Beckett, Joyce and Influence
A Paragraph or Two

“I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let me be silent” (Clov, Endgame)

Samuel Beckett’s preference for minimal language evolved, in part, from his relationship with James Joyce, a writer both feted and derided for his experimentation with language and literary form. Beckett met Joyce in 1929, seven years following the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses. Over time, the men became friends (apparently, Beckett knew he was “in” when Joyce began to address him as “Beckett” rather than the more formal, distant “Mr. Beckett” [Ellman 648]).

Beckett worked, for a time, as Joyce’s amanuensis, taking dictation for Joyce’s Work In Progress (which became Finnegan’s Wake), a work started in 1922. Work in Progress featured Joyce’s wildly experimental attempt to extend English, which Joyce found limiting; he asserted that “I’d like a language which is above all languages, a language to which all will do service. I cannot express myself in English without enclosing myself in tradition” (Ellman 397). By working within a readymade language, Joyce was restricted. Through neologisms and allusions, he worked to expand his creative space—to better, more accurately, express himself.[1]

Beckett rebelled against Joyce’s determination to expand language in order to carve out a style of his own.[2] He stated that Joyce “was a synthesizer, he wanted to put everything, the whole of human culture, into one or two books,” whereas Beckett wished to spotlight the “archetypal,” the “bedrock of the essentials” (Beckett qtd. in Boulter 8). Beckett’s linguistic minimalism, a “taking away, in subtracting rather than adding,” attempted to expose the “Nothingness” that lies behind language: the essential state of human nature.[3]


[1] As an example, Joyce offers the term “battlefield. A ‘battlefield’ is a field where the battle is raging. When the battle is over and the field is covered in blood, it is no longer a battlefield, but a bloodfield’” (Ellman 397).

[2] In part, it also explains his decision to begin writing in French, with the aim of  “achiev[ing] what he called ‘the right weakening effect’ in a clear attempt to escape the style of Joyce . . . and thus attain a style all his own” (Chesney 638).

[3] In 1937, Beckett wrote that language acts as “a veil that must be torn apart to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it: He yearns for silence to bore holes in language until that Nothing seeps through, waiting to hear a whisper of “that final music or that silence that underlies All.” What he wished to find was the “literature of the unword” (Ackerly and Gontarski).

Works Cited

Ackerly, Chris and  S. E. Gontarski. The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett: A Reader’s Guide
to His Works, Life, and Thought. 
NY: Grove, 2004.
Beckett, Samuel. “Dante…Bruno. Vico…Joyce”
Boulter, Jonathon. Beckett: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Chesney, Duncan McColl. “Beckett, Minimalism, and the Question of Postmodernism.”
Modernism/Modernity. 19.4 (2013): 637-55.
Ellman, Richard. “James Joyce.” 1959. Oxford: OUP, 1982.

Rathjen, Friedhelm. “The Magic Triangle” James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Arno Schmidt.”
Samuel Beckett Today. 11 (2001): 92-9.