Nicolas Tredell

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Murphy (1938), the first published novel of Samuel Beckett (1906-89), is a philosophical tragicomedy.  Its theme, characteristically for Beckett, is nothing less than the human condition, but in contrast to the increasing minimalism of his later prose and drama, which moves through lessness (to use the title of his 1970 story) towards a barely articulate agony on the edge of nothingness, Murphy is rich in incident, humour, commonplace and idiosyncratic detail, recondite vocabulary, and erudite literary and cultural allusion.  It has a plot of sorts that encompasses farce, black comedy, lyricism and metaphysics, and its characters, though not fully ‘rounded’, are memorable in their physical, sartorial and behavioural eccentricities.  The novel has a third-person narrator who intervenes from time to time to address the reader – “Try it sometime, gentle skimmer” (60) – and explain his own narrative procedures: “[i]t is most unfortunate, but the point of this story has been reached where a justification of the expression ‘Murphy’s mind’ has to be attempted” (76).


The novel ran to 282 pages in its first edition and consists of 13 chapters: all are set in London, except chapter four, which unfolds in Dublin, and chapter seven, which opens in London but moves to Dublin after about two-and-a-half pages and then has flashbacks to London.  The London topography, ranging from West Brompton to Chelsea to Hyde Park to Islington to Beckenham, is precise down to the street names (see Tredell, 2014).  Beckett had come to London late in 1933 to undergo psychoanalysis, which was then illegal in Ireland, and had spent two years in therapy at the Tavistock Clinic with Wilfred Bion (1897-1979). Without a job, Beckett wandered the streets a great deal and got to know certain parts of London well. He lived in Chelsea, first at 48 Paultons Square and then at 34 Gertrude Street. (On 19 April 2016 two blue plaques were unveiled at 48 Paultons Square, one to Beckett to commemorate his seven-month residence there in 1934, the other to a fellow Nobel Prize winner, the physicist Patrick Blackett, who lived at the same address from 1953-69 - follow link in “Works cited” section below.)


When the novel opens, Murphy has tied himself with seven scarves into a rocking chair in his ‘mew’ (in the singular, a term for a hawk’s cage) in West Brompton (5).  The building where he dwells has been condemned and is due for demolition.  His apparent self-imprisonment in the rocking chair brings him to the state he most values, in which the empirical world recedes, the body is stilled and he comes alive in his mind – “[a]nd life in his mind gave him pleasure, such pleasure that pleasure was not the word” (6).  But the everyday world still obtrudes, especially in the shape of the woman he has been living with, Celia Kelly, a prostitute of Irish origin who first fell for him when she was walking along Cremorne Gardens in Chelsea towards the river and saw him standing in the mouth of Stadium Street consulting an astrological chart.  Celia pressures him to get a job and they make a deal that she should buy him a horoscope from Berwick Street Market and he will seek work on the day that the horoscope says is propitious. But when she brings him the horoscope he interprets it to mean that the propitious day is on the first Sunday in 1936 on which the fourth of the month falls – this turns out to be 4 October 1936 and and it is now only September 1935.  Celia threatens to walk out, however, if he does not get a move on and Murphy reluctantly agrees to go job-hunting.


Celia finds them a new room “in Brewery Road between Pentonville Prison and the Metropolitan Cattle Market” (47), with a genteel and odorous landlady called Miss Carridge.  Murphy sets out “on the jobpath” (51), in a green suit and lemon bow-tie but, as the narrator points out, ‘[r]egress in these togs was slow’ (53). Each day of job-hunting usually ends with Murphy abandoning hope soon after lunch of finding gainful employment and heading for home.  But Celia puts on more pressure and he applies for a post as “smart boy” at a chandlery in Gray’s Inn Road (55).  After the chandlers reject him promptly and derisively, he goes into a nearby café, one of a catering chain at whose branches he engages in his daily practice of buying a cup of tea and a pack of assorted biscuits and managing to get the cup topped up with hot water so that he actually, by his calculation, consumes about 1.83 cups but pays only for one.  He is imagining, with eyes shut, the walk he will then take to his favourite outdoor resting place, the grass amphitheatre called the Cockpit in Hyde Park on the north side of the Serpentine, when a visiting-card is thrust before him which announces the presence of “Austin Ticklepenny / Pot Poet / From the County of Dublin”.  Although the narrator tells us that this “creature does not merit any particular description” and is the “merest pawn in the game between Murphy and his stars” (61), he does open the door to a job for Murphy.  Ticklepenny has been working as a nurse at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat (M.M.M.) in Beckenham but fears that frequent contact with the mad will drive him crazy.  Murphy says he will present himself at the hospital in a week’s time to take over the job and asks Ticklepenny to pave the way for this.


Murphy then moves on to the Cockpit and is about to eat his biscuits when he encounters Rosie Dew, a middle-aged lady with duck’s disease and a dachshund called Nelly.  She asks Murphy to hold Nelly – who is, she informs him, in heat – while she feeds two lettuce heads to the sheep grazing there (as they actually did in the 1930s).  The sheep reject Rosie’s offering but Nelly eats all but one of Murphy’s biscuits. When he complains to Rosie, she gives him threepence by way of recompense.


Murphy falls into a torpor and awakes to find it is evening.  When he returns to Brewery Road, he learns that an old man who lives upstairs has killed himself by cutting his throat.  This has distressed Celia and makes her react with apparent indifference to Murphy’s news that he has, he believes, got a job at the M.M.M.. Affronted, he disappears. That Saturday, Celia walks alone to the Round Pond where she hopes to see her paternal grandfather, Willoughby Kelly, who is wheelchair-bound but a keen kite-flyer.  He does not appear, however, and she has to leave the park. “Soon the gates would close, all over the gardens the rangers were crying their cry: All out” (106).  This cry will recur at the end of the novel.


Meanwhile, back in Dublin, Murphy’s former teacher, Neary, has fallen for one of Murphy’s girlfriends, Miss Counihan.  She rejects Neary’s advances, however, believing that Murphy will return to her.  Neary is anxious to secure Miss Counihan for himself and wants to find Murphy in order to demonstrate to her that Murphy will not come back to her.  He is, however, unwilling to go to London himself because “Ariadne née Cox” (82), the woman who thinks of herself as his “second deserted wife” (45), lives there and may entrap him in legal proceedings. Instead, Neary sends his drunken factotum, Cooper, to London.  Cooper finds Murphy but loses him again and eventually Neary, his friend Wylie, Miss Counihan and Cooper all end up in London on a Murphy-hunt.


Murphy takes up his live-in job at the M.M.M.  The head male nurse, Mr Thomas Clinch, is known as “Bim” and is a full-hearted nepotist; he has “seven male relations, lineal and collateral, serving under him, of whom the greatest was ‘Bom’” – his younger but identical twin Timothy Clinch, the male sister in Skinner House where Murphy is to work – “and perhaps the least an aged uncle (‘Bum’) in the bandage-winding department, as well as an elder sister, two nieces and a by-blow on the female side” (115).


In scenes that are important for the ending of the novel, Murphy insists that he must have fire in the garret which serves as his accommodation.  Ticklepenny therefore rigs up a pipe from used feed tubes and glass that leads from a gas jet in a lavatory downstairs to an old gas radiator he has placed in the garret.  But the ring-and-chain device in the lavatory that operates the gas jet seems unpredictable, switching the gas on and off in an apparently arbitrary fashion.


Murphy proves a good nurse, partly because he feels that most of the patients, except the manic ones, have attained“that self-immersed indifference to the contingencies of the contingent world which he had chosen for himself as the only felicity and achieved so seldom” (117).  He is especially interested in Mr Endon, his “tab” – a “tab” is “a patient ‘on parchment’ (or ‘on caution’)” because he appears to have “serious suicidal leanings” (127).  Mr Endon is “a schizophrenic of the most amiable variety” whose “psychosis [is] so limpid and imperturbable that Murphy felt drawn to it as Narcissus to his fountain” (128).  Chess is Mr Endon’s “one frivolity” (129). On Murphy’s first night shift, he and Mr Endon play a game of chess (Murphy white, Endon black) in which neither party aims to win; the moves are itemized as in a book of chess games with pastiche commentary – for example, move 30, “K-Q1” is annotated “[a]t this point Mr. Endon, without so much as ‘j’adoube’ [‘I adjust’, the formulation a chess player utters who wants to adjust a piece without making a move with it], turned his King and Queen’s Rook upside down, in which position they remained for the rest of the game” (167).  After Mr Endon makes move no. 43, Murphy, though not facing imminent defeat, resigns.


Shortly after this, Murphy returns to his room, lights his candle (which stands upright on the floor in its own wax), ties himself up in his chair, and starts to rock to quieten his body.  During this self-soothing process, the gas jet in the lavatory below comes on and the gas ascends through the improvised pipe.  The chapter ends before gas and candle flame combine to create a conflagration that consumes Murphy.


Celia, Miss Counihan, Cooper, Neary and Wylie go to the M.M.M. where Celia identifies Murphy’s body and Neary reads out Murphy’s note to her asking that his ashes be flushed down the toilet at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, if possible during a performance.  But that evening Cooper, who carries the ashes in a small bag, throws it at a man in a London pub who annoys him.  In the ensuing fray, the ashes are ‘freely distributed over the floor of the saloon’ (187) and soon after swept away with the other refuse.


The last chapter of Murphy returns to Hyde Park, where Celia wheels Mr Kelly to the Round Pond to fly his kite in the late afternoon.  As closing time draws near, the “wail of the rangers” comes “faintly out of the east against the wind. All out. All out. All out”.  Celia starts to push Mr. Kelly home. “All out”’, repeated for the final time, ends the novel (192).  The phrase seems to foreshadow the celebrated declaration eleven years later by Cyril Connolly (1903-74), in his valedictory editorial for the last issue of his magazine Horizon: “[i]t is closing time in the gardens of the West”.  All out” can also appear to anticipate Beckett’s later aesthetic practice of eliminating supposedly extraneous material from his prose and drama.


In Murphy, however, the supposedly extraneous material is part of the fascination and pleasure the volume offers.  In the perspective of the development of Beckett’s work as a whole, it is likely to be viewed as a transitional volume, in which he is still under the influence of his great friend and mentor, James Joyce (1882-1941) – the precise London topography, like that of Dublin in Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), is an example of this influence - and searching for a distinctive idiom of his own.  But if Murphy is seen as an accomplished novel in its own right rather than, or as well as, a stepping-stone to higher things, its interest and value emerge more fully.  It should receive closer attention in future as a result of the publication of Chris Ackerley’s invaluable Demented Particulars: The Annotated Murphy in 2010 and Reading University’s acquisition of the original holograph manuscript (for £962,500, at a Sotheby's auction) in July 2011.


Works cited


Ackerley, Chris, Demented Particulars: The Annotated Murphy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Beckett, Samuel, Lessness, trans. from French (Sans) by the author (London: Calder and Boyars, 1970).

Tredell, Nicolas, "Samuel Beckett Murphy (1938)", London Fictions, (posted May 2014; minor revisions by the author Oct 2017); see:

For Beckett plaque, see:


Samuel Beckett: Murphy.