Towards a psychoanalytical interpretation of "Footfalls" (Samuel Beckett)

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2011 24 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works


Table of contents

1. An introduction to Beckett’s psychoanalytical knowledge

2. Psychoanalytical elements in Beckett’s Footfalls
2.1 An example of hysteria
2.1.1 May’s pacing as a result of a suppressed trauma
2.1.2 The longing for a proof of existence as a search for identity
2.2 May and the aspects of her ‘egos’
2.2.1 The mother-daughter relationship in detail
2.2.2 May, the id and her super ego
2.3 The search for salvation in the depth of a soul
2.3.1 A Freudian dream interpretation of ‘I heard you deep in my sleep’
2.3.2 ‘Walking up and down his poor arm’ and ‘Lacrosse’ as allusion to human suffering

3. Examples of how Beckett’s form and style intensifies a psychoanalytical approach

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. An introduction to Beckett’s psychoanalytical knowledge and its transfer

As this term paper is mainly about the psychoanalysis, it is necessary to ask, how much Beckett knew about this explicit field of psychology. The concept of psychoanalysis, first established in the early 20th century, may for sure had particular influence on Beckett’s thoughts and plays as not only Footfalls contains ideas in it. Beckett himself attended a psychotherapist, after his father’s death in 1933. “He remained in therapy for two years with Wilfred R. Bion [...] whose later writing on psychoanalytical theory are considered among the most eminent and original in the field.”1The reason for his collapse may be found in his relationship to his mother whose “savage loving made him what he was”.2Connor adds, that Beckett’s may have experienced the lost of his father “as a confirmation of the loss of his second father, Joyce, who had broken angrily with him after Beckett’s abortive affair with Lucia”3, James Joyce’s daughter. The notes he made about psychoanalytical theories, when he was in therapy, had been discovered after his death, so it is very likely that he used some of them for his later plays.4It was due to Bion, that Beckett attended several lectures held by C.G. Jung where Beckett encountered “the mechanisms of splitting and dissociation within neurosis and psychosis and [...] the story that was to haunt Beckett of a young girl [...] who Jung said, had never properly born”.5In the later plays, “on can detect the translation of inner stirrings of the unconscious mind into maternal and paternal”6which suits perfectly well to Beckett and his relationship to his parents. James D. O’Hara and Phil Baker also support the idea, that Beckett used psychoanalytical knowledge, especially that of Freud and Jung in his works after 1957, by diagnosing Beckett’s Molloy “as a typical Jungian patient who fails to attain individuation, while the Freudian Moran suffers from a ‘narcissitic psychoneurosis.’”7In a pun, written into his ‘Whorescope’ notebook in 1936, Beckett apparently expressed his feelings about the founder of the psychoanalysis: “Kraft durch FREUDE”, which reminds first at a German Hitler Youth slogan, but changes its meaning completely to ‘strength through Freud’ by crossing out the final letter.8Next to his interest in the psychoanalytical field, this term paper will point out that Beckett may have had particular interest in other psychological theories, such as Pawlow’s classical conditioning or Bandura’s observational learning which he may have incorporated into Footfalls, too.

2. Psychoanalytical elements in Beckett’s Footfalls

2.1 An example of hysteria

According to Beckett, it was in the 30’s when he attended a lecture held by the Freudian pupil Carl G. Jung in London. Interestingly enough, it was the story of one of Jung’s hysterical patients which attracted Beckett’s attention most. The story of a woman who seemed to be so insane, that Jung failed in any attempt to cure her. As Jung pointed out himself this was not due to his knowledge of the psychoanalysis, but because of the fact that this woman “had never been born entirely.”9This concept of a woman, who never really lived, may have found his entry in Beckett’s May of Footfalls. Therefore, further explanations shall be pointed out in this chapter.

2.1.1 May’s pacing as a result of a suppressed trauma

We do not know for sure, how much Beckett knew of hysteria, but as pointed out in the chapter before, we can assume that he was familiar with most of Freud’s works, especially the major ones. In the year 1895 Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer published their book ‘Studies on Hysteria’ in which, several cases of traumatized patients were made public in order to prove Freud’s and Breuer’s therapy form which promised cure for the mentally disordered, from society despised human beings. Cases like the one of Bertha Pappenheim, rather known as Anna O., whose hysterical symptoms were resolved by revealing the suppressed trauma which she was hiding in the depth of her soul. Freud and Breuer pointed out, that most of the hysterical symptoms had its origin from a trauma, which the patient got in contact with. Not any trauma, but one of such a strength like the imagination that one’s life may end the very next moment or that one’s existence may be endangered from now on. According to Breuer, even harmless experiences can lead to trauma sequelae when the person’s condition was that of a hypnotic one - a specific psychological condition.10Those traumas are the very reason for the following hysterical symptoms and can only be cured, if the psychoanalysis traces back those symptoms to the shocking, traumatic event. Different to his colleague, Freud was of the opinion that hysteria can always be tracked back to sexual experiences in childhood or in the early adolescence.11He found out, that his patients were not aware of their carnal experiences as they suppressed them the very moment they experienced the pudency of their sexuality.12By revealing the suppressed experiences, which still act out of the unconscious, the hysterical symptoms would than disappear as they are not unconscious anymore. Furthermore, Freud argued that a trauma may not be associated with a severe physical injury, e.g. cerebral concussion, but must have a specific connection to a particular part of the body.13Applied to the character May in Footfalls her hysteria her affected parts of the body, may be her feet, as they are constantly pacing up and down the stage. Symptoms of hysteria patients “manifest themselves in the most varied manners. Some of them may consist [...] of sensory phenomena, others of palsies, or other disturbances of motion; some of them may consists of phenomena simulating disease of various organs and others still of phenomena simulating disturbances of mental functions.”14The ICD-10 (International Classification of Disease) definition of the dissociative disorder corresponds today to the classical symptoms of hysteria and the conversion disorder. For this reason, the descriptions of the dissociative identity disorder, the dissociative amnesia, the disorder with dissociative trance and obsession are of particular interest for our analyses.15

Disscociative identity disorder (DID)

The dissociative identity disorder, also known as multiple personality disorder, can be one characteristic of hysterical patients. DID patients have at least one other personality, of which they are not conscious of. The personality which is being suppressed by the others is often of a depressive nature, anxious, obsessive about being a good person and suffers amnesia.16

In Beckett’s Footfalls, the only person we see on stage is May, a woman of around forty years wearing a grey wrap, who is talking to a woman’s voice coming from dark upstage. The woman’s voice apparently belongs to May’s mother, a woman of around “eighty-nine, ninety”17years who seems to be bed-ridden, waiting for her daughter to inject her again, to change her position again or to pass her the bedpan. Of course, the audience does not see how May is doing all those things as the only action May does is pacing up and down the stage. It is also her mother who is commenting on her daughter’s movements, by counting the steps she is doing. Technically, as May’s mother is upstage lying in her bed, this would only be possible if she either got accustomed to the accurate pacing of her daughter, or if she sees her pacing from a complete different perspective - an inner one. Other crucial incidents are May’s nocturnal excursions to the nearby church. The story we hear is told in a third person narrative. As it is May herself who is speaking, the reader might get the impression that the daughter and the mother’s voice are the same person.

The dissociative amnesia

One of the major characteristics of the dissociative amnesia is the incapability to remember important facts, way more serious than a distinctive forgetfulness. This inability is not due to a damage of the brain, as only memories of personal and those of psychological relevance are affected by it. Much more the amnesia is “centered on traumatic events, such as accidents or unexpected bereavements, and is usually partial and selective.”18

Examples of symptoms which can be associated with a dissociative amnesia in Beckett’s Footfalls can be seen in May’s nescience of her own age,

“M: What age am I now?

V: In your forties.

M: So little?”

or, assuming that the Amy in May’s story is just an anagram for herself, in the dialogue between Amy and Mrs Winter about the strange happening at Evensong in which Amy claims:

“Amy: For I observed nothing of any kind, strange or otherwise.

I saw nothing, heard nothing, of any kind. I was not there.

Mrs W: Not there?

Amy: Not there.

Mrs W: But I heard you respond. [Pause] I heard you say Amen.”

Trance and possession disorders

Finally, there are the symptoms of the trance and possession disorders in which the affected have “a temporary loss of both the sense of personal identity and full awareness of the surroundings.”19Being in a state of trance, the person, affected by it, acts as if it has lost its control of his or her own body and seems to be guided by another force. Awakening after such a possession, he or she does often not know how it got to the unfamiliar surroundings in the first place.

Also May paces up and down, controlled either by her mother, who is counting her steps now and then

“V: [...] One two three four five six seven eight nine wheel

one two three four five six seven eight nine wheel.”

or by another force which leads her even at nightfall to the little church, which was always locked at that hour, in order to walk up and down the aisles of the church. The note that “some nights she would halt, as one frozen by some shudder of the mind, and stand stark still till she could move again”20gives also the impression that this woman is not really aware of what she was doing or where she had been the previous night.

Finally, having applied the common symptoms of patients with a dissociative disorder on to May, the only thing which is worth being mentioned is that of May’s trauma. As already pointed out on the previous pages it is mainly due to a traumatic event that a person reacts hysterically in the historical sense of the disease. The play itself gives no clue, when this trauma overcame her senses. However, Beckett tells where it began:

“V:” She has not been out since girlhood. [Pause.] Not out since girlhood. [Pause.] Where is she, it may be asked. [Pause.]

Why in the old home, the same where she- [Pause.] The same where she began. [Pause.] Where it began. [Pause.] it all began.”

But, as already Freud concluded in his ‘Studies on Hysteria’ the traumatic event can have occurred much earlier than its symptom’s outbreak. Though, May’s mother may know where she happened to see the pacing and the day-dreaming for the first time, it does not tell us anything further about the point in time where it really all began. Considering Freud again, every hysteria has its origin in a prematurely sexual experience, which the patient had not been able to cope with. Whether Beckett supported this idea of Freud and therefore combined a possible relationship between May or Amy and a men who introduced her into the world of sexuality one does not know, a supporting line in the play for this cannot be found.

As already mentioned earlier, the only person we can see or read about on stage is May. Even in the memories May and her mother are recalling, there is only evidence of a few other female characters, Mrs Winter, Amy and a few other girls of her age. This may lead to the question, what happened to May’s father, where is Amy’s procreator and where have all the male characters gone. One explanation however may be the fact, that in past times only women were said to suffer under the phenomenon of hysteria. Freud and Charcot were the first scholars who proved that also men could be affected by this disorder.21An emphasis on women characters in the play could therefore be seen as an emphasis for hysterical women in the medical word. On the other hand, the lack of male characters in the play could also be understood as the suppression of any men in May’s life as a result of the bad experiences she once had with men. Apparently we will never know who or what was the reason for May’s trauma, but as Beckett may have known himself, “the trauma of one unbearable memory can run and ruin your mind for you.”22

2.1.2 The longing for a proof of existence as search for identity

Adam Piette wrote in his essay on ‘Becket, Early Neuropsychology and Memory Loss’ that Beckett used “one of Janet’s case studies as the key source for Footfalls.”23Pierre Janet, a well-known philosopher in the times before Freud and Breuer had introduced their studies, had several cases of hysterical patients before. Irène, a young woman “in an acute state of hysteria” which she gained two years after her mother died, was one of Janet’s cases. The similarities are astounding. Like Beckett’s May, Irène was “suffering from sleepwalking crises and hallucinations.”


1Angela Moorjani, “Beckett and Psychoanalysis,” Palgrave Advances in Samuel Beckett Studies, ed. Lois Oppenheim (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) 172 - 193, at 173.

2Moorjani 172.

3Steven Conner, “Beckett and Bion,” Journal of Beckett Studies 17.1-2 (2008): 9 - 34, at 9.

4Cf. Moorjani 173.

5Conner 10.

6Moorjani 174.

7Moorjani 175.

8Phil Baker, Beckett and the Mythology of Psychoanalysis ( Basingstoke: Macmillan 1999) 174.

9 Jung, Carl Gustav, “The Collected Works of Carl Gustav Jung”, Vol. 18, trans. R.F.C. Hull, 2nd ed. (London: Roudledge and Kegan Paul, 1966 - 79) 96, qtd. in Davyd Melnyk, "Never Been Properly Jung," Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd'hui: An Annual Bilingual Review/Revue Annuelle Bilingue 15 (2005): 355-362, at 356.

10 Cf. Alexander Mitscherlich, Angela Richards, and James Strachey, eds., Sigmund Freud: Studienausgabe Band VI. Hysterie und Angst (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1971) 56.

11Cf. Freud, Hysterie und Angst 61.

12Cf. Freud, Hysterie und Angst 72.

13Cf. Freud, Hysterie und Angst 13.

14 Francis X. Dercum, Hysteria and accident compensation : nature of hysteria and the lesson of the post-litigation results (Philadelphia: The Geo. T. Bisel, 1916) 26.

15Cf. G. Herzog and S. Engelmann and H.G. Zapotoczky, “Hysterische Störungen.“ Lehrbuch der Klinischen Psychologie, ed. Hans Reinecker (Göttingen: Hogrefe, 1998) 315-352, at 320.

16Cf. Herzog et al, Hysterische Störungen 321.

17Samuel Beckett, The Complete Dramatic Works: Footfalls, (London: Faber and Faber, 2006) 400.

18 ‘Chapter V. Mental and behavioural disorders (F00-F99)” Who.int, 12 November 2006 <http://apps.who.int/classifications/apps/icd/icd10online/>.

19“Chapter V. Mental and behavioural disorders (F00-F99)”

20Beckett 402.

21Cf. Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer, Studien über Hysterie (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1991) 68.

22 Adam Piette, "Beckett, Early Neuropsychology, and Memory Loss: Beckett's Reading of Clarapede, Janet, and Korsakoff," Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd'hui: An Annual Bilingual Review/Revue Annuelle Bilingue 2 (1993): 41-48, at 41.

23Piette 41.


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Samuel Beckett Beckett Footfalls Tritte Psychoanalytical Depth psychology psychology Jung minimalism



Title: Towards a psychoanalytical interpretation of "Footfalls" (Samuel Beckett)