Making the Best of a Bad Job

Representations of Disability, Gender and Old Age in the Novels of Samuel Beckett

by Manuel Barberá López (Author)
©2021 Monographs XIV, 198 Pages
Series: Masculinity Studies, Volume 11


This book explores the representations of disability, gender and old age in the novels of Samuel Beckett. His works go against the foundations of Western thought, which has been traditionally focused on success, clarity, learning and ability, while Beckett chose to focus on failure, confusion, decay and impotence. This study purports to show the central importance of the three categories chosen for the general understanding of the writer’s work. It constitutes an attempt to provide a gendered interpretation of Beckett’s protagonists, who are increasingly unable to reason, talk or move properly, extremely old and do not fit hegemonic models of masculinity. Beckett, who denies his own ability as an author to understand and explain a chaotic world, chooses these disabled, old men as the ultimate representatives of the human condition and the best models to transmit his worldview. This is a book combining different perspectives and getting to conclusions regarding power structures which are particularly interesting for researchers or students taking courses on the dialectics of alterity, masculinities studies or new readings of Samuel Beckett’s works. The author’s research is based on the main arguments of feminist thought, masculinities studies, disability studies, ageing studies and recent work on Beckett. The ultimate goal of such interdisciplinary approach is to show how different systems of oppression work in similar ways and to draw the political implications of Beckett’s literary choices, in terms of visibility and solidarity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction: “To fail as no other dare fail”
  • “Hearing nothing saying nothing capable of nothing”: Representations of Disability
  • Chapter One The Damaged Brain: Ruptures in Perception and Memory
  • Using Psychology to Depict the World
  • Alternative Configurations of the Mind: The Case of Murphy
  • Perception and Confusion
  • The Decline of Memory
  • Chapter Two The Fragmented Speech: The Impossibility of Communication and the Road to Silence
  • The Obsolescence of Language and the Inability to Express
  • The Linguistic Approach: The Case of Watt
  • The Discursive Approach
  • Chapter Three The Broken Body: Motility, Paralysis and Isolation
  • Movement, Life as Wandering and the Case of Molloy
  • Paralysis
  • Obsolescence and Dissolution of the Body
  • Chapter Four Disability in Samuel Beckett: The Trauma of Life and the Contagious Nature of Resilience
  • Life as Trauma
  • Disability and Artistic Message
  • Contagious Resilience as the Essence of Samuel Beckett
  • “Man or woman, what does it matter?”:: Representations of Gender
  • Chapter Five Men as Agents: Narration, Impotence and the Loss of Masculine Mastery
  • Masculinity, Crisis and Samuel Beckett
  • The Feminization of Samuel Beckett’s Writing
  • The Loss of Male Mastery: The Case of Malone Dies
  • Chapter Six The Representation of Men: Rejection of Hegemonic Masculinity and of the Heterosexual Matrix
  • On Masculinities and Representation
  • Alternative Configurations of Masculinity in the Novels
  • The Rejection of the Heterosexual Matrix
  • Chapter Seven The Representation of Women: Deactivation of the Feminine Mystique
  • Misogyny in the Novels
  • The Feminine Mystique: The Case of Dream of Fair to Middling Women
  • The Problem of the Voice: Character vs Narrator vs Author
  • Feminine Writing
  • Chapter Eight Gender in Samuel Beckett: A System of Reciprocal Dependency
  • The Dissolution of Gender and the Advance Towards Abstraction
  • Changes in the Interactions Between Men and Women
  • From Gender Relationships to Dependency Relationships
  • “I was always aged, always ageing”:: Representations of Old Age
  • Chapter Nine The Life Course and Its Meaning: Aging and the Novels
  • On Aging Studies and Samuel Beckett
  • Youth in the Novels
  • Memory, Time and Reaching Old Age
  • Chapter Ten The End of Wandering: Representations of Old Age and Death
  • On the Effects of Aging
  • Impairment and Rejection of the Idea of Aging
  • Death in the Novels
  • Chapter Eleven Old Age in Samuel Beckett: Intersections, the Social Stigma and Taking a Stand
  • Gendering Aging Studies
  • Intersections Between Systems of Oppression
  • Social Stigmas and Taking a Stand
  • Conclusions: “Making the best of a bad job”
  • Index
  • Series index


This book is a fully revised version of my Ph.D. dissertation, supervised by Drs. Ignacio Ramos, Josep M. Armengol and Juan Vicente Martínez. I am wholeheartedly grateful for their trust and precious knowledge, and for following and guiding my advance for more than two years. I want to thank Robert Peña for giving me the most helpful advice regarding corrections and style.

I gratefully acknowledge the postdoctoral research grant I received from the Gendernet-Plus Era-Net Cofund project “Gendering Age: Representations of Masculinities and Ageing in Contemporary European Literatures and Cinemas” (MascAge), coordinated by Josep M. Armengol, which gave me the time and funding necessary to revise my doctoral thesis into this book.

I also want to thank my sister Cristina, for always being there when I needed her. I am so grateful to all of the members at LPDC (generations 1–5) and satellites for believing in me and supporting me in ways only family can do.

Last, I dedicate this book to my parents, who loved me, taught me to love literature, inspired and encouraged me for as long as I can remember, and still do. Thank you.←xi | xii→

←xii | xiii→

List of Abbreviations

For the sake of clarity and language economy, the following abbreviations will be used to refer to works by Samuel Beckett:


The Complete Dramatic Works


The Complete Short Prose


Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment


Dream of Fair to Middling Women


How It Is


The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1, 1929–1940




Mercier and Camier




“Psychology Notes”


Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit


Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable




Worstward Ho

←xiii | xiv→←0 | 1→

Introduction: “To fail as no other dare fail”

In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex, which is still regarded as the foundational text of second-wave feminism. Some years later, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique (1963), which became a cornerstone of feminist thinking in the 1960s and 1970s. It is remarkable, while by no means casual, that Beauvoir and Friedan did also produce two of the earliest and most influential works on aging studies, The Coming of Age (1970) and The Fountain of Age (1993), respectively. Since then, the relationship between feminist and aging studies has continued to thrive. Indeed, numerous feminist scholars have also produced important works on aging, from Susan Sontag (1972) to more recent ones by Lynne Segal (2013), amongst many others (Woodward 1991; Gullette 1997; Cruikshank 2003). Much work has been devoted to both fields of study, illustrating Jane Sunderland’s idea that “new discourses develop interdiscursively out of older ones” and that we should look at tradition to see the links between the old and the new ones (2004, 122).

Unlike feminism, however, it has been noted that one of the main weaknesses of social gerontology is that it has traditionally been “data rich and theory poor” (Birren and Bengtson 1988; Featherstone and Wernick 1995; Dannefer et al. 2008). The efforts of sociology and the studies conducted provided experts with a series of patterns, statistics, behaviors and cases, but they lacked a strong framework or methodology for successful analyses and solutions. In addition, some have ←1 | 2→noted that “earlier critiques were limited to matters directly related to the concept of age” (Dannefer et al. 2008, 103), and so they did not include the intersectional elements necessary to making a field of theory that was strong, sensitive and conscious about more complex systems of oppression, exclusion and discrimination. That is a strong reason for critics to eventually turn to other theories alike, such as disability studies, and especially feminist theory, to perfect their own.

Nevertheless, and although it was similar in many aspects to sexism, ageism presented two main differences as a form of oppression. First, the category of old age is not hermetical as Man-Woman or Black-White were, in the sense that these were fixed and unchangeable due to the fact that they were discriminated on the basis of biological features set since birth. On the contrary, old age depends on time: nobody is born old, and everybody–in normal circumstances, will become old, which makes it a very special case. In this sense, demographical changes such as a higher life expectancy and the aging population made old age a more probable reality, which was one of the main causes for aging studies to develop in the first place. Thus, old age is a category we are all heading to, but the fact that we are not there yet, combined to its being inevitable, causes more anxiety. If there is something that is socially worse than being powerless, it might be being born powerful and being displaced by nature and society into powerlessness. To these general ideas, we can add Toni Calasanti’s (2005) assertion that “because our culture is ageist, we learn this form of bigotry from the time we are born. Either we try to avoid the aging process or we lose self-esteem because of the selves we feel we are becoming” (8). So, ageism is not only a consequence of our fear of old age, but an attitude established by society in society. It is an attitude that is based on stereotypes and also perpetuates them by systematically discriminating after age conditions. As a consequence, individuals are despised for the same behaviors and thinking they promoted when they were the privileged ones in the model. Furthermore, due to its progressive nature, aging carries new kinds of self-rejection and denial.

In the same line, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson has placed disability studies under a “larger undertaking [field] that can be called identity studies” (2002, 487), and she thinks that, while feminist theory cannot be transferred intact to disability studies, it can “offer profound insights, methods, and perspectives that would deepen disability studies” (487). Indeed, all three categories are present in any aspect of culture: “its structuring institutions, social identities, cultural practices, political positions, historical communities, and the shared human experience of embodiment” (489). As a consequence, they all inevitably have an influence in the social construction of identity and our cultural notions regarding society. All this suggests that, if different power hierarchies work in similar ways, the subversion of traditional models in all of them can be also attempted by means of using similar ←2 | 3→mechanisms of struggle and visibility. Garland-Thomson insists on the need to integrate disability in a feminist context, since it deepens our understanding:

of gender and sexuality, individualism and equality, minority group definitions, autonomy, wholeness, independence, dependence, health, physical appearance, aesthetics, the integrity of the body, community, and ideas of progress and perfection in every aspect of cultures. […] In other words, understanding how disability operates as an identity category and cultural concept will enhance how we understand what it is to be human, our relationships with one another, and the experience of embodiment. (490)

In any case, all three categories of disability, gender and old age affect the way we perceive ourselves and the way we relate to others and the world. As a consequence, they are in the end related to the notions of visibility and especially, following Garland-Thomson’s argumentation, of identity, a notion that became less fixed and more problematic than ever in the twentieth century. In Identity: Conversations with Benedetto Vecchi (2004), Zygmunt Bauman provides an overview on the evolution of such concepts during the last two centuries until the present day. In the introduction to the text, Vecchi talks about the ambivalence of identity, indicating that, whatever the field of investigation is in which we test that ambivalence, “it is always essential to perceive the twin poles that it imposes on social existence: oppression and liberation” (Bauman 2004, 8). Moreover, for Bauman:


XIV, 198
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (September)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XIV, 198 pp.

Biographical notes

Manuel Barberá López (Author)

Manuel Barberá López earned his PhD in Literature (Cum Laude and with an International Mention) at Universitat de València in 2020. He works as a post-doctoral researcher at Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, where he analyses representations of ageing masculinities in European literatures and cinemas.


Title: Making the Best of a Bad Job
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