Murphy by Samuel Beckett

Murphy by Samuel Beckett

Well I was considering not writing about this novel, but then the DP came up and “write about the most recent book you’ve read” is kind of a perfect prompt. Who am I to resist?

The absolute worst book of the semester award still goes to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Bland, but Murphy by Samuel Beckett was a close second. How did Murphy escape this dubious distinction? Because I hated it, and, perhaps amazingly, I feel that hating a book is better than feeling nothing at all. Published in 1938 this is an early piece of postmodern literature and obviously influenced Tom Stoppard. As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is one of my favorite plays (mostly to see staged) I also have to begrudgingly spare Beckett from condemnation. I have not read his plays, but would like to, since I feel his style really works better for tragicomic, theater of the absurd. Yes, I’m a theater nerd too!

So who is Murphy? Well Murphy is a guy who likes to speak in riddles, tie himself to his favorite rocking chair, and refuse to get a job, instead forcing his girlfriend to support him until her savings are bled dry and she has to become a prostitute again. Then he finally somehow gets a job, but decides rather than be a decent person and pay Celia back so she doesn’t have to be a prostitute anymore, he just waits until she leaves the room they’re renting, sneaks in, and moves out all his stuff. So when I summarize the plot for my friends and family they start laughing the laugh of sympathetic dark humor. Murphy is my life. I have not dated one, but several Murphys, and the thing of it is: I hate Murphy. He’s selfish, emotionally detached, and generally speaking, he is the living worst. My professor was like, “This is the most sexist book we’ve read, do we even need to discuss it? I mean, it’s pretty obvious.” It really is. There are several speeches about how women are terrible, but I guess you must have to hate women to trick one into supporting you until she’s bled dry and has to sell herself on a street corner to take care of her dying grandfather yet still feel no obligation to help her out once you’re on your feet again. Man of the year!

Thankfully Murphy dies, which was obvious from the beginning. There’s so much foreshadowing you may as well call it fore-stating-the-obvious. Murphy ties himself to a chair, naked of course, falls asleep, it rocks forward, and he falls onto his face, presumably breaking his nose in the process. Celia, the call girl who is in love with him, finds him and helps him out. She’s going to support them while he looks for a job, he seems to be in some kind of anarchist squatter type situation when the book begins. I’m for anarchist squatting as much as the next person, what I object to is Murphy misleading Celia into thinking he’s going to try. Quote: “Celia said that either Murphy got work or she left him and went back to hers. Murphy said work would be the end of them both.” Basically Celia is really upfront, if Murphy wants her to not be a hooker he needs to help pay the bills. Murphy says it’s going to kill him, and it kind of does, though more accurately he kills himself. Really though, since Murphy is one of the most passive people in literature, it’s more accurate to say that he arranges it so that he will be killed. Really, Murphy could just say no to the terms and let her leave; instead he just does a terrible job so she doesn’t leave him, but also doesn’t do what she asks him to do.

It’s time to make an important distinction: Murphy is no Bartleby. Bartleby, the Scrivener is a fantastic piece by Melville about passive protest and the place of an artist in society. Bartleby refuses to participate in the system and, because of that, slowly dies. Where Bartleby flatly states that he would “prefer not to” do things, then openly does not do them, Murphy just whines about Celia wanting him to work, drags his feet, then pretends to look for jobs to shut her up. Bartlely is straight forward, which I respect, while Murphy is just a jerk.

By the time Murphy openly states his views on women it comes as no surprise: “Women are really extraordinary, the way they want to give their cake to the cat and have it. They never quite kill the thing they love, lest their instinct for artificial respiration should go abegging.” Murphy actually blames his being the worst boyfriend in history on Celia’s “womanly” desire to be burdened by someone awful. Amazingly Murphy has two women “fighting” over him, thus making it obvious a man wrote this novel*. I say “fighting” because I’m fairly sure Miss Counihan is the only one invested in the end, by the time Celia and Murphy’s “friends” show up to collect his charred remains Celia states: “Is there anything more?” “I should like to go.” That’s when she’s handed his suicide note which states that he wants to be cremated and his ashes flushed down a toilet. What a guy!

Part of the DP challenge that made me get up the energy to write about this novel is “would you recommend it.” Nope. I sure wouldn’t. Unless you are a horrible guy and read books to feel self-important and justified about your bad life choices, in which case, boy have I got a book for you! Still, at least Murphy made me feel mad, and feeling mad is better than feeling nothing at all. I can agree that this is literature, it’s literature I hate, but that’s allowed. I didn’t love being forced to admit that I hated it in class though, that was not my favorite experience. So when the professor asked if I found anything in it funny I had to admit that I did, like when Murphy hurts himself, I had to smile, because I hated Murphy. If that’s the point then well done Beckett, well done.

* Sorry, a woman would never write a novel wherein two women were fighting over a loser and then not have it be a cautionary tale**. In Murphy Murphy is the antihero “hero” and is not condemned textually, in any way, for his awful treatment of women. So when Beckett says he stopped hanging out with Joyce because Joyce’s daughter was hitting on him, I’m much more apt to think he stopped coming around because she turned him down.

** I hope.

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