Samuel Beckett Biography – Irish Writer, Novelist, Playwright, Absurdism, Modernist Literature

Samuel Beckett biography
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Samuel Beckett. Roger Pic, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Samuel Beckett Biography and Legacy

Samuel Beckett was an Irish playwright, novelist, poet, short story writer, theatre director, and literary translator, who is considered one of the last modernist writers.

Beckett’s work offers a bleak, impoverished, and tragi-comic view of experience and existence. He is also regarded as one of the key figures in the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’, a term used for plays of absurdist fiction and for the style of theatre the plays represent. Such plays usually focus on ideas such as existentialism.

In this biography, we will take a brief look at the life of Samuel Beckett.

Early life and Education

Samuel Beckett was born on 13th April 1906, in Dublin.

His father, William Frank Beckett, was a quantity surveyor, and his mother, Maria Jones Roe, was a nurse.

In 1911, Beckett, aged five, began attending a local playschool in Dublin, where he started to learn music. Later on, he moved to Earlsfort House School, in Dublin.

In 1919, Beckett, aged 13, enrolled at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, which Irish playwright and poet Oscar Wilde had also attended.

Beckett left the school in 1923 and enrolled at Trinity College in Dublin. It was here that he began to study modern literature, Italian, and French.

At college, Beckett excelled at cricket, playing for Dublin University and even a couple of first-class games.

In 1927, Beckett, aged 21, graduated with a BA from Trinity College and began teaching at Campbell College in Belfast.

Moving to Paris

Samuel Beckett stayed at Campbell for only a brief period of time. In 1928, he moved to Paris in order to teach English at the Ecole Normale Superieure, which is one of the most prestigious and selective great schools in Paris.

While teaching at the school, Beckett was introduced to fellow Irish writer James Joyce, who had gained some recognition and fame as an avant-garde writer by then.

The meeting with Joyce made a great and profound impact on Beckett. He began to assist Joyce in the research and typing of Finnegans Wake, as by then Joyce’s failing eyesight made it difficult for him to do those things on his own.

Beckett’s Early Writings

In 1929, Beckett’s first work, a critical essay titled Dante… Bruno. Vico… Joyce was published. The essay defended Joyce’s work, which was accused of being dim, obscure, and even gibberish.

Samuel Beckett remained a great admirer of Joyce’s work, but relations between the two soured when Beckett rejected the advances of Joyce’s daughter Lucia, due to her progressing schizophrenia.

During this period, Beckett’s first short story Assumption was published in the experimental literary journal called transition.

Beckett also wrote a poem called Whoroscope, for which he won a minor literary prize the following year. The poem draws on a biography of Rene Descartes that Beckett was reading at the time.

In 1930, Beckett’s essay Proust was published. The essay was a critical study of the French author Marcel Proust.

Return to Dublin

In 1930, Samuel Beckett left Paris for Dublin and returned to Trinity College as a lecturer.

The same year, Beckett presented a paper, a literary parody, to the Modern Languages Society of Trinity. The paper was based on the Toulouse poet Jean du Chas, founder of a movement called le Concentrisme. Neither the poet nor the movement really existed.

In late 1931, Beckett resigned from Trinity College, bringing an end to his brief academic career.

Traveling Across Europe

After leaving Trinity in 1931, Samuel Beckett began traveling throughout Europe.

Following his father’s death, Beckett spent some time in London and began his two years treatment with influential English Psychoanalyst Dr. Wilfred Bion. Aspects of this became evident in Beckett’s subsequent works such as Watt and Waiting for Godot.

Beckett’s First Novel

In 1932, while living in Paris, Samuel Beckett wrote his first novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women.

The autobiographical novel was rejected many times by multiple publishers until Beckett finally decided to abandon it.

The novel rejects realism in the characters, even going as far as to criticize realist writers such as Jane Austen and Honore de Balzac for the rigidity of their characters.

Even though the novel was not published in his lifetime, it served as a source of inspiration for many of Beckett’s early poems as well as for his 1934 short-story collection More Pricks Than Kicks.

The novel in its entirety was finally published in 1992, three years after Beckett’s death.

Publication of More Pricks Than Kicks and Echo’s Bones

In his early years, Samuel Beckett published many essays and reviews of poems by fellow Irish writers and poets such as Thomas Macgreevy, Blanaid Salkeld, Denis Devlin, and Brian Coffey.

Beckett’s early works were strongly influenced by James Joyce. In 1934, his first full-length book More Pricks Than Kicks was published by Chatto and Windus.

The book is a collection of short stories, which also contains several extracts from his unpublished novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women.

The stories trace the life of Belacqua Shuah, the book’s main character, from his student days up until his accidental death.

In 1935, Beckett published a book of poetry titled Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates.

Publication of Murphy

Samuel Beckett began working on his novel Murphy in 1935. By 1936, the book was completed and he left to travel around Germany.

While he traveled, Beckett maintained several notebooks with lists of noteworthy artworks he saw across Germany. In these notebooks, he also wrote down his distaste for Nazi brutality and savagery.

After the trip, Beckett briefly returned to Ireland in 1937 and oversaw the publication of Murphy.

After many rejections, the novel was finally published in 1938 by Routledge, on the recommendation of Jack Butler Yeats, an Irish artist and the brother of W.B. Yeats.

The novel is an avant-garde work of literature and Beckett’s second published prose work. It explores the themes of insanity and chess, which would be recurrent themes in Beckett’s subsequent works.

The following year, Beckett himself translated the book into french.

Permanent Move to Paris

After having a fallout with his mother, Samuel Beckett decided to permanently settle down in Paris.

In Paris, Beckett soon became well-known in and around Left Bank Cafes, where he associated with other writers and artists such as James Joyce, Alberto Giacometti, and Marchel Duchamp, with whom he regularly played chess.

Around this time, Beckett had an affair with Peggy Guggenheim, an American art collector and socialite.

In January 1938, Beckett was nearly stabbed to death when he refused the solicitations of a notorious pimp known as Prudent.

The stabbing attracted a lot of publicity and also caught the attention of Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, who would become Beckett’s lover and lifelong companion.

Beckett eventually dropped the charges against his attacker, mostly in order to avoid further formalities.

World War ll

After the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Samuel Beckett stayed back in Paris, saying that he preferred France at war to Ireland at peace.

When German forces occupied France in 1940, Beckett joined the French Resistance and worked as a courier, escaping the Gestapo on several occasions.

In 1942, Beckett’s unit was betrayed, and he and Suzanne were forced to flee to the south on foot. They eventually found safety in the village of Roussillon, a commune in the Vaucluse department of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region in southeastern France.

During his two-year stay in Roussillon, Beckett continued to assist the Resistance by storing armaments in his backyard. He also indirectly helped the Marquis (the rural guerilla bands of French Resistance fighters) sabotage the German army in the Vaucluse mountains.

During this time, he also began working on the novel Watt, which was completed in 1945.

For his wartime efforts, Beckett was awarded the Croix de Guerre (a french military decoration) and the Medaille de la Resistance (the Resistance Medal) by the French Government.

The Revelation

In 1945, Samuel Beckett went to Dublin on a brief visit. One day, while in his mother’s room, Beckett had a revelation that would change his literary direction for the rest of his career.

Prior to the revelation, Beckett felt that he would always remain in the shadow of Joyce. But the revelation made him realize that the only way he could have a literary identity of his own was by doing the exact opposite of what Joyce was doing.

Beckett saw that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, being in control of one’s material, and adding to it. And he realized that his own way was in impoverishment, lack of knowledge, and subtracting rather than adding.

This was a pivotal moment in Beckett’s literary career. He would later fictionalize this experience in his 1958 play Krapp’s Last Tape.

Since this revelation, Beckett’s subsequent works were primarily focused on poverty, loss, exile, and failure.

Post World War ll

In 1946, Samuel Beckett began working on his fourth novel Mercier and Camier, which would not be published until 1970. The novel features two characters, Mercier and Camier, who repeatedly attempt to leave a city, only to abandon their journey and return.

The book was Beckett’s first long work in French, the language which he would use for most of his subsequent works as it allowed him to write without style.

In the following years, Beckett produced the works he is best remembered for today. He wrote four major full-length stage plays, which were Waiting for Godot (published in 1952 and premiered in 1953), Endgame (published and premiered in 1957), Krapp’s Last Tape (premiered in 1958), and Happy Days (premiered in 1961).

These plays contributed greatly to the so-called ‘Theatre of the Absurd’, due to their existentialist and absurdist themes. They mostly deal with the subjects of hopelessness and despair, and the will to survive in spite of it.

Out of these four plays, Waiting for Godot was his most successful and popular one, becoming the most famous work of his literary career. The play is a tragicomedy in two acts, in which the two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, engage in discussions while waiting for Godot, who never arrives.

The play was first written in French and then translated into English by Beckett himself. In a poll conducted by the British Royal National Theatre in 1998, the play was voted as the most significant English language play of the 20th Century.

The Beckett Trilogy

Soon after the end of the war, Samuel Beckett produced three of his most important and famous novels, known as The Beckett Trilogy.

All three books were first written in French and then later on translated into English. The novels are thematically related and are considered dark existentialist comedies dealing with the subject of death.

The first novel Molloy (published in 1951), has many characteristics of a conventional novel, such as plot, movement, time, and place. But in the second and third novels, the prose becomes increasingly sparse, bare, and stripped down.

In Malone Dies (published in 1951), Beckett largely dispenses with plot and movement but retains some indication of place and time. The major action of the book is conveyed through interior monologue.

In The Unnamable (published in 1953), Beckett almost completely dispenses with any sense of movement, plot, time, and place. The essential theme seems to be the conflict between the voice’s desire and drive to continue speaking so as to continue existing, and its desire and urge to be silent.

Though the three novels are considered essentially pessimistic in nature, the will to live in spite of despair seems to stand out in all three works.

Beckett’s Later Works

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Beckett’s work became increasingly sparse, bare, and compact, which led to his works being described as minimalist in nature.

The characters in his plays were brought down to only the absolutely essential elements required to carry the play forward or to convey the message.

Beckett’s 1962 play titled Play is a one-act play consisting of three characters immersed up to their necks in large funeral urns. And his 1972 play Not I consist solely of a moving mouth with the rest of the stage in total darkness.

During this period, his works often explored the subject of memory, mostly in the form of a recollection of haunting past events.

In 1982, Samuel Beckett wrote his most political play titled Catastrophe. It is one of his very few plays that deal with a political theme and it was dedicated to the Czech reformer and playwright Vaclav Havel, who was in prison then. The play deals with the idea of dictatorship.

Even though Beckett was more prolific with his plays than his prose during these years, he wrote the novella Company, which was published in 1979. The novella was followed up by two other novellas, Ill Seen Ill Said (published in 1982) and Worstward Ho (published in 1983).

The three novellas were later compiled into a single volume titled Nohow On, which was published in 1989.

In his later works, Beckett deals with the subject of aloneness and the desire to successfully connect with other human beings.

Later Years

In his later years, Samuel Beckett became more and more famous for his literary works.

The success of his plays resulted in him receiving many invitations to attend rehearsals and productions around the world. These invitations opened up a new career for him as a theatre director.

Beckett also began getting offers for writing plays for radio, television, and cinema.

From the late 1950s onward, he began a relationship with Barbara Bray, an English translator, critic, and script editor for the BBC. His relationship with her would last for the rest of his life.

And in 1961, Beckett married Suzanne in a secret civil ceremony in England.

In October of 1969, Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. His fame grew, and he began to receive more requests for interviews. But he seldom agreed to give any.

Beckett often met with other writers, artists, scholars, and admirers with whom he freely discussed his work and the process behind it.


In his final days, Beckett suffered from emphysema (a type of lung disease characterized by long-term respiratory symptoms) and possibly even Parkinson’s disease. He was mostly confined to a nursing home and a hospital.

Samuel Beckett died on 22nd December 1989. The same year, on the 17th of July, Suzanne passed away. The two of them were interred together in the Montparnasse Cemetry in Paris, sharing a simple granite gravestone.


Samuel Beckett is regarded as one of the last great modernist writers.

He is also one of the most studied, discussed, and revered writers of the 20th century. His works have inspired a critical industry that rivals the one inspired by James Joyce.

Beckett’s work opened up the possibility of fiction and theatre being able to dispense with components like plot, characterization, time, place, etc, to only focus on essential elements of the human condition.

His work is a direct sustained attack on the realist tradition, for which he has also been criticized by many critics.

Other great writers such as Tom Stoppard, Vaclav Havel, Harold Pinter, Aiden Higgins, J.M. Coetzee, and Richard Kalich have been influenced by Beckett’s work.

Since his death, Beckett has been regarded as a national icon in Ireland, and as one of the most important writers of the 20th century.