Cycles of failure in Murphy

Murphy was a character who lived for his own principles, until he lived for those of Celia then shortly thereafter he died. Cecelia represented the physical expectations of society and the moral contortions those expectations impose.

While Murphy lived for his own principles his physical representation was of poverty, which may be construed as failure, but his psyche was liberated, which may be construed as success except that he was dissatisfied. Once he compromised his principles he burned to death. Yet, had he not compromised his principles then his heart-throb, Celia, would constantly nag him. Life would be miserable because of nagging, or there would be the threat of constant dissatisfaction and death by depravation. It was a circular conundrum.

The author of Murphy, Samuel Beckett, shows readers continually, like the continual occurrences of circular motions in the book, that systems are set up and then they fail. In the beginning of the book Murphy had spent six months in a mew watching the sun go round and round, but the place had been condemned. He is tied in his rocking chair and rocking, a semi-circular motion, and distracted by a cuckoo-clock echoing “quid pro quo! Quid pro quo ! . .” or the reminder that life was a mercenary exchange. The cuckoo-clock “detained him in the world to which they belonged, but not he, as he fondly hoped” (Beckett 2). He gets the rocking chair to its “maximum rock” (Beckett 6) but then the phone rings, and worried that his landlady will complain he unties himself. Afterward he reties himself. From this beginning Beckett sets the premise that life is systems of exchanges and that choices must be made. By the end of the book Murphy’s exchanges and choices have failed.

Beckett implies that people are caught in the middle of universal cycles. In the beginning of chapter five, when Celia and Murphy have just moved into a new room, the floor and walls are described as tangible, but “the ceiling was lost in the shadows” (Beckett 64). In the very next page Celia wanted to “make a man of Murphy!” (Beckett 65) but Murphy’s definition of being a man was not succumbing to the forces of society, to be lost in the shadows. Which brings the story back or pushes it forward, in the circular conundrum.

Other characters in the book, Neary, Wiley and Miss Counihan have a perverse fascination with Murphy. “’Our medians,’ said Wylie, ‘or whatever the hell they are, meet in Murphy’” (Beckett 213).

Is their fascination because they were solidly concerned with but unable to explain their own existences? There was also Cooper, who never sat or took off his hat, as a metaphor for physical existence. For Cooper it was matter over mind. His task was to find Murphy. Cooper traced and circled in on, but never really did find Murphy alive. But, once Murphy went to his fiery death then Cooper did sit and go bareheaded. In fact he purposely sat on his hat. Cooper was a microcosm of systems and failures.

To show how solidly concerned with matter over mind Neary, Wiley and Miss Counihan were, in the end, after these three with the help of Celia, had identified the burnt remains of Murphy, Neary took out his check book to pay-off the matter. This totally brings the life of Murphy into the circle of the tangible and mercenary. To capitalize on the futility of that vicious circle is what happens to Murphy’s ashes.

Murphy had written that he wanted his “body, mind and soul . . . burnt and placed in a paper bag and brought to the Abbey Theater” (Beckett 269). The Abbey Theater was co-founded by William Butler Yeats whose poems and other writings were much composed around two main topics, mysticism and reform politics. Murphy’s ideal of life would tend toward mysticism, not literally but that he endeavored to live without regard to the physical world; and toward reform politics, because he so much resisted the oppression that working for money can manifest.

To complete the cycle of Murphy’s life, Cooper is to take the ashes to the Abbey Theater. On the way he stops to get drunk, gets in an argument, flings the packet into the face of his offender where “It bounced, burst off the wall onto the floor . . . ; and before another dayspring greyened the earth had been swept away with the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits the vomit” (Beckett 275).

So, according to the life of Murphy, the sun and life go round and round, and it makes no difference if one lives for their own theories or the theories of society, all fail.


One thought on “Cycles of failure in Murphy”

  1. I enjoyed the take on Murphy and the various cycles of failure. The economic aspect of the failure reminded me of the biscuit episode in which managed to hustle a little extra out of the waitress/server only to have them eaten by the dog Nelly while engrossed in the act of Miss Dew trying to feed sheep. The physical seems to be balanced out in Murphy. He literally goes from ashes to ashes as his remains were spread on the floor of the pub.
    It could be argued however, that Murphy’s psyche wasn’t really liberated as he constantly struggled to separate himself from anything around him that didn’t jibe and subscribed himself to another “cycle”, that of the stars and Suk. His actions were determined by uncontrollable celestial events that he allowed to rule him.
    Not really sure if Murphy ever really subscribed to the idea of working for Celia. He never really looked for work when he said he was and only took the job at M.M.M. for his own personal reasons that had nothing to do with money or economics.
    The cycles of failure are interesting to note in any Beckett I’ve read, thanks for pointing these out.


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