A Review of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” by Maryam Kekere-Ekun

Book: ‘Happy Days’ by Samuel Beckett

First published by: Grove Press in 1961 followed by Haber in1963.

Reviewed by: Maryam Kekere-Ekun.

‘Happy Days’ was written by Beckett in the year 1961. He began the book in October 1960 and finished it in May 1961. Beckett was known for writing plays that emphasize the absurdity of human existence. ‘Happy Days’ was first published by Grove Press in 1961.

The play is divided into two acts and has only two characters. The play centers on Winnie; an optimistic woman in her fifties. As the first scene unfolds, she is portrayed as someone who is buried in a mound up to her waist. Her arms and shoulders are bare and her face is tucked in her lower arms which are laying on the mound around her waist.

A bell rings signifying the start of a new day and Winnie wakes up. She mutters some prayers and goes about some of her routine like brushing her teeth. She tries to use her parasol to wake her husband —Willie who is hidden behind the mound. She eventually drops the parasol and Willie’s presence is made known to us when he hands over the parasol back to Winnie from behind the mound.

The writer presents Winnie as a character having problems with her eyesight. She struggles to read the words ‘genuine pure hog’s setae’ on the handle of her toothbrush. After many attempts, she is finally able to read it with her spectacles and magnifying glass which she had cleaned meticulously with her handkerchief.
Later, she tries to remember if she had brushed her hair and looks around but she doesn’t find it. She seems to be losing her memories little by little. She discovers later that the brush and comb are in her black bag which contains other items including a revolver. She reminds Willie that there was a time he wanted to use it and implies that it’s still available but Willie doesn’t seem to comprehend what she’s saying.

After a while, the couple laugh at a joke Willie made about the ant Winnie spotted carrying eggs. Willie had simply said, ‘fornication’, but it caused both of them to laugh very hard.

The play also presents Winnie as a lonely person who depends on Willie’s presence for company. She even imagines a couple Cooker and his wife as they watch over her.

The next act which is also the next day, Winnie is buried in the mound up to her neck and is unable to move her head. A bell rings and she wakes up. She tries to talk to Willie but hears no reply. She concludes heartbreakingly that Willie has died, or left her “like the others. Her optimistic character soon shatters leaving her anxious and upset about her situation.

She shortly recalls the story of a young girl who was undressing her doll in the middle of the night. Winnie accuses Willie of not paying attention, then asks if he was stuck in the hole. She talks about the brief sorrow she feels after singing. She recalls her imaginary couple, who are now much older, and assumes they are now looking at her buried body.

At the final scene, Willie crawls up the mound to Winnie and she is overwhelmed by memories of him proposing to her. Willie whispers the word ‘Win’ to her, probably his nickname for her or an assurance that they would overcome every obstacle and win. The play ends with a pregnant silence as the couple look into each other’s eyes.

It has been said that Beckett wrote ‘Happy Days’ because a friend requested him to write a happy play. Beckett himself wrote that it was difficult to separate the comic from the tragic, but comedy, with its “intuition of the absurd,” was more despairing because it offers no way out.

As to why Winnie was covered up in a mound, it’s because Beckett often uses words like: strapped, paralyzed or incomplete bodies, to symbolize communication problems.

In the play, Winnie’s speeches are filled with quotations from different authors; an attribute which showcases her intelligence. She also tries to see the best in everything and seems to hope for a better future, regardless of the fact that she was rendered immobile and was surrounded by static conditions -‘No better, no worse, no change, no pain.’

Samuel Beckett does have an elegant style of writing, but I didn’t really find the description smooth enough. The actions of the characters kept clashing with the words and it was a bit difficult to picture the scenes clearly. The book also creates a kind of conflict as I and many others were left oblivious to what really happened to Willie and Winnie in the end. But it allowed different imaginations to run in my head.

Even though ‘Happy Days’ does not practically represent a story of days with cheerful smiles and joyful events, it exposes one to in-depth thoughts of the meaning and essence of life.

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Maryam Kekere-Ekun is a writer of both prose and poetry. She hails from Lagos State and is currently studying Chemical engineering at the University of Ilorin, Kwara State. She is a member of the Hill-Top Art Foundation. She loves to read thriller and historical fiction. Her favourite author is Enid Blyton.