Beckett’s bicycles


Janet Menzies


I think I shall be able to tell myself four stories, each one on a

            different theme. One about a man, another about a woman, a third

            about a thing, and finally one about an animal, a bird probably. I

            think that is everything.1


So writes Malone at the beginning of Malone dies. Beckett’s own application of this plan in his novels concentrates more on men and things than on women and animals, and it is by concentrating on the relationship between men and things that Beckett is able to convey to the reader what ‘everything’ is. The ‘things’ soon become familiar to the reader as they appear and reappear in the novels: an umbrella or a stick; a greatcoat; a stone; a boot or even a pair of boots; perhaps a sack or a bag; always a hat. The most significant of all these things, intimately connected with man in the telling of his stories, is the bicycle.


A dominant motif in Beckett’s work is that of struggle and pain, most often expressed in terms of movement and travelling (which are usually difficult) but which, in exceptional circumstances (when a narrator has died, for example) may become easy. To escape their lack of freedom, Beckett’s characters travel, taking with them a few private possessions which reflect their personality. Of these emblematic items, by far the most important is the bicycle: it is a moving man-powered machine made for travelling (which can be both easy and difficult, according to the conditions prevailing); and it is also a prized possession through which an owner may express his personality. In this respect the bicycle is like the plot. Take for example the ritualistic novel Watt with its dependence on the regular comings and goings of Mr Knott’s two servants:


            The first is here, in his bed, or at least in his room. But the second,

            I mean Vincent, is not here any more, and the reason for that is

            this, that when I came in he went out. But the third, I mean Walter,

            is not here any more either, and the reason for that is this, that

            when Erskine came in he went out, just as Vincent went out when

            I came in. (Watt, John Calder, 1963, 55)


Plot in Watt becomes a device for moving characters; Beckett emphasizes this in Watt by making the movement of characters itself his plot. But of the many motifs by which Beckett attempts to communicate his view of the struggle between the desire for movement and the desire to stay still, the vision of the bicycle (with or without its rider) is among the most penetrating and powerful. The bicycle is integral to Beckett’s work; its appearance, possession and disappearance coincide with and reflect changes in the physical status of characters and even in the tone of the narrative. When a bicycle wheels into one of Beckett’s novels it almost always serves to illuminate the special preoccupations which distinguish one work from another. At the end of Watt, for example:


            Not many minutes later the six-four entered the station. It did not

            take up a single passenger, in the absence of Mrs. Pim. But it

            discharged a bicycle, for a Miss Walker. (Watt, 245)


It is perfectly appropriate that a bicycle should steal the scene at this point; it is the climax of the crisis during which Watt disappears from the novel. Watt has recovered after being presumed dead and finally buys a ticket; but the train does not take him up. Nor is Mrs Pim taken up. Into this situation the bicycle is discharged, a bicycle, ironically enough, intended for someone who is a ‘walker.’ The pun seems to give the bicycle a personality, so that for a moment it is the centre of attention; yet it, too, disappears and is forgotten. The focal point for a second, this bicycle is as important as a Beckett character: a form of transport, transported; its intended rider apparently a walker.


But the Beckettian bicycle means different things in different places. It first appears in More pricks than kicks when Belacqua and Winnie are making their way towards the lunatic asylum:


            They followed the grass margin of a ploughed field till they came

            to where a bicycle was lying, half-hidden in the rank grass.

            Belacqua, who could on no account resist a bicycle, thought what

            an extraordinary place to come across one. The owner was out in

            the field, scarifying the dry furrows with a fork. (More pricks than

            kicks, Calder and Boyars, 1972, 28)


This first encounter with the bicycle is informative, both about Belacqua and the bicycle itself. The bicycle is the first evidence of a human existence, the two, bicycle and man, being interdependent. The phrase explaining that Belacqua ‘could on no account resist a bicycle’ is wittily turned so that it appears to Belacqua much as a pretty girl would, rather than the thought of riding it for transport or pleasure. Yet Belacqua thinks it ‘extraordinary’ to find this bicycle, although it would seem to be quite normal to find a bicycle abandoned on the edge of a field by a farm labourer in the Irish countryside. All these slight incongruities, hardly noticeable individually, combine to make the discovery of the bicycle not only noteworthy, but, following on the description of the lunatic asylum, faintly disturbing; and this feeling is enforced by the end of the conversation with ‘the owner of the bicycle’ where it is remarked that: ‘Belacqua had no one but himself to blame if they never got away from this machine’ (More pricks than kicks, 31). ‘Machine’ here means a combination of both the man and his machine, where the two become almost indistinguishable. An analogous idea is pursued in Flann O’Brien’s The third policeman,2 where bicycles also have an integral role, Sergeant Pluck’s obsession with bicycles being one of the book’s major topoi. At one stage Sergeant Pluck explains what one might call his atomic theory with respect to bicycles:


            People who spend most of their lives riding iron bicycles . . . get

            their personalities mixed up with the personalities of the bicycle as

            a result of interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you

            would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who

            nearly are half people and half bicycles. (The third policeman,



Both O’Brien and Beckett believe that the concept of, and if possible the possession of, a bicycle is a well-nigh essential attribute of the human character.


There may possibly be something distinctively Irish here, for even writers like Patrick Campbell are fascinated by bicycles:


            Once while I was in the Irish Marine Service, I saw a woman going

            abroad a Greek freighter late at night wearing a fur coat. I got on

            my bicycle at once and hurried back to headquarters.3


It is quite incidental to the story he is telling that the many journeys which Campbell makes to and from headquarters during the course of the night are made on a bicycle, but at the same time quite unthinkable that they should be undertaken in any other way.


In More pricks than kicks the bicycle is responsible for one of Beckett’s most successful lyric passages, in which the bicycle previously discovered lying in the field abets Belacqua in his flight from the social pressures of Dr Sholto and Winnie:


            He changed his course and came to where the bicycle lay in the

            grass. It was a fine light machine, with red tyres and wooden rims.

            He ran down the margin to the road and it bounded alongside

            under his hand. (More pricks than kicks, 33)


Beckett takes great pleasure in describing this bicycle; there is a craftsman’s tone in his mention of the ‘red tyres and wooden rims.’ The bicycle and Belacqua co-exist in a unison of movement very aptly conveyed in the phrase describing how the bicycle ‘bounded alongside under his hand.’ A similar picture of ease and companionship is to be found when Flann O’Brien’s narrator steals a bicycle:


            It was extremely well-kept with a pleasing lustre on its dark-green

            bars and oil bath and a clean sparkle on the rustless spokes and

            rims . . . We had travelled the passage and crossed the kitchen

            with the grace of ballet dancers, silent, swift and faultless in our

            movements, united in the acuteness of our conspiracy. (The third

            policeman, 169 and 173)


It is not surprising that both these bicycles should be presented as means of escape; for in social terms the bicycle has always been regarded as a bringer of freedom. It provides a simple and cheap way of obtaining freedom of movement without bringing the demanding responsibilities of upkeep that a car or a horse involve. It lasts longer and is more convenient to use than any other form of transport and it is more efficient and faster than walking. Nor is the riding of a bicycle confined to any particular class or race; it is universally practised and, whilst riding, all riders are social equals. There is a Punch cartoon of 1896 which illustrates these advantages admirably. Entitled ‘Great self-restraint,’ it features a horse and trap preceded along a country road by a cyclist. The caption reads: ‘Lady in pony-cart (who has made several unsuccessful attempts to pass persevering beginner occupying the whole road): “Unless you fall off, Sir, I’m afraid I shall miss my train.” The bicycle here is victorious in the competition of three forms of transport; for unless the cyclist is parted from his bicycle he is assured of progressing steadily towards his destination, whilst both pony-cart and train will be quite useless to the lady.


It is very much these virtues which make the bicycle so appealing an image to Beckett; it is rarely regarded as anything but moral, upright and endearing. When Belacqua drives away with Ruby to commit suicide in a car, ‘Mr Tough crept to the window and peeped out from beyond the curtain. He had worked himself to the bone for his family and he could only afford a safety-bicycle.’ (More pricks than kicks, 97) In this comparison between modes of transport the bicycle emerges as a solid character, the help-mate of the working man, whilst the car is connected with the shiftless Belacqua on his sinful mission of self-destruction.


However, the bicycle is not so simple a machine as it looks. By the time of Mercier and Camier it gives rise to new problems, for by now it is a good deal more than the social force recognized in More pricks than kicks, more than an extension of the rocking-chair idea in Murphy, and more even than the enigmatic formal properties that occasionally surface in Watt. In Mercier and Camier discussion centres on the essential qualities of the bicycle itself. Initially the titular heroes make the great mistake of abandoning their bicycle when setting out on their journey. Later Mercier describes the abandoned bicycle’s condition:


            Of it there remains, said Mercier, securely chained to the railing,

            as much as may reasonably remain, after a week’s incessant rain,

            of a bicycle relieved of both the wheels, the saddle, the bell and

            the carrier. And the tail-light. (Mercier and Camier, 85)


Amazingly the pump has not been stolen, but Mercier has ‘turned it upside down, I don’t know why.’ All this leads to a much closer examination of the bicycle: what is its most important feature, what is it that makes a bicycle a bicycle?


Flann O’Brien is equally interested in this question. His narrator discovers in a bicycle:


            the perfect proportion of its parts which combined merely to create

            a thing of surpassing grace and elegance, transcending all stan-

            dards of size and reality and existing only in the absolute validity

            of its own unexceptionable dimensions. (The third policeman,



In both cases the intellectual and aesthetic elements of the bicycle are as important as its social and personal implications. As Hugh Kenner has pointed out, the philosophical qualities of the bicycle are among its most attractive features. Kenner discusses the bicycle as a ‘product of the pure intelligence which has preceded it in time and now dominates it in function.’4 The bicycle as a ‘product of pure intelligence’ is indeed a potent concept. Its construction depends on one of the most satisfying principles, that of a revolving circle. In this respect it is related to the theories of Descartes in which he hypothesizes a perfect machine operated by the highest intellect: ‘mens sana in corpore disposito.’ The cyclist, interestingly enough, has been scientifically proven to be the most efficient of all moving animals and machines (followed by a salmon, a horse and a jumbo jet). S.S. Wilson5 has demonstrated that a cyclist uses one fifth of the energy of a walking man in order to travel three or four times faster. The bicycle, from this point of view, becomes the near realization of an idea—using minimal energy and producing little waste, working on the highest mathematical principles whilst requiring minimal skill in operation. However, it is not true to say of the bicycle, as Kenner does, that the intellect ‘now dominates it in function.’ In fact the tendency is to a more general idealization of the bicycle. Kenner himself writes a typically lyrical passage describing the ridden bicycle as: ‘body and mind in close harmony; the mind set on survival, mastery and the contemplation of immutable relatives (tout passe et tout dure) the body a reduction to uncluttered terms of the quintessential machine.’6 The Penguin book of bicycles becomes almost mystical in describing how to:


            concentrate on maintaining that fast, relaxed and perfect rotary

            motion of the legs which makes for sustained speed. Everything

            else is poise. The body is balanced and breathing fully, the mind is

            fixed on ‘stillness at the centre,’ the eyes alert on the road as it

            whirls towards you. Everything moves. Everything is still.


Even Jerome K. Jerome, generally cynical where bicycles are concerned, sympathizes with the vision of Harris as he ‘bent down over the handles and put his heart into his work. The bicycle bounded over the road like a thing of life; farmhouses and churches, dogs and chickens came to him and passed. Old folks stood and gazed at him, the children cheered him.’7 In these romantic visions the intellect does not ‘dominate’ the bicycle; the intellect and the bicycle merge to produce one triumphant whole.


It is in The calmative that Beckett expresses his own sense of the ideal relationship between man and bicycle:


            He was pedalling slowly in the middle of the street, reading a

            newspaper which he held with both hands spread open before his

            eyes. Every now and then he rang his bell without interrupting his

            reading. I watched him recede until he was no more than a dot on

            the horizon.


This man moves in perfect unison with his machine, so much so that he is even able to pursue other natural pastimes whilst riding. The narrator is so refreshed by this sight, that even his own movement becomes easier:


            I had no pain whatever, not even in my legs . . . I quickened my

            step with the result that I swept forward as if on rollers. This is not

            me, I said, let us make the most of it. Finding myself in an instant

            a bare ten paces in his rear I slowed down so as not to burst in on



This ease of progress is most untypical for a Beckett character, and it is stimulated by the ideal that has preceded it, an ideal established as ordinarily unattainable in the opening admission that the ‘I’ is already dead. Flann O’Brien also demonstrates that the ideal unified vision of a man riding a bicycle cannot exist in actual life. As his hero sets off on his journey home he enjoys perfect motion:


            A breeze had sprung up from nowhere and pushed tirelessly at

            my back, making me flit effortlessly through the darkness like a

            thing on wings. The bicycle ran truly and faultlessly beneath me.

            (The third policeman, 194)


But it is at the end of this journey that he, too, discovers that he is dead. This vision of man and bicycle is both potent and unique; its significance as the perfect expression of unity woos writer and reader alike. Even whilst presenting it Beckett and O’Brien realise its impossibility.


Yet Beckett, unlike O’Brien, is not content to present the bicycle as purely ideal. In the trilogy the picture of a real man on a real bicycle provides Beckett with an image of the method by which he may come nearest to confronting his problems of self-expression. The tension between a constant awareness of the ideal vision of unity and the impossibility of its realization by humanity is the source of the humour, the optimism and the positive effect of Beckett’s writing. In the trilogy and especially in Molloy this tension finds its most poignant expression. When Molloy describes his bicycle every aspect of humanity, and of bicycles, and of their relationship one to another is comprehended. Firstly the social and physical implications of the bicycle are discussed; in order to travel Molloy ‘fastened my crutches to the crossbar, one on either side, I propped the foot of my stiff leg (I forget which now they’re both stiff) on the projecting front axle, and I pedalled with the other.’ This in turn gives rise to a lyrical view of the bicycle itself: ‘a chainless bicycle, with a free-wheel, if such a bicycle exists. Dear bicycle, I shall not call you bike, you were green, like so many of your generation. I don’t know why. It is a pleasure to meet it again.’ (The depth of emotion here is such that Molloy jumps suddenly from the past to the present tense.) Next the mechanical and philosophical associations of the bicycle are explored: ‘To describe it at length would be a pleasure. It had a little red horn instead of a bell fashionable in your days . . . And when I had to part from my bicycle I took off the horn and kept it about me.’ His pleasure is that of the enthusiast discussing some of the most satisfying attributes of the bicycle. Yet this passage, though seemingly triumphant, is also wistful. Even in the moment of its creation on the page the vision has no present existence: ‘This should all be written in the pluperfect. What a rest to speak of bicycles and horns. Unfortunately it is not of them I have to speak.’9


Moran’s feelings towards his bicycle are similar to Molloy’s. When he feels himself deteriorating he orders his son to buy him a bicycle and its arrival brings welcome respite to him. When he succeeds in riding the bicycle Moran even achieves a high-point that arrests the steady path of his decline:


            The bicycle swayed, righted itself, gained speed. Bravo! I cried,

            beside myself with joy . . . Happily it was downhill. Happily I had

            mended my hat or the wind would have blown it away. Happily the

            weather was fine and I no longer alone. Happily. Happily.10


Moran’s sense of elation here stems from a sense that the real may also be the ideal. Unhappily this proves to be an illusion. His struggles to re-mount the bicycle ‘half dragged, half hopping,’ only entangle the bicycle in Moran’s human struggles, they do not free him from them. This is why ‘we had trouble with the bicycle’ and also why Moran’s decline is not finally arrested. Ultimately, to underline this point, Moran tells us that his son steals his bicycle and from this moment his decline is swift.


The bicycle motif is a perfect embodiment of the quality that Beckett sees as fundamental to human existence: the situation of aspiring and failing. One aspires towards a unified vision but never really achieves it—for the achievement would coincide with the end of the life-struggle: ‘the lasting one, that didn’t last, that still lasts, it will be I, you must go on, I can’t go on, you must go on, I’ll go on, you must say words as long as there are any.’ When Beckett, in a letter of 1932, remarked to George Reavey: ‘I’ll be here till I die, creeping along genteel roads on a stranger’s bike,’11 it was his way of expressing the creative impotence that he passes on to all his characters. And yet in his subsequent writing the image of the bicycle discloses an unexpected potency in Beckett. The enduring picture remains of the stoic man, mounting his bicycle, almost surmounting his difficulties, but at last relapsing into the torment of impotence, in which he nevertheless sustains an indomitable memory, a never-fading impression, which is his hope and his promise of freedom. It is a measure of how compelling Beckett’s bicycles are that one even begins to find Beckett in a photographer as individual as Lartigue, in particular a photograph of ‘the Buffalo Velodrome’ in 190812 which shows a crowd of bowler-hatted onlookers (who could almost themselves be Beckett characters) watching cyclists race by (among whom might almost be M. Godeau himself). And in the Penguin book of bicycles there is an advertisement which features a bicycle hung up on a hatstand along with a bowler hat and an umbrella, just as though Beckett had passed by and deposited his literary belongings.


1 Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies, John Calder Ltd., London, 1959, 181. All future quotations from Beckett’s works are incorporated in the text.

2 Flann O’Brien, The third policeman, London, Picador, 1967.

3 Patrick Campbell, The Penguin Patrick Campbell, London, 1965, 110.

4 Hugh Kenner, Samuel Beckett: a critical study, London, 1962, 123.

5 In R. Watson, The Penguin book of the bicycle, London, 1978.

6 Kenner, op. cit., 124.

7 J.K. Jerome, Three men on the Bummel, London, 1945, 29.

8 Samuel Beckett, Four novellas, John Calder, 1977, 62.

9 Samuel Beckett, Molloy, John Calder, London 1959, 16.

10 Molloy, 157.

11 Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett, London, 1978, 157.

12 J.H. Lartigue, The history of photography, No. 5, London, 1978.