Murphy’s metaphysics


James Acheson


By convention, the omniscient author knows everything about the characters he creates, and is in this sense an analogue to God. Normally the author does not suggest that his omniscience extends beyond the world of his novel; but in Murphy, Beckett gives us to understand that he knows everything about the world at large. ‘The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new,’ Murphy begins. ‘Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free. . .’(1).1 The tone is comic, the material philosophical: in the novel’s opening sentences, Beckett comments boldly and authoritatively on the question of freedom.


But although Beckett possesses ostensible God-like omniscience, in places he ostentatiously limits the amount of information he is prepared to disclose to the reader. An important example is his description of Murphy’s mind in chapter six, where he stresses that he is presenting us not with Murphy’s mind ‘as it really was . . . but solely with what it felt and pictured itself to be’ (107). Though omniscient—though capable of picturing Murphy’s mind accurately and objectively—Beckett prefers to describe his character’s obviously subjective image of it. His immediate purpose is to suggest that Murphy’s image of his mind is a distortion of the reality. Yet he has also a larger purpose—hitherto unrecognized by critics—in describing Murphy’s mind in this way. His larger purpose is to demonstrate satirically that it is impossible to draw absolutely certain conclusions about metaphysical issues.


This becomes clear when we examine chapter six in detail. Here it is revealed that, in forming his image of his mind, Murphy has drawn heavily on his knowledge of traditional metaphysics. The influence of Leibniz, Geulincx and Schopenhauer is especially important; being omniscient, Beckett knows their works infinitely better than Murphy does, and is able to turn them against him satirically.


Leibniz is the source of Murphy’s belief that his mind is a hollow sphere containing in microcosm the entire universe as it is, was and is to be.2 ‘Nothing,’ Murphy believes, ‘ever had been, was or would be in the universe outside [his mind] but was already present as virtual, or actual, or virtual rising into actual, or actual falling into virtual, in the universe inside it’ (107). Whether Murphy’s mind is really a microcosm is something Beckett never reveals. But in the course of the novel he makes satiric capital of Murphy’s interest in Leibniz by stressing that Murphy’s image of his mind mirrors the world inadequately.


Murphy differs from Leibniz in distinguishing between the actual and virtual of his mind ‘not as between form and the formless yearning for form, but as between that of which he had both mental and physical experience and that of which he had mental experience only’(108). But he agrees with Leibniz that ‘[imagination] imitates, in its own province and in the little world [of the mind], . . . what God [did] in the great world’.3 The three zones of his mind, Murphy believes, are zones of imagination, in which he can create images based on his ‘actual’ and ‘virtual’ experiences with the complete autonomy of God.


Murphy’s first zone is a zone of light, in which he subjects to imaginary reprisal people of whom he has had ‘actual,’ unpleasant experience. ‘Here the chandlers were available for slow depilation, Miss Carridge for rape by Ticklepenny, and so on’ (111). His second zone, in contrast, is one of half-light, in which he imagines himself in worlds of which he has only ‘virtual’ experience: in zone two he pictures himself in Antepurgatory, for example, occupying the position of Belacqua, Dante’s archetype of sloth. Zone three, finally, is in darkness: it consists of virtual rising into actual and actual falling into virtual ‘a perpetual coming together and falling asunder of forms’ (112) reminiscent of St. Augustine’s Chaos. Transposing himself in imagination into this last zone, Murphy has the sensation not of being free, but of being caught up in the actual/virtual flux as a ‘mote in the dark of absolute freedom’ (112).


To demonstrate that Murphy is mistaken in thinking his image of his mind is an accurate image of the world at large, and more generally, that there are no definitive answers to metaphysical questions, Beckett creates in Murphy a fictional world embodying important counterparts to the three zones. Murphy’s third zone is for satiric purposes the most important, and has two counterparts in the novel. The first of these is the ‘big blooming buzzing confusion’ Neary speaks of in his farewell speech to Murphy:


            Their farewell was memorable. Neary came out of one of his dead

      sleeps and said:

            ‘Murphy, all life is figure and ground’.

            ‘But a wandering to find home,’ said Murphy.

            ‘The face,’ said Neary,’or system of faces, against the big blooming

      buzzing confusion. I think of Miss Dwyer’ (4).


Neary’s contribution to this odd exchange is based on the work of two famous psychologists, Edgar Rubin and William James. In The principles of psychology, James describes the welter of sense-data with which we are daily assailed as a ‘great blooming, buzzing confusion’4, while Rubin holds that we make sense of sense-data by distinguishing perceptually between ‘the figure, the substantial appearance of objects, and the ground, the .  .  . environment in which the [objects are] placed’.5 What Neary is saying is that all our knowledge derives from sense-data, ordered according to figure-ground principles. His comments are comic because it is clear that the only figures of interest to him are female; yet the above passage has a larger significance for the novel as a whole.


Experiments performed by some of Rubin’s contemporaries show that the figure-ground distinction is invariably a simplification of what is perceived. ‘[Experienced] perceptual wholes,’ they found, ‘tend toward the greatest regularity, simplicity, and clarity possible under the given conditions’.6 The world as we know it through perception is merely an approximation (because a series of approximations of sense-data in different situations) of the world as it really is. But because our perceptual faculties are the only tools we have for making sense of the world around us, we will never be able to gain more than a partial idea of its true nature. Derived from perception, the ‘actual’ and ‘virtual’ experiences of Murphy’s mind necessarily mirror the world inadequately.


Beckett makes use of Schopenhauer, another of the philosophers Murphy has studied, to extend his satiric attack. Schopenhauer holds that our senses furnish knowledge ‘only of relations between individual phenomena and by no means knowledge of the essential nature of things and the universal totality’.7 Perception is limited by human self-centredness: according to Schopenhauer, the individual’s every experience of sense- data is coloured by his predilections and prejudices.8 Whatever conclusions we reach about metaphysical issues like the mind’s relationship to the world at large or the question of freedom are therefore nothing more than self-centred simplifications: this Beckett stresses satirically in reference to Murphy and the other characters.


As an ironic comment on the characters’ tendency to simplify, Beckett’s account of what happens in Murphy is itself a deliberate simplification. Ostensibly, Murphy relates what happened to a group of ‘real’ people who lived in London, Cork and Dublin between February and October, 1935. Being omniscient, Beckett knows everything these people ‘did’ in the period concerned; yet his narrative is a selection of events. In itself, this is not remarkable: every author who tells a story about ‘real’ people must decide what is relevant, and what irrelevant, to his purposes. But in Murphy, Beckett lays special emphasis on the idea that a selection of events has been made, by suggesting that the novel consists of a number of ‘filmed’ and ‘edited’ scenes. Murphy abounds in self-conscious flash- backs, close-ups and long-shots; at one point, Ticklepenny appears in ‘midshot soft-focus’ (191). The fact that three speeches are described as ‘expurgated, accelerated, improved and reduced’ (12, 48, 119) conveys that the characters concerned have had their lines dubbed in, in a compressed and stylistically improved form, by Beckett in the role of ‘film-editor’.


Like Beckett’s desciption of the events in Murphy, his descriptions of the characters are self-conscious simplifications. Little more is said of Miss Carridge, for example, than that she has an offensive body odour; of Miss Dew, than that her thighs are misshapen; or of Murphy than that his clothing is ridiculously outmoded. Beckett pointedly witholds other information about the characters as a means of satirizing their simplified metaphysical opinions, his satire being a counterpart to Murphy’s activities in the first zone of his mind. In zone one—the zone of his ‘actual’ experiences—Murphy takes God-like revenge in imagination on the people he knows and dislikes. Similarly, in return for their self-centred tendency to simplify Beckett vengefully transforms Murphy’s ‘real’ people into comic caricatures, while ensuring that the story of their activities is set against the undistorted background of London, Cork and Dublin.


Beckett emphasizes that the background is realistic by specifying place names so meticulously as to make it possible for us to follow the characters’ peregrinations on street-maps of the three cities. Yet it is clear from a passage in chapter two that his careful attention to detail is a means of implicating the reader in his satire: ‘[Celia] entered the saloon bar of a Chef and Brewer and had a sandwich of prawn and tomato and a glass of white port off the zinc. She then made her way rapidly on foot, followed by four football pool collectors at four shillings in the pound commission, to the apartment in Tyburnia of her paternal grandfather, Mr. Willoughby Kelly’ (11). Some of the details in this passage are acceptably realistic: the ‘Chef and Brewer’ is an actual chain of English pubs, and the description of Celia’s lunch and the football pool collectors is well-observed and convincing. On the other hand, there is no such district in London as ‘Tyburnia’: the name is a portmanteau of ‘Tyburn’ and ‘Hibernia’ intended partly as a joke about Mr. Kelly.9 More importantly, though, ‘Tyburnia’ undermines the sense we might have had that Murphy has a straight forwardly realistic background—just as the ludicrous surfeit of detail in the above passage contradicts our impression that Murphy is a carefully edited film from which irrelevancies have been excized. If we accept too readily the illusion of reality Beckett is offering us, we are guilty of simplifying the data available for critical interpretation. At fault is our complacent tendency to overlook details that do not conform to our preconceptions about realistic fiction.


The picture of London, Cork and Dublin that Murphy presents is not just a counterpart to zone one of Murphy’s mind but to zone two as well. The second zone is represented partly by fictitious places such as Tyburnia and the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, and also by the character Cooper. In contrast to the novel’s other characters, who, though comic grotesques, are still recognizably real people, Cooper is a purely imagined creation. He is not simply a caricature: with his unheard-of infirmity—the inability to sit down or take off his hat—he belongs to a fictional world like that of The divine comedy, where the usual physical laws are overturned. Because Murphy never meets him, Cooper is not a part of his ‘actual’ experience; because he never imagines him, or even a character like him, Cooper is not a part of his ‘virtual’ experience either. Through Cooper, Beckett reaffirms both that Murphy’s experience is too narrow for the ‘actual’ and ‘virtual’ of his mind to mirror the world accurately; and that our impression that Murphy is a straightforwardly realistic novel is a complacent simplification.


Murphy’s tendency to simplify his experience is evident not only in his belief that his mind is a microcosm of the world at large, but in his approach to the question of freedom. Partly on the basis of his reading in psychology, Murphy holds that human behaviour is deterministically regulated: thus it is no surprise to find him seeking to confirm one of the findings of the Külpe school of experimental psychology in the act of ordering a cup of tea.


A colleague of Külpe’s, Ach, performed experiments to show that, in certain conditions, people behave deterministically.10 He presented subjects with a series of cards, each with four different letters, and asked them to mention a particular letter, say ‘S,’ whenever it appeared. As each card bearing an ‘S’ was removed from view, the subjects were asked to name the other letters appearing with it. It was found that they had perceived the ‘S’ alone, and had disregarded the other letters. Ach believed their response to the cards had been determined by the experimenter’s assigned task. He distinguished four main phases in the task’s performance:11 Murphy remembers three of them as he gives the waitress his order:


            ‘Bring me,’ [he said], in the voice of an usher resolved to order the

            chef’s special selection for a school outing. He paused after this

            preparatory signal to let the fore-period develop, that first of the three

            moments of reaction in which, according to the Külpe school, the

            major torments of response are undergone. Then he applied the

            stimulus proper.

            ‘A cup of tea and a packet of assorted biscuits’.

            .  .  . As though suddenly aware of the great magical ability, or it might

            have been the surgical quality, the waitress murmured, before the

            eddies of the main period drifted her away: ‘Vera to you, dear’. This

            was not a caress.

               Murphy had some faith in the Külpe school. Marbe and Bühler

            might be deceived, even Watt was only human, but how could Ach be

            wrong? (pp. 80-81).12


Vera’s response to the stimulus is not a caress (that is, a pleasing mental experience) because it fails to demonstrate that his order has determined her behaviour. Instead of attending strictly to the task presented to her, she has responded to the stimulus of the experimenter - the stimulus, perhaps, of Murphy’s sex appeal (his notorious ‘surgical quality’), or perhaps of his magical gaze, mentioned in his horoscope. Surprised, Murphy asks himself how Ach could be wrong. What he forgets is that Ach performed his experiments in controlled conditions in which the stimulus of the experimenter played no part. Under such conditions, people may behave deterministically; but throughout Murphy, Beckett avoids omnisciently endorsing conclusions about metaphysical issues, and to emphasize that people may also behave freely, ends the scene as follows: ‘Vera concluded .  .  . her performance in much better style than she had begun .  .  . She actually made out the bill there and then on her own initiative’ (81; my italics). Murphy, we have been shown, is wrong to assume that human behaviour is at all times determined. He has behaved egotistically in treating Vera as the subject of a private experiment rather than as a complex human being worthy of a polite request for biscuits and tea. Characteristically, he is unmoved by the experiment’s failure, preferring to ignore evidence that does not accord with his pre-conceived ideas.


Murphy’s enthusiasm for the idea that man behaves deterministically is influenced not only by his interest in experimental psychology, but by his interest in philosophy as well. He is especially attracted to the work of Arnold Geulincx, who, as Beckett critics well know, holds that our every bodily action is ‘occasioned’ by God’s intervention between mind and body. The efficacy of our acts of volition is confined to our mental states: we lack the power to initiate bodily actions, but are free to imagine whatever we please.13


As Richard Coe has observed, Murphy believes that mental-physical interaction is occasioned not by God, but by another source of ‘super-natural determination’(109)—the stars.14 The novel opens, as we have seen, with the sun having no alternative but to shine, and Murphy imagining that, having withdrawn into his mind, he is free from astrological influence. But by comparing him to a personified heavenly body that is itself deterministically regulated, Beckett implies that Murphy is mistaken: his attempt to achieve freedom through imaginative meditation is presented as futile.


Equally mistaken, though, is the reader who concludes from this that Beckett believes in astrological determinism. At the start of the novel it suits Beckett’s purposes to imply that human activity is astrologically regulated; but elsewhere he suggests that the world is (in Schopenhauer’s phrase) a ‘kingdom of chance and error’ (WWI, I, 417). Celia meets Murphy for the first time when, ‘chancing to glance to her right she saw .  .  . a man. Murphy’(12-13). Murphy’s job at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat is obtained through a chance meeting with Ticklepenny; he dies when a flow of gas is released into his room by someone accidentally pulling the gas chain rather than the lavatory chain. The reader who fails to notice the ambivalence of Beckett’s attitude to astrological determinism is as much an object of satire as Murphy, for he is just as guilty of simplifying his experience.


Murphy’s sessions in his rocking-chair represent an attempt to achieve not only the temporary freedom afforded by imagination, but ultimately, the permanent freedom he believes to follow from the complete transcendence of worldly desire. Though various critics have shown that his faith in the rewards of self-transcendence derives partly from Geulincx, the way in which Beckett draws Spinoza and Schopenhauer, too, into his satire has not been discussed. Geulincx and Spinoza agree that complete self-transcendence is a supreme good; for once an individual has renounced the world, they argue, he is able to discover the will and thought of God and make his volitions conform to divine reason. What the individual achieves, in Geulincx’s terms, is ‘the unique love of right reason,’ the equivalent, as S.V. Keeling tells us, of Spinoza’s ‘intellectual love of God’.15 In both Spinoza and Geulincx love of God is clearly distinguished from self-love, which is held to be the root of all moral evil. Murphy, however, is either unaware of this, or has dismissed it from mind on the basis that God does not exist. For, as Beckett’s parody of Spinoza in the epigraph to chapter six indicates, Murphy’s behaviour is based not on the intellectual love of God, but on the love of himself.16


The self he loves is, in Schopenhauerian terms, his will-less self: Murphy believes that by loving it, he can attain to complete freedom from deterministic influence. According to Schopenhauer, we are all subject to an inner striving force, ‘the will to live,’ which drives us unceasingly toward the gratification of physical and psychological needs. The pleasures that accrue from the satisfactions of will are ephemeral: the satisfaction of our desire for food, for example, is inevitably followed by renewed hunger, our desire for power by a yearning for more power, and so on. As will-motivated (or ‘willing’) subjects we consistently treat people as the means to our own well-being. We are all basically selfish.


Yet it is open to us to deny our selfishness. In search of a better life, Schopenhauer notes, the mystic (of whatever persuasion) traditionally dedicates himself to voluntary chastity, renounces all worldly goods, and learns to welcome every ‘injury, ignominy and insult’ (WWI, I, 493) the world has to offer. As a result of his deliberate denial of the will to live, the mystic’s willing self languishes, and his latent will-less self—the part of himself that is free from desire—comes to the fore. Paradoxically, the mystic’s asceticism is motivated by self-love; it is, however, love of his will-less, rather than of his willing self, that underlies his behaviour.17 The extreme ascetic undergoes transformation into a ‘pure, will-less.  .  . time-less subject of knowledge’ (WWI, I, 231). As such, he is completely free from selfish desire, and totally indifferent to the world at large - which for him fades into ‘[N]othing’ (WWI, I, 532).


Murphy eventually experiences ‘Nothing’. But in a careful selection of ‘filmic’ scenes, Beckett demonstrates first, that the path he follows in pursuit of freedom is one of imperfect asceticism; and second, that his assumption that freedom from will is equivalent to freedom of will is mistaken. Early in the novel, Murphy is revealed as too weak to undertake voluntary chastity: though his will-less self wants to deny Celia, his willing self craves for her, and it is in answer to this craving that he agrees to abandon his search for freedom temporarily in order to find work. His failure to cultivate indifference to worldly objects is clear from his attempt to defraud a tea-shop by paying for one cup of tea, but consuming ‘1.83 cups approximately’ (84). His inability to welcome insult and suffering is revealed in his meeting with Miss Dew: when her dog eats his biscuits—a circumstance a more dedicated ascetic would regard with indifference—Murphy protests loudly and rudely. He is oblivious of Miss Dew’s attempts to palliate her loneliness by establishing contact with a stranger.


The episode with Miss Dew parallels Murphy’s efforts to befriend Mr. Endon, whose indifference to the world at large he admires. Murphy believes that Mr. Endon’s ostensible invitations to chess represent a desire to admit him to the fellowship of those who are wholly immured in mind; but on the night of their last game, he realizes for the first time that Mr. Endon is interested only in the disposition of the players on the board, and is indifferent to his opponent. The result for Murphy is an unprecedented ‘torment of mind’ (245), followed by an involuntary trance in which he experiences ‘Nothing’. ‘His .  .  . senses found themselves at peace, an unexpected pleasure. Not the numb peace of their own suspension, but the positive peace that comes when the somethings give way, or perhaps simply add up, to .  .  . Nothing .  .  .’ (246). In Schopenhauer, this sense of peace is well nigh permanent. But Murphy has reached it by the wrong route, and is thrown into a state of high agitation. After leaving Mr. Endon he finds himself subject to an obscure inner compulsion to remove his clothes and lie naked in the hospital grounds. He tries to call to mind people he has known: Celia, his mother, his father. At best, however, he is only able to picture fragmentary cinematic images: ‘[s]craps of bodies, of landscapes, hands, eyes, lines and colours evoking nothing, rose . . . as though reeled upward off a spool level with his throat’ (252).


‘Seeing’ with the mind’s eye—the eye of imagination—can be subject, Beckett reveals, to forces beyond one’s control, even after one has attained to ‘Nothing’. Earlier in the novel, Beckett has noted that ‘[in] the days when Murphy was concerned with seeing Miss Counihan, he had had to close his eyes to do so. And even now when he closed them there was no guarantee that Miss Counihan would not appear. That was Murphy’s really yellow spot’ (90). Murphy’s ‘yellow’ (i.e., weak) spot is his refusal to accept that there can be anything but freedom in the mind. He is aware that his imagination is not entirely within his control, just as he is aware that in the third zone of his mind, he is not free, but a mote in the actual/virtual flux. But in his enthusiasm for the idea that freedom is to be gained via self-transcendence, he has chosen to ignore experience that fails to conform to his private amalgam of the theories of Geulincx, Spinoza and Schopenhauer.


While in the hospital grounds, though, he manages to stop the illusory fragments from appearing, and returns to his garret to meditate. En route (introspectively) to his third zone, to the spurious freedom of inner chaos, he becomes unaware of his surroundings, of the gas pouring into his room. Earlier, Murphy had linked ‘gas’ etymologically to ‘chaos’: ironically, it is ‘excellent gas, superfine chaos’ (253)—the novel’s second counterpart to zone three—that causes his death.


Like Murphy, the novel’s minor characters come under satiric attack for failing to transcend their drive to satisfy various needs. Cooper and Miss Carridge are satirized for making no attempt to overcome their need for drink and money, respectively; other characters are mocked for their intense and incessant need for either love or friendship. Neary, for example, is tormented initially by unrequited love for Miss Dwyer and then for Miss Counihan; and later, by a desire for Murphy’s friendship. When Murphy is not to be found, Neary suffers an anguish of yearning, and is heavily satirized:


            He writhed on his back in bed, yearning for Murphy as though he had

            never yearned for anything or anyone before. He turned over and

            buried his face in the pillow . . . [Keeping] his head resolutely buried

            and enveloped he groaned:’ Le pou est mort. Vive le pou!! And a little

            later, being by then almost stifled: ‘Is there no flea that found at last

            dies without issue? No keyflea?’

              It was from just this consideration that Murphy, while still less than a

            child, had set out to capture himself, not with anger but with love. This               was a stroke of genius that Neary, a Newtonian, could never have

            dealt himself nor suffered another to deal him. There seems really

            very little hope for Neary, he seems doomed to hope unending . . . The

            fire will not depart from his eye, nor the water from his mouth, as he

            scratches himself out of one itch into the next, until he shed his mortal

            mange, supposing that to be permitted (pp. 201-2).


Here need is compared to a flea-bite: the sufferer scratches the bite to alleviate the itching, but the flea meanwhile has given birth to another flea, which by biting creates another itch, and so on. Just as there is no end to the fleas’ continuing torment, so in Neary’s view, there is no end to need. Neary’s concept of need derives from Wylie, who uses Proverbs 30: 15 as a basis for arguing that we are all creatures of need, and that it is our lot no sooner to satisfy one need than to have another take its place. Wylie’s theory is self-centred, since it views other people as means rather than ends. Moreover, it is a simplification in that it does not explain, for example, why Celia is allowed to ‘rest from need’ (256) after Murphy’s death; or why Neary’s need for Miss Counihan gives way to a need for Murphy, even though Miss Counihan fails to requite Neary’s love. In accordance with Schopenhauer, Beckett implies in the above passage that the cycle of

need can be transcended by loving one’s will-less self. Neary not only lacks the wit to see this, but is too self-centred to benefit from its being demonstrated to him. He is a ‘Newtonian’ in the sense that he believes, by analogy with Newton’s Third Law, that the satisfaction of one need invariably gives rise to the demands of another.


What the transcendence of need presupposes, however, is that man is free -- as Beckett acknowledges at the end of the passage. It may be that man is not permitted to ‘shed his mortal mange’: it may be, in other words, that we are the deterministic slaves of need, and that willed self-transcendence is impossible. If we are free, and some people choose to behave selfishly rather than to deny themselves, the satirist is justified in mocking them. But if we pursue the satisfactions of need deterministically, we cannot be held responsible for our selfishness, and satire is inappropriate. With this consideration in mind, Beckett satirizes some of Murphy’s characters while arbitrarily sparing others. Thus Neary is attacked for his failure to transcend need, while Wylie, author of the theory to which Neary subscribes, is spared. He is spared in spite of the fact that he is just as selfish as Neary, and as disinclined to asceticism.


Beckett also deliberately alternates between mocking some characters and expressing sympathy for them. He presents Miss Dew, for example, not only as a lonely woman undeserving of Murphy’s rudeness, but as a comic grotesque with a charlatan medium’s talent for making ‘the dead softsoap the quick’ (104). Celia, too, is treated ambivalently: Beckett introduces her to us as a comic antithesis to Murphy—as a body, rather than as a mind—but she is ultimately the least satirized character in the novel. Many critics agree with Ruby Cohn that the reason for this is that Celia’s ‘need for Murphy is less egotistical than that of the others’.18 Celia, Cohn adds, experiences a ‘catharsis’19 following the death of the Old Boy; assuming this to be a mystical catharsis, one could argue that she is ultimately saintly. Yet there is evidence in the novel that Celia’s need for Murphy drives her to behave just as selfishly as any of the other characters: though Beckett tries to conceal it,20 she lies to Murphy about Miss Carridge’s unwillingness to cheat Mr. Quigley, in order to force Murphy to look for work. In addition, she inconsiderately neglects the lonely Mr. Kelly after moving in with Murphy, and even appears to contemplate killing herself without thought for her grandfather’s feelings.


Beckett’s hints that Celia is thinking of suicide are important in relation to what Professor Cohn describes as her ‘catharsis’. The first hint appears in chapter two, when, like the prostitute Martha in David Copperfield, she goes down to the banks of the Thames: ‘Celia’s course was clear: the water. The temptation to enter it was strong, but she set it aside. There would be time for that’ (14).21 Another clue to Celia’s intentions is the passage where she tells Miss Carridge that she has been busy: ‘my swan crossword you know, Miss Carridge, seeking the rime, the panting syllable to rime with breath’ (229). The syllable she seeks, of course, is ‘death’.


Clearly, what Beckett is trying to do in these passages is to mislead the ‘gentle skimmer’ - just as he also tries to mislead us in suggesting that the first twelve chapters of Murphy correspond to the twelve houses of the zodiac,22 and that the events of the novel are astrologically determined. ‘[All] things hobble together for the only possible’ (227) says Beckett at one point, implying that Murphy could not have worked out differently. The only possible end to Murphy’s career of self-love, he suggests, is death. Equally, Celia’s love for Murphy could end in no other way but her suicide.


But if we have allowed ourselves to be seduced by Beckett’s rhetoric—if we do believe at the end of chapter twelve that this is the only possible end for Celia—chapter thirteen comes as a surprise. Here we find that Celia has not killed herself, but has returned to the streets, and to visiting Mr. Kelly, instead. The twelfth chapter was to have portended ‘the only possible,’ but there are at least two explanations for what actually happens. It may be that Celia’s behaviour has been deterministically regulated, though by self-interest rather than by the stars: in Wylie’s terms we could say that her need for Murphy has been replaced by a need for Mr. Kelly, and that she has been impelled away from suicide by a behaviouristic horror of pain. Alternatively, she may have achieved, by way of self-transcendent meditation, what Murphy and Neary both fail to: it may be that she has experienced a mystical ‘catharsis’ enabling her to ‘rest from need’ (p. 256) and freely choose to comfort Mr. Kelly in his declining years. More explanations are possible, based on different assumptions about need and freedom: to accept any one to the exclusion of the rest is to simplify our experience of the novel.


Another surprise in chapter thirteen is Beckett’s change of tone. Miss Dew appears in the chapter for the last time, though in a more sympathetic light than earlier: Beckett still scorns her interest in the occult, but in mentioning that her patron, Lord Gall, has threatened to find a new control if she continues to produce unsatisfactory results, presents her more clearly than before as a lonely, pathetic figure. Mr. Kelly, too, is treated more sympathetically. At the start of the chapter, he appears, as earlier in the novel, as a caricatured egotist, with hat too big and coat too small. But when the wind rises suddenly, and his kite blows away, he becomes in pursuit of it a ‘ghastly, lamentable figure’(281-82) Beckett would have us pity.


Whether Mr. Kelly and Miss Dew enjoy freedom of will is not at issue in the chapter; yet it is clear that they both lack the power to control their environment in a way that would ensure happiness. Miss Dew cannot command the spirits to Lord Gall’s satisfaction; Mr. Kelly is powerless to control the wind. Soon the latter will die, unable to prevent the imminent failure of his now ‘tired heart’ (282), and Celia will be left alone. If she had married Murphy and been permitted to leave her sordid profession, she might have found comfort in a child - a child, perhaps, who enjoyed flying kites. But like the other characters, she has been unable to control the course of events, and Beckett’s description of her wheeling Mr. Kelly out of the park at closing time, at the command of the attendants, emphasizes how little life has in store for her now. ‘Celia toiled along the narrow path into the teeth of the wind, then faced north up the wide hill. There was no shorter way home. The yellow hair fell across her face .  .  . She closed her eyes. All out’ (282). Celia’s case is especially pathetic, because she can do nothing to prevent the death of her grandfather, and lacks the financial and educational resources to start a new life for herself in any but a futureless job. It is this fact, rather than Beckett’s satiric arbitrariness, or (as Professor Cohn has suggested) Celia’s relative selflessness, that accounts for her being treated with special sympathy throughout the novel.


Beckett’s extension of that sympathy in the last chapter to Miss Dew and Mr. Kelly is in fact an expression of sympathy for mankind as a whole. For the command ‘All out’ applies not only to Celia, but to humanity generally: whether free or not, none of us can control all the forces that limit our enjoyment of life, or defy nature’s command to depart from it. In its earlier chapters Murphy is a sardonically omniscient author’s demonstration of the impossibility of answering metaphysical questions. But in the final chapter, Beckett allows his satiric mask to drop, and ends the novel as a lament—a personal and sincere, rather than omnisciently ironic lament—for man’s inability to determine his own happiness and his impotence in the face of death.


1 All quotations from Murphy are from the Grove Press edition, New York, 1957. Throughout, page numbers will be given in the text.

2 See ‘An elucidation concerning the monads,’ in The monadology of Leibniz, ed. H.W. Carr, (London, 1930) 151, where Leibniz writes that each mind is a ‘living mirror’ of the universe. See also ‘The principles of nature and of grace, founded on reason,’ in The monadology and other philosophical writings, ed. Robert Latta, (London, 1898) 420-21, where Leibniz observes that, of God, ‘[it] has been very well said that as a centre, He is everywhere, but His circumference is nowhere’. Various philosophers before Leibniz also held the mind to be a mircrocosm, or monad; but Beckett emphasizes Murphy’s special interest in Leibniz in his French translation of the novel. See Murphy, (Paris, 1947) 119.

3 ‘The’ principles of nature and of grace, founded on reason,’ in the Latta edition cited above, 421.

4 The principles of psychology, (London, 1902, I) 488.

5 Robert I. Watson, The great philosophers from Aristotle to Freud, (Philadelphia, 1968) 439.

6 Solomon E. Asch, ‘Gestalt theory,’ in The international encyclopedia of the social sciences, (London, 1968, VI) 168.

7 ‘On the antithesis of the thing in itself and appearance,’ in Essays and aphorisms, (trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Harmondsworth, 1970) 58.

8 See The world as will and idea, (trans. R.B. Haldane and J. Kemp, London, 1909, II) 336. Subsequent references to this work will be given in the text, prefaced by the abbreviation WWI.<

9 Tyburn is, of course, the place in London where criminals were publicly hanged; ‘Hibernia’ is another name for Ireland. Beckett is hinting not only that Tyburnia is Mr. Kelly’s bit of Ireland in England, but that life for him is not, as for Gay (see his couplet, ‘My own epitaph’) a jest, but a choke. In the beginning was the pun!

10 See George Humphrey’s Thinking: an introduction to its experimental psychology, (London, 1951) 68-83.

11 Ibid., 68.

12 The reference is not to the character Watt, of Beckett’s next novel, but to the psychologist H.J. Watt, whose work is discussed in Humphrey.

13 See S.V. Keeling, Descartes, (London, 1968) 233.

14 See Beckett, (Edinburgh & London, 1968) 30.

15 Keeling, p. 234.

16 The epigraph is a parody of Spinoza’s well-known proposition, ‘Deus se ipsum amore intellectuali infinito amat,’ Bk. V. prop. 35 of ‘Ethica ordine geometrico demonstrata’.

17 In WWI, I, 504, Schopenhauer describes the will-less self as ‘our better self’. Significantly, Beckett tells us in chapter five that ‘[the] only thing Murphy was seeking was what he had not ceased to seek from the moment of his being strangled into a state of respiration - the best of himself’ (pp. 70-71). The implication is that Murphy has found in Schopenhauer, as an adult, both purpose and justification for his childhood tendency to asceticism.

18 Samuel Beckett: the comic gamut, (New Brunswick, N.J., 1962) 47.

19 Ibid.

20 At the start of chapter five, Beckett describes Miss Carridge as being ‘a woman of such astute rectitude that she not only refused to cook the bill for Mr. Quigley, but threatened to inform that poor gentleman of how she had been tempted’ (64). Since it is Beckett who conveys this information to us, rather than Celia, we accept it as true. But later, when Celia is negotiating with Miss Carridge to rent the Old Boy’s room, it emerges that Celia and Miss Carridge have been swindling Mr. Quigley all along, Murphy’s being aware of it (see 146). Clearly, the earlier description of Miss Carridge as a woman of principle was Celia’s rather than Beckett’s. Beckett has tried to disapproval via a narrative sleight-of-hand.

21 Cf. David Copperfield, (Harmondsworth, 1969) 749. Celia is not the only character to owe something to this novel. Like David, Murphy is born with a caul on his head; Miss Dew resembles Miss Mowcher; and as Victor Sage has pointed out in ‘Dickens and Beckett: two uses of materialism,’ Journal of Beckett Studies, No. 2, Summer 1977, Mr. Kelly derives from Mr. Dick.

22 In Samuel Beckett’s ‘Murphy’: a critical excursion, (Athens, Georgia, 1968) 76, Robert Harrison argues convincingly that the first twelve chapters of Murphy ‘occupy, in sequence, each of the twelve houses of the zodiac, beginning with the House of the Native . . .’ .