as it applies to ideas in general, whether religious, philosophical, or any other.
Some Theoretical Implications
A large array of narratively interesting topics are discussed or touched on in my study of Murphy. Apart from closure, there is the role played by philosophical ideas in the making and the shaping of narratives; the probably unique doubly dialectical structure of Murphy itself and, more widely found, its teleologically developed plot; the concept of a two-tiered narrative composed of overt and covert stories; the narratorial use of symbols and, more broadly, poetic language; the concept of fungible characters; problem solving as a primary hermeneutic method; and above all, the concept of cryptic art. I choose to address two of these items in this last section: closure and the cryptic text, the latter with reference to the intended reader.
Given the widely accepted view that closure is achieved if and when the questions raised in the course of the narrative are answered (Carroll), or, in the same vein, when its information gaps are filled (Segal), it has been interesting to discover that the last chapter of Murphy not only fails to put previous uncertainties to rest but also introduces new ones—without loss of its closural force. I attributed the closural effect to two factors: One, the presence of strong closural mechanisms at the overt level of the narrative: the end-of-day scheme, preceded by the death of the hero and capped off with the "All out" call of the rangers. And two, the existence of a teleologically structured covert narrative that reaches completion when the central conflict worked through in the novel is resolved. The many questions that arise at the overt level are left open so as to generate the kind of interest that will lead the reader back to the text for focused study and rewarding discovery—ideally, to the gradual revelation of the covert narrative. While fully acknowledging the value of a gap-filling approach for detective stories and other forms of light fiction, I find its application otherwise limited. First, because it cannot account for texts strewn with unanswered questions without judging them to be open rather than closed narratives. And second, because it is meant for first readings only. In the model developed by Eyal Segal for detective fiction, which is based on Meir Sternberg's model of narrative interest, information is withheld so as to generate curiosity, suspense, and surprise. But there is nothing to be held in suspense about or made curious about or surprised by once the author [End Page 120] has let the secrets out, which is why detective stories do not repay second readings. In cryptic texts, by contrast, secrets remain closed until a reader opens them up. For the beguiled reader, the end reached on a first reading will thus be the beginning of a protracted search.
Such searches may turn out well. And in fact, success is the hard-earned outcome of the legendary quests pursued in "The Figure in the Carpet," "The Gold-Bug," and Watt, which is generally misread as the tale of a failed quest (a view refuted in Benjamin, "What's Watt"). All three are self-reflexive works: texts that discourse about the class of literature to which they belong. Though different in significant respects, the individual seekers in these works have enough in common to allow us to draw on their portraits for a profile of the intended reader. The one constant is that a central character unwittingly gets sucked into a hermeneutic quest of unanticipated proportions and is held in its grip for an unexpectedly long time. The rest is variable, but to generalize nonetheless, the character encounters a text whose meaning eludes him (the seekers all happen to be male). Unable to resist the lure of mystery, he launches a full-blown investigation only to discover that the hurdles he overcomes lead to further hurdles. At some point, he pauses to reflect on what he has being doing and begins to suspect that the text he has been grappling with is deliberately crafted to elicit the response that it has elicited. That is to say, it begins to dawn on him that the text was conceived with the intention of leading him onto a path of quest. That idea develops into a conviction that alters his conception of the text, the author, and the work cut out for him as a reader, which he now continues with the mindset of a cryptic interpreter knowingly engaged in an enterprise of presumed high value.
"In the end I understood," says Sam, the co-protagonist of Watt, who modestly estimates or misleadingly underestimates the degree of understanding he achieved as little (167). That estimate, I assume, is relative to what there is to be understood in a complex and hugely difficult cryptic text. By contrast, readers of the temperament of Poe's hero William Legrand, whose very name denotes greatness, emphasize the magnitude of their success. Such is the case with the worthy George Corvick of James's tale, who calls his discovery immense and likens it to a buried treasure in implicit comparison with that discovered by Legrand. All three narratives depict an obsessed reader driven nearly mad in the course of an all-consuming pursuit. These depictions might be dismissed as sensationalist hyperbole, or held up as a mirror, depending on whether one belongs to the category of the narrator of James's tale or that of its hero.
A question I take up in a sequel to this paper is: How do authors procure dedicated readers like Sam, Corvick, and Legrand? That is the reverse side of the question of how readers get sucked in. It ties in with my remarks on closure, for one of the several means by which authors enlist readers into their service is by setting them on a path of discovery through the use of intentional puzzles. And it was indeed a puzzle, the question of how to account for the twofold ending of Murphy, that inspired my present investigation. As few readers will have knowingly contended with a cryptic puzzle, I think it appropriate to close my discussion with a previously recognized problem from Murphy. [End Page 121]
As commonly formulated, the problem is: How did Murphy die? Was it murder, suicide, or an accident? Rabinovitz argues for all three (113–18), Ackerley for murder (Demented Particulars 207–8). Some, perhaps many, readers do not question his death but just assume he was the victim of an accident. The bare circumstances allow all three. An old and derelict gas heater is set up in Murphy's garret at the asylum. The gas is turned on and off from the toilet (w.c.) on the floor below and flows through tubes to the heating fixture. Alone in his room, Murphy lights a candle next to his rocking chair, ties himself up, and rocks himself into a trance. Downstairs, the gas goes on. No information is given about who turned it on or why. Nor is there a description of what follows, but the clear inference is that the gas rushes into the heater and is ignited by the lit candle. The apparatus catches fire and explodes. Murphy is left a charred body; a singed envelope containing a written document survives the conflagration.
While the circumstances allow for foul play, they do not implicate it. That possibility is raised in the mortuary scene, where Murphy's old and new friends meet over his dead body. Puzzling details, mainly connected with the envelope and enclosed document, cause one to wonder whether something was amiss. Thus, the document is referred to as a letter, though it serves the purposes of a will and is read as such aloud. That someone as young as Murphy would write a will is in itself suspect. So too the fact that it is undated and unsigned. The envelope is addressed to "Mrs. Murphy," which is very odd given that Murphy and Celia were not married. That name and the address of the rooming house in Brewery Road are "pencilled in laborious capitals" (258), a fact that does not comport well with the elegant sophistication of the letter. Another curious thing is the reaction of those closest to Murphy. Neary studies the letter carefully, reading it over and over again before reading it aloud. He continues "to gaze on the sheet for some time after he had ceased to read" and then hands it to Celia, who grasps it with the intent of tearing it up. Recognizing that she is not alone, she discretely crumbles it in the palm of her hand (268–69).
As formulated, the problem has proved unsolvable. Ackerley considers Rabinovitz's case for murder preposterous and his own unconvincing. Suicide is ruled out by Murphy's intent to return to Celia and is technically unfeasible as well. The alternative of settling for death by accident is of course acceptable, but that leaves the pile of evidence suggesting foul play unexplained. We are thus left with a collection of puzzling details in search of a problem.
In response to this situation, I approach the "evidence" from a different angle. I take the peculiarities to be the target issue. If correctly accounted for, the reader will be rewarded with the discovery of a secret. Accordingly, I ask: Why is the document referred to as a letter or a sheet, but not a will? Why is there no signature or date? Why is the envelope addressed to Mrs. Murphy? And so on for the other questions. In the spirit of a spoiler alert, I present my solution upside down in the endnote below.1 [End Page 122]
Shoshana Benjamin, Emerita, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Beit Rivka Teachers College, Kfar Chabad, specializes in the study of cryptic literature. Her essays on works by Samuel Beckett and Henry James appear in Poetics Today and New Literary History. Her latest essay is "The Anti-Psychiatry Ethos in Beckett's Novel Murphy," in Madness and Literature: What Fiction Can Do for the Understanding of Mental Illness, edited by Lasse R. Gammelgaard. She can be reached at email@example.com.
1. Let us first clear away the two peculiarities most responsible for generating suspicion of foul play: the name "Mrs. Murphy" and the pencilled capital letters on the envelope. These are taken to imply that someone other than Murphy put the will in the envelope, that person being his murderer or assisted suicide collaborator. Regarding the first, it is enough to note that in 1930s England, a couple wishing to rent a room in a respectable rooming house such as that run by the very proper Miss Carridge would pass themselves off as married. The fact that Miss Carridge herself refers to Celia as "Mrs. Murphy" shows this to have been the case. Accordingly, Murphy would have used that form of address on the envelope. Regarding the pencilled capital letters, we need to bear in mind that the kind of writing paraphernalia in use at the time did not include the now universal ballpoint pen. Given that Murphy leaves Brewery Road for the asylum taking nothing with him but his horoscope, uncertain as to when or if he would return, he is unlikely to have brought along a fountain pen and a reserve bottle of ink. Pencils, however, were readily available everywhere, though not well suited for writing out postal addresses. Carefully formed capital letters would compensate for any faintness of script.
Let us next consider why Celia tried to tear up the document. In effect, the answer to this holds the key to the mystery. We need to recall Celia's early conversation with her grandfather, in which she mentions that Murphy "never ripped up old stories" (18). This small but significant detail tells us something not mentioned elsewhere: that the unemployed and unemployable Murphy was a writer. We may thus suppose the document to have been a page from one of his stories. Judging from Celia's reaction, it is clear that she immediately realizes what it is. Murphy might well have entertained her with a reading of it on one of their long nights together. Why she tries to tear it up is not hard to understand. Having been misled by Miss Carridge into believing that Murphy "would be writing" (154), she was expecting a personal message from her lover. Forced to recognize that she was no more than a safety deposit box for his favorite piece of writing, she takes out her fury on the letter. Ripping up what Murphy never ripped up would be an act of poetic justice. Why Murphy wanted to preserve it is understandable in view of his intention to go mad. This choice item represented his literary legacy.
That the letter was not a genuine will is corroborated by Neary's reaction to the document. He may have read it when he and Murphy were friends in Ireland and forgotten about it (unlikely), or he may have recognized the style and the sense of humor as Murphy's and surmised the truth. He studies the sheet closely, reading and rereading it to confirm his hunch. Amazed by the serendipity of Murphy's pastiche of a will being read at his own inquest, he continues to gaze on the sheet for some time after reading it aloud.
The fact that the document was a fictional will accounts for it being unsigned, undated, and not referred to as a will. One loose end, however, has been left hanging. How did Murphy come to have it with him at the asylum? A small but significant detail explains this as well.
Feeling a need for his chair, Murphy goes back to Brewery Road to collect it. Fortuitously, his bag, packed when he and Celia moved to a newly vacated upstairs room, remained packed. A point is made of this: "Celia unpacked her bag, but not Murphy's" (148). All Murphy's worldly possessions would have been in that bag. So one would expect of a transient that drifted from one lodging to another. Specific mention is made, moreover, of the many things he had previously disburdened himself of—bulky items such as books and pictures. As Celia is absent when Murphy arrives, it is given to Miss Carridge to supply this significant detail: "He took his bag and his chair" (154). His manuscripts would no doubt have been inside the bag.
One piece of the puzzle remains a blank: Who turned on the gas in the w.c.? I believe there is no intended answer to this, not only because the text provides no information about it, but also because on an earlier occasion the reverse occurs: the gas is inexplicably turned off (173–74). As there is no hint of an explanation in either case, it would seem to be an unresolvable mystery or, in narratological terms, a permanent gap. It is not, however, merely meant to mystify. To the contrary, it is a productive gap that plays the instrumental role of affording readers the opportunity to entertain different theories regarding Murphy's death. Depending on how they fill it in, Murphy may be supposed to have rigged his own death, or been murdered, or to have died in a freak accident. And with this last piece of the puzzle accounted for, I consider the problem solved.