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Samuel Beckett on Sanity vs. Insanity

Updated on January 8, 2014

Although the words insane and sane have only a two letter difference in the way they are spelled, these two seemingly similar words have very opposite meanings. The former automatically brings forth images of crazy, lunatic people who talk incessantly to themselves about things that make no sense. The latter may bring about the image of a happy person blissfully walking through the park on the way to work. These ideas and images are the product of the society in which the person lives. A person’s idea of normal in one area varies throughout the world. In some countries, little more than a loincloth is required to walk about during the day and, in others, a person is only allowed to show the most vital parts of the body, like the eyes. Therefore, if a society’s standards of normal vary, how can a person be certified as insane? Samuel Beckett’s novel Murphy discusses this enigmatic question by using various characters, both sane and insane, to represent both sides of the argument. Beckett uses the characters Wiley and Mr. Endon to help clarify the difference between a sane person and an insane person.

Wylie is a central character in Murphy because he is the brains behind the operation, so to speak, of finding Murphy. Wylie, who is an acquaintance of Murphy’s, is introduced as a former student of Neary’s, who bumps into him while Neary is in a trying mood. Wylie decides to help Neary win the love of Miss Counihan, Murphy’s fiancé; however, Wylie secretly wants Miss Counihan, and her money, for himself. Even though Wylie’s primary motive in the story is to woo Miss Counihan for her money, he has some very intriguing insight in the ways in which people live and the authority he exerts on their lives, which will be discussed later. Here, it can simply be said that Wylie is portrayed as a sane character trying to obtain one of society’s most sought after treasures, money.

Wylie’s sanity is established in primarily two different details. The first and most obvious fact is that Wylie is not a patient in a mental hospital. He is freely allowed to do as he wishes when he wishes to do as he pleases. Furthermore, although Wylie is portrayed as a money hungry wolf prowling Miss Counihan for her fortune, and does not care whether he hurts her or not in the process, Wylie is not considered a threat to others or himself. The second factor that depicts Wylie as a sane person are his mental and physical capacities. Wylie is able to think about complex ideas and carry them out accordingly. For example, at one point Wiley says, “Humanity is a well with two buckets, one going down to be filled, the other coming up empty” (58). This metaphor must be thought about for a short time before the meaning actually becomes clear. Wylie’s mentally capable of conveying this multifaceted idea without the aid of anyone else. Additionally, there is nothing physically wrong with Wylie and he is able to verbally communicate in all situations presented to him in the story. By society’s standards, Wylie is an acceptably sane person.

It can also be noted here that Wylie is also considered to be a person of authority, however little that may be. In the middle of the book the narrator observes, “Wylie’s words remained fixed in the minds of those to whom they had once been addressed” (199). While Wylie’s actions may be unscrupulous, many of the things he says give him authority by the fact that people still remember them after they were said. For instance, Wylie says, “I greatly fear that the syndrome known as life is too diffuse to admit of palliation. For every symptom that is eased, another is made. The horse leech’s daughter is a closed system. Her quantum of wantum cannot vary” (57). This quote is Wylie at his finest. The fact that Neary thinks intensely about this quote later in the book displays Wylie’s ability to exert his authority through words. The opinion Wylie expresses in the quote is a bit pessimistic and that feeling permeates much of Neary’s actions toward the end of the book. Notably, Neary staying in bed for so long that he develops bed sores. What is more, Wylie, with the help of Miss Counihan, is the one who persuades Neary to get out of bed. According to society’s standards, Wylie is considered a person of authority and, therefore, is respected as a suitable person.

In contrast, Mr. Endon is a patient at the M.M.M. with mental capabilities akin to Murphy’s. He is introduced as Murphy’s schizophrenic “tab,” or a patient on suicide watch. The odd thing is that Mr. Endon’s preferred method for suicide is Apnoea. Apnoea is the method of holding one’s breath until death is achieved; however, as the narrator of Murphy points out, “It is a physiological impossibility” (185) for a person to actually die of voluntary Apnoea. This fact does not keep Mr. Endon from choosing Apnoea as his method. In addition to this odd detail about Mr. Endon, he walks about the M.M.M. in his pajamas and is an adamant chess player. It is through chess that Murphy and Mr. Endon spend much of their time interacting. Mr. Endon is crucial to understanding Murphy and acts as an excellent example of Beckett’s portrayal of a certifiably insane person.

Although Mr. Endon is a patient at the M.M.M., Murphy feels connected with Mr. Endon in a way that no other character in Murphy is linked to him. The narrator explains, “It seemed to Murphy that he was bound to Mr. Endon, not by the tab only, but by a love of the purest possible kind, exempt from the big world’s precocious ejaculations of thought, word and deed. They remained to one another, even when most profoundly one in spirit, as it seemed to Murphy, Mr. Murphy and Mr. Endon” (184). In this quote, Murphy idolizes Mr. Endon to the point of near obsession. Furthermore, Murphy likes Ticklepenny’s observation that, at one point, Murphy looked like a patient at the M.M.M. by the name of Clarke who had been “in a katatonic stupor” for three weeks repeating the phrase, “Mr. Endon is very superior” (193). In fact, Murphy’s affections for Mr. Endon are what ultimately caused his death, whether by suicide or misadventure. Mr. Endon did not think of Murphy the way Murphy thought of Mr. Endon. The narrator says, “while Mr. Endon for Murphy was no less than bliss, Murphy for Mr. Endon was no more than chess” (242). Mr. Endon only enjoyed Murphy’s company because he liked playing chess with him. When Murphy realizes this, while looking into Mr. Endon’s eyes, Murphy exclaims, “The last Mr. Murphy saw of Mr. Endon was Mr. Murphy unseen by Mr. Endon. This was also the last Murphy saw of Murphy…The relation between Mr. Murphy and Mr. Endon could not have been better summed up than by the former’s sorrow at seeing himself in the latter’s immunity from seeing anything but himself…Mr. Murphy is a speck in Mr. Endon’s unseen” (250). After Murphy says this, he leaves the ward and heads back to his garret. Murphy’s death is directly caused by Murphy’s epiphany about Mr. Endon. Although Murphy thought of Mr. Endon as being far superior, Mr. Endon saw no one but himself.

Mr. Endon’s inability to see Murphy is a result of his mental problems. Throughout the whole book Mr. Endon did not speak once. He only expressed himself through the movement of his body and the objects around him, such as the chess pieces. The only link to Mr. Endon’s mind is through the narrator of the story. Near the end of the story, the narrator indicates, “It was of no consequence to Mr. Endon that his hand had been stayed from restoring his Shah to his square, and the hypomanic’s light from off to on. It was a fragment of Mr. Endon’s good fortune not to be at the mercy of the hand, whether another’s or his own” (248). This last sentence gives quite a bit of insight into the way Mr. Endon views his surroundings. “Not to be at the mercy of the hand, whether another’s or his own” (248), expresses the thought that Mr. Endon does not think he is dependent on anyone else, not even himself. It means he does not mentally register the people around him taking care of him, or even himself, for that matter. Mr. Endon’s lack of verbal communication and inability to acknowledge other people or himself establishes him as, the opposite of Wylie, a certifiably insane person.

Wylie and Mr. Endon’s lives in Murphy are quite different. Wylie’s primary purpose is to marry Miss Counihan for her money. Mr. Endon’s existence is little more than that. He is looked after at the M.M.M. and gets the medical and psychiatric help he needs. Wylie is considered sane. Mr. Endon is considered insane. Wylie is trying to get what he wants out of life. Mr. Endon is content being himself and has no ultimate goals that the reader is aware of. Wylie is going to marry a woman he does not love to obtain money. Mr. Endon will most likely continue to live at the M.M.M. Wylie and Mr. Endon are very different characters.

As different as Wylie and Mr. Endon appear to be, are the terms sane and insane aptly applied to them? Wylie will go on constantly in need of and in search of money. Mr. Endon will continue to be content not acknowledging the existence of anyone. Wylie will marry Miss Counihan and have to put up with her. Mr. Endon could care less about anyone else, let alone himself. Is it better to live life as a person constantly wanting more things and needing to please others? Or is it better to live life not caring what anyone else thinks because people are not recognized? Is it better to be deceitful while obtaining a person’s wants? Or is it better to be content with what one has? These questions may or may not help define sane and insane but they will make one think about how society defines them.

© 2014 morningstar18

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    • morningstar18 profile image
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      morningstar18 3 years ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico

      Hello, thank you for your comment. I am a big Samuel Beckett fan too. I was introduced to him in college and I have now read several of his works. My favorite, as I am sure is many people's favorite, is "Waiting for Godot." I enjoy his themes and metaphors. I am very happy I was able to enlighten you and help you find another one of his works that is extremely worth reading.

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 3 years ago from Reno NV

      I am a huge fan of Samuel Beckett and I am so glad you introduced me to this work. I am ready to dive right in. Thank you for this wonderful hub about an incredible creative mind and a work of his I needed to meet. Jamie