Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy
is a hallmark of Beckett’s Modernist Theater of the Absurd, oeuvre despite not being a work of the theater. Published in French in 1951, and translated into English in 1955, Molloy
follows two characters over two chapters for two hundred-plus pages.
The novel begins as the titular character Molloy, a bedridden vagrant, takes up residence in his (absent from the text) mother’s room. The first paragraph of chapter one (which only lasts two pages compared to the second paragraph’s eighty-page span) sets up Molloy’s present situation: mysteriously ill, writing for a man who comes to collect his work every Sunday, whereupon, he returns Molloy’s writings from the previous week covered with notes, although Molloy is never concerned to read them. As for the reason he writes, Molloy describes it as to “speak of the things that are left, say goodbyes, finish dying.” He is motivated about finding his mother, although he is unsure why he must do so. This is not unlike Molloy’s other reasoning; he perpetually waffles between this or that, never reaching conclusions to his never-ending questioning as he can see no objective grounds for choosing one thing over another. Everything Molloy presently does is done without him knowing why.
As to how he came to be in his mother’s room, Molloy details the journey he underwent before taking up residence there. He spent much of it on his bicycle (which he never refers to as a “bike”), the impetus of sorts for his journey. After being arrested for leaning lewdly against the bicycle, Molloy is released and wanders from town to town, encountering people as equally arbitrary as the places he finds himself. Some of these characters are an elderly man holding a stick, policemen, a woman whose dog he kills after running it over with his bicycle, and whose name he forgets just as he does with the woman he falls in love with, who may be called Ruth or maybe Edith. This inability to give concrete details or make definite decisions is not merely a personality trait of Molloy, but a phenomenon indicative of Absurdist Theater, where a simultaneous vaudeville-like comedy engages with the idea that everything post-war is meaningless, retaining no fundamental purpose. Molloy’s final encounter is with a charcoal-burner that has been living in the same woods Molloy has been wandering, whom he attacks. The irrationality of this act is compounded when readers are left to wonder how Molloy is rescued from the ditch in which he sinks and returned to his mother’s room.
In and about the same woods in which Molloy leaves us, Jacques Moran is introduced. Moran, along with his son, also called Moran, is an investigator tasked by his boss, Youdi, to find Molloy. Moran and his uncooperative son embark on their own journey, plagued with as much ambiguity and uneasiness as Molloy. While there are many characteristics and thematic similarities between Molloy and Moran, there are also stark differences. Molloy is question-filled, yet Moran is logical and reasoned. His motivation is his strong religious beliefs, although he is hypocritical in his piety. This division within the interior is like Molloy, but Moran seems to arrive at decisions through objective reasoning, giving him a stronger sense of internal consistency. Nevertheless, this soon devolves. As Moran and his son make their way across the countryside, the elements, their preparedness, and a mysterious failing of the elder Moran’s health and body burden their mission. Moran sends his son to get them a bicycle, and in his absence, he encounters two strangers. In an act similar to Molloy’s against the charcoal-burner, Moran murders one of the men.
Moran hides the body of the man he killed and, finding himself abandoned by his son, he sickly makes his way home. It is during this journey that Moran’s narration poses increasingly bizarre theological questions. These ramblings, which are not delusional, but merely existentially nonsensical, reveal Moran’s budding madness. Or is it madness? Moran’s prior rationality is warped as he is squeezed by the increasing pressure of expectation placed upon him—both from Youdi and others who tasked him with finding Molloy. As he goes on, he realizes the absurdity of this manhunt. He does not know why he is meant to find Molloy, or what he is meant to do once he does. His deteriorating body becomes less of a concern for Moran as he finds a certain freedom in surrendering to the lack of meaning in life. Once home, Moran is seen using crutches (just as Molloy does at the outset of the novel). The voice that has been on the sidelines during much of Moran’s section characterizes his actions. Moran tells the reader that the voice directs him to write a report.
Moran’s descent into the commands of his voice suggests that Moran may be the origin of Molloy. However, as a hallmark of existentialist literature, they may be two sides of one personality; both men are allegories of what a human being is capable of in a world without reason. A tenet of Absurdist Theater is to unpack (in very nonliteral terms) the belief that human existence has no meaning or purpose and the breakdown in communication that is inherent because of this. The horrific and tragic imagery juxtaposed with the dark and deeply humorous language and dialogue is another element of this genre of writing, and typical of Beckett who is the closing bookend of Modernist literature.