Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos (1988)

Our innate desire for meaning and pattern can lead us astray… (p.81)

Giving due weight to the fortuitous nature of the world is, I think, a mark of maturity and balance. (p.133)

John Allen Paulos is an American professor of mathematics who won fame beyond his academic milieu with the publication of this short (134-page) but devastating book thirty years ago, the first of a series of books popularising mathematics in a range of spheres from playing the stock market to humour.

As Paulos explains in the introduction, the world is full of humanities graduates who blow a fuse if you misuse ‘infer’ and ‘imply’, or end a sentence with a dangling participle, but are quite happy to believe and repeat the most hair-raising errors in maths, statistics and probability.

The aim of this book was:

  • to lay out examples of classic maths howlers and correct them
  • to teach readers to be more alert when maths, stats and data need to be used
  • and to provide basic rules in order to understand when innumerate journalists, politicians, tax advisors and other crooks are trying to pull the wool over your eyes, or are just plain wrong

There are five chapters:

  1. Examples and principles
  2. Probability and coincidence
  3. Pseudoscience
  4. Whence innumeracy
  5. Statistics, trade-offs and society

Many common themes emerge:

Don’t personalise, numeratise

One contention of this book is that innumerate people characteristically have a strong tendency to personalise – to be misled by their own experiences, or by the media’s focus on individuals and drama… (p.1)


The first chapter uses lots of staggering statistics to get the reader used to very big and very small numbers, and how to compute them.

1 million seconds is 11 and a half days. 1 billion seconds is 32 years.

He suggests you come up with personal examples of numbers for each power up to 12 or 13 i.e. meaningful embodiments of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and so on to help you remember and contextualise them in a hurry.

A snail moves at 0.005 miles an hour, Concorde at 2,000 miles per hour. Escape velocity from earth is about 7 miles per second, or 25,000 miles per hour. The mass of the Earth is 5.98 x 1024 kg

Early on he tells us to get used to the nomenclature of ‘powers’ – using 10 to the power 3 or 10³ instead of 1,000, or 10 to negative powers to express numbers below 1. (In fact, right at this early stage I found myself stumbling because one thousand means more to me that 10³ and a thousandth means more than more 10-3 but if you keep at it, it is a trick you can acquire quite quickly.)

The additive principle

He introduces us to basic ideas like the additive principle (aka the rule of sum), which states that if some choice can be made in M different ways and some subsequent choice can be made in N different ways, then there are M x N different ways these choices can be made in succession – which can be applied to combinations of multiple items of clothes, combinations of dishes on a menu, and so on.

Thus the number of results you get from rolling a die is 6. If you roll two dice, you can now get 6 x 6 = 36 possible numbers. Three numbers = 216. If you want to exclude the number you get on the first dice from the second one, the chances of rolling two different numbers on two dice is 6 x 5, of rolling different numbers on three dice is 6 x 5 x 4, and so on.

Thus: Baskin Robbins advertises 31 different flavours of ice cream. Say you want a triple scoop cone. If you’re happy to have any combination of flavours, including where any 2 or 3 flavours are the same – that’s 31 x 31 x 31 = 29,791. But if you ask how many combinations of flavours there are, without a repetition of the same flavour in any of the cones – that is 31 x 30 x 29 = 26,970 ways of combining.


I struggled with even the basics of probability. I understand a 1 in five chance of something happening, reasonably understand a 20% chance of something happening, but struggled when probability was expressed as a decimal number e.g. 0.2 as a way of writing a 20 percent or 1 in 5 chance.

With the result that he lost me on page 16 on or about the place where he explained the following example.

Apparently a noted 17th century gambler asked the famous mathematician Pascal which is more likely to occur: obtaining at least one 6 in four rolls of a single die, or obtaining at least one 12 in twenty four rolls of a pair of dice. Here’s the solution:

Since 5/6 is the probability of not rolling a 6 on a single roll of a die, (5/6)is the probability of not rolling a 6 in four rolls of the die. Subtracting this number from 1 gives us the probability that this latter event (no 6s) doesn’t occur; in other words, of there being at least one 6 rolled in four tries: 1 – (5/6)= .52. Likewise, the probability of rolling at least one 12 in twenty-four rolls of a pair of dice is seen to be 1 – (35/36)24 = .49.

a) He loses me in the second sentence which I’ve read half a dozen times and still don’t understand – it’s where he says the chances that this latter event doesn’t occur: something about the phrasing there, about the double negative, loses me completely, with the result that b) I have no idea whether .52 is more likely or less likely than .49.

He goes on to give another example: if 20% of drinks dispensed by a vending machine overflow their cups, what is the probability that exactly three of the next ten will overflow?

The probability that the first three drinks overflow and the next seven do not is (.2)x (.8)7. But there are many different ways for exactly three of the ten cups to overflow, each way having probability (.2)x (.8)7. It may be that only the last three cups overflow, or only the fourth, fifth and ninth cups, and so on. Thus, since there are altogether (10 x 9 x 8) / (3 x 2 x 1) = 120 ways for us to pick three out of the ten cups, the probability of some collection of exactly three cups overflowing is 120 x (.2)x (.8)7.

I didn’t understand the need for the (10 x 9 x 8) / (3 x 2 x 1) equation – I didn’t understand what it was doing, and so didn’t understand what it was measuring, and so didn’t understand the final equation. I didn’t really have a clue what was going on.

In fact, by page 20, he’d done such a good job of bamboozling me with examples like this that I sadly concluded that I must be innumerate.

More than that, I appear to have ‘maths anxiety’ because I began to feel physically unwell as I read that problem paragraph again and again and again and didn’t understand it. I began to feel a tightening of my chest and a choking sensation in my throat. Rereading it now is making it feel like someone is trying to strangle me.

Maybe people don’t like maths because being forced to confront something you don’t understand, but which everyone around you is saying is easy-peasy, makes you feel ill.

2. Probability and coincidence

Having more or less given up on trying to understand Paulos’s maths demonstrations in the first twenty pages, I can at least latch on to his verbal explanations of what he’s driving at, in sentences like these:

A tendency to drastically underestimate the frequency of coincidences is a prime characteristic of innumerates, who generally accord great significance to correspondences of all sorts while attributing too little significance to quite conclusive but less flashy statistical evidence. (p.22)

It would be very unlikely for unlikely events not to occur. (p.24)

There is a strong general tendency to filter out the bad and the failed and to focus on the good and the successful. (p.29)

Belief in the… significance of coincidences is a psychological remnant of our past. It constitutes a kind of psychological illusion to which innumerate people are particularly prone. (p.82)

Slot machines light up and make a racket when people win, there is unnoticed silence for all the failures. Big winners on the lottery are widely publicised, whereas every one of the tens of millions of failures is not.

One result is ‘Golden Age’ thinking when people denigrate today’s sports or arts or political figures, by comparison with one or two super-notable figures from the vast past, Churchill or Shakespeare or Michelangelo, obviously neglecting the fact that there were millions of also-rans and losers in their time as well as ours.

The Expected value of a quality is the average of its values weighted according to their probabilities. I understood these words but I didn’t understand any of the five examples he gave.

The likelihood of probability In many situations, improbability is to be expected. The probability of being dealt a particular hand of 13 cards in bridge is less than 1 in 600 billion. And yet it happens every time someone is dealt a hand in bridge. The improbable can happen. In fact it happens all the time.

The gambler’s fallacy The belief that, because a tossed coin has come up tails for a number of tosses in a row, it becomes steadily more likely that the next toss will be a head.

3. Pseudoscience

Paulos rips into Freudianism and Marxism for the way they can explain away any result counter to their ‘theories’. The patient gets better due to therapy: therapy works. The patient doesn’t get better during therapy, well the patient was resisting, projecting their neuroses on the therapist, any of hundreds of excuses.

But this is just warming up before he rips into a real bugbear of  his, the wrong-headedness of Parapsychology, the Paranormal, Predictive dreams, Astrology, UFOs, Pseudoscience and so on.

As with predictive dreams, winning the lottery or miracle cures, many of these practices continue to flourish because it’s the handful of successes which stand out and grab our attention and not the thousands of negatives.


As Paulos steams on with examples from tossing coins, rolling dice, playing roulette, or poker, or blackjack, I realise all of them are to do with probability or conditional probability, none of which I understand.

This is why I have never gambled on anything, and can’t play poker. When he explains precisely how accumulating probabilities can help you win at blackjack in a casino, I switch off. I’ve never been to a casino. I don’t play blackjack. I have no intention of ever playing blackjack.

When he says that probability theory began with gambling problems in the seventeenth century, I think, well since I don’t gamble at all, on anything, maybe that’s why so much of this book is gibberish to me.

Medical testing and screening

Apart from gambling the two most ‘real world’ areas where probability is important appear to be medicine and risk and safety assessment. Here’s an extended example he gives of how even doctors make mistakes in the odds.

Assume there is a test for cancer which is 98% accurate i.e. if someone has cancer, the test will be positive 98 percent of the time, and if one doesn’t have it, the test will be negative 98 percent of the time. Assume further that .5 percent – one out of two hundred people – actually have cancer. Now imagine that you’ve taken the test and that your doctor sombrely informs you that you have tested positive. How depressed should you be? The surprising answer is that you should be cautiously optimistic. To find out why, let’s look at the conditional probability of your having cancer, given that you’ve tested positive.

Imagine that 10,000 tests for cancer are administered. Of these, how many are positive? On the average, 50 of these 10,000 people (.5 percent of 10,000) will have cancer, and, so, since 98 percent of them will test positive, we will have 49 positive tests. Of the 9,950 cancerless people, 2 percent of them will test positive, for a total of 199 positive tests (.02 x 9,950 = 199). Thus, of the total of 248 positive tests (199 + 49 = 248), most (199) are false positives, and so the conditional probability of having cancer given that one tests positive is only 49/248, or about 20 percent! (p.64)

I struggled to understand this explanation. I read it four or five times, controlling my sense of panic and did, eventually, I think, follow the argumen.

However, worse in a way, when I think I did finally understand it, I realised I just didn’t care. It’s not just that the examples he gives are hard to follow. It’s that they’re hard to care about.

Whereas his descriptions of human psychology and cognitive errors in human thinking are crystal clear and easy to assimilate:

If we have no direct evidence of theoretical support for a story, we find that detail and vividness vary inversely with likelihood; the more vivid details there are to a story, the less likely the story is to be true. (p.84)

4. Whence innumeracy?

It came as a vast relief when Paulos stopped trying to explain probability and switched to a long chapter puzzling over why innumeracy is so widespread in society, which kicks off by criticising the poor level of teaching of maths in school and university.

This was like the kind of hand-wringing newspaper article you can read any day of the week in a newspaper or online, and so felt reassuringly familiar and easy to assimilate. I stopped feeling so panic-stricken.

This puzzling over the disappointing level of innumeracy goes on for quite a while. Eventually it ends with a digression about what appears to be a pet idea of his: the notion of introducing a safety index for activities and illnesses.

Paulos’s suggestion is that his safety index would be on a logarithmic scale, like the Richter Scale – so straightaway he has to explain what a logarithm is: The logarithm for 100 is 2 because 100 is 102, the logarithm for 1,000 is 3 because 1,000 is 103. I’m with him so far, as he goes on to explain that the logarithm of 700 i.e. between 2 (100) and 3 (1,000) is 2.8. Since 1 in 5,300 Americans die in a car crash each year, the safety index for driving would be 3.7, the logarithm of 5,300. And so on with numerous more examples, whose relative risks or dangers he reduces to figures like 4.3 and 7.1.

I did understand his aim and the maths of this. I just thought it was bonkers:

1. What is the point of introducing a universal index which you would have to explain every time anyone wanted to use it? Either it is designed to be usable by the widest possible number of citizens; or it is a neat exercise on maths to please other mathematicians and statisticians.

2. And here’s the bigger objection – What Paulos, like most of the university-educated, white, liberal intellectuals I read in papers, magazines and books, fails to take into account is that a large proportion of the population is thick.

Up to a fifth of the adult population of the UK is functionally innumerate, that means they don’t know what a ‘25% off’ sign means on a shop window. For me an actual social catastrophe being brought about by this attitude is the introduction of Universal Credit by the Conservative government which, from top to bottom, is designed by middle-class, highly educated people who’ve all got internet accounts and countless apps on their smartphones, and who have shown a breath-taking ignorance about what life is like for the poor, sick, disabled, illiterate and innumerate people who are precisely the people the system is targeted at.

Same with Paulos’s scheme. Smoking is one of the most dangerous and stupid things which any human can do. Packs of cigarettes have for years, now, carried pictures of disgusting cancerous growths and the words SMOKING KILLS. And yet despite this, about a fifth of adults, getting on for 10 million people, still smoke. 🙂

Do you really think that introducing a system using ornate logarithms will get people to make rational assessments of the risks of common activities and habits?

Paulos then goes on to complicate the idea by suggesting that, since the media is always more interested in danger than safety, maybe it would be more effective, instead of creating a safety index, to create a danger index.

You would do this by

  1. working out the risk of an activity (i.e. number of deaths or accidents per person doing the activity)
  2. converting that into a logarithmic value (just to make sure than nobody understands it) and then
  3. subtracting the logarithmic value of the safety index from 10, in order to create a danger index

He goes on to say that driving a car and smoking would have ‘danger indices’ of 3.7 and 2.9, respectively. The trouble was that by this point I had completely ceased to understand what he’s saying. I felt like I’ve stepped off the edge of a tall building into thin air. I began to have that familiar choking sensation, as if someone was squeezing my chest. Maths anxiety.

Under this system being kidnapped would have a safety index of 6.7. Playing Russian roulette once a year would have a safety index of 0.8.

It is symptomatic of the uselessness of the whole idea that Paulos has to remind you what the values mean (‘Remember that the bigger the number, the smaller the risk.’ Really? You expect people to run with this idea?)

Having completed the danger index idea, Paulos returns to his extended lament on why people don’t like maths. He gives a long list of reasons why he thinks people are so innumerate a condition which is, for him, a puzzling mystery.

For me this lament is a classic example of what you could call intellectual out-of-touchness. He is genuinely puzzled why so many of his fellow citizens are innumerate, can’t calculate simple odds and fall for all sorts of paranormal, astrology, snake-oil blether.

He proposes typically academic, university-level explanations for this phenomenon – such as that people find maths too cold and analytical and worry that it prevents them thinking about the big philosophical questions in life. He worries that maths has an image problem.

In other words, he fails to consider the much more obvious explanation that maths, probability and numeracy in general might be a combination of fanciful, irrelevant and deeply, deeply boring.

I use the word ‘fanciful’ deliberately. When he writes that the probability of drawing two aces in succession from a pack of cards is not (4/52 x 4/52) but (4/52 x 3/51) I do actually understand the distinction he’s making (having drawn one ace there are only 3 left and only 52 cards left) – I just couldn’t care less. I really couldn’t care less.

Or take this paragraph:

Several years ago Pete Rose set a National League record by hitting safely in forty-four consecutive games. If we assume for the sake of simplicity that he batted .300 (30 percent of the time he got a hit, 70 percent of the time he didn’t) and that he came to bat four times a game, the chances of his not getting a hit in any given game were, assuming independence, (.7)4 – .24… [at this point Paulos has to explain what ‘independence’ means in a baseball context: I couldn’t care less]… So the probability he would get at least one hit in any game was 1-.24 = .76. Thus, the chances of him getting a hit in any given sequence of forty-four consecutive games were (.76)44 = .0000057, a tiny probability indeed. (p.44)

I did, in fact, understand the maths and the working out in this example. I just don’t care about the problem or the result.

For me this is a – maybe the – major flaw of this book. This is that in the blurbs on the front and back, in the introduction and all the way through the text, Paulos goes on and on about how we as a society need to be mathematically numerate because maths (and particularly probability) impinges on so many areas of our life.

But when he tries to show this – when he gets the opportunity to show us what all these areas of our lives actually are – he completely fails.

Almost all of the examples in the book are not taken from everyday life, they are remote and abstruse problems of gambling or sports statistics.

  • which is more likely: obtaining at least one 6 in four rolls of a single die, or obtaining at least one 12 in twenty four rolls of a pair of dice?
  • if 20% of drinks dispensed by a vending machine overflow their cups, what is the probability that exactly three of the next ten will overflow?
  • Assume there is a test for cancer which is 98% accurate i.e. if someone has cancer, the test will be positive 98 percent of the time, and if one doesn’t have it, the test will be negative 98 percent of the time. Assume further that .5 percent – one out of two hundred people – actually have cancer. Now imagine that you’ve taken the test and that your doctor sombrely informs you that you have tested positive. How depressed should you be?
  • What are the odds on Pete Rose getting a hit in a sequence of forty-four games?

Are these the kinds of problems you are going to encounter today? Or tomorrow? Or ever?

No. The longer the book went on, the more I realised just how little a role maths plays in my everyday life. In fact more or less the only role maths plays in my life is looking at the prices in supermarkets, where I am attracted to goods which have a temporary reduction on them. But I do that because they’re labels are coloured red, not because I calculate the savings. Being aware of the time, so I know when to do household chores or be somewhere punctually. Those are the only times I used numbers today.

5. Statistics, trade-offs and society

This feeling that the abstruseness of the examples utterly contradicts the bold claims that reading the book will help us with everyday experiences was confirmed in the final chapter, which begins with the following example.

Imagine four dice, A, B, C and D, strangely numbered as follows: A has 4 on four faces and 0 on two faces; B has 3s on all six faces; C has four faces with 2 and two faces with 6; and D has 5 on three faces and 1 on three faces…

I struggled to the end of this sentence and just thought: ‘No, no more, I don’t have to make myself feel sick and unhappy any more’ – and skipped the couple of pages detailing the fascinating and unexpected results you can get from rolling such a collection of dice.

This chapter goes on to a passage about the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a well-known problem in logic, which I have read about and instantly forgotten scores of times over the years.

Paulos gives us three or four variations on the idea, including:

  • Imagine you are locked up in prison by a philanthropist with 20 other people.


  • Imagine you are locked in a dungeon by a sadist with 20 other people.


  • Imagine you are one of two drug traffickers making a quick transaction on a street corner and forced to make a quick decision.


  • Imagine you are locked in a prison cell, and another prisoner is locked in an identical cell down the corridor.

Well, I’m not any of these things, I’m never likely to be, and I am not really interested in these fanciful speculations.

Moreover, I am well into middle age, have travelled round the world, had all sorts of jobs in companies small, large and enormous – and I am not aware of having ever been in any situation which remotely resembled any variation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma I’ve ever heard of.

In other words, to me, it is another one of the endless pile of games and puzzles which logicians and mathematicians love to spend all day playing but which have absolutely no impact whatsoever on any aspect of my life.

Pretty much all of his examples conclusively prove how remote mathematical problems and probabilistic calculation is from the everyday lives you and I lead. When he asks:

How many people would there have to be in a group in order for the probability to be half that at least two people in it have the same birthday? (p.23)

Imagine a factory which produces small batteries for toys, and assume the factory is run by a sadistic engineer… (p.117)

It dawns on me that my problem might not be that I’m innumerate, so much as I’m just uninterested in trivial or frivolous mental exercises.

Someone offers you a choice of two envelopes and tells you one has twice as much money in it as the other. (p.127)

Flip a coin continuously until a tail appears for the first time. If this doesn’t happen until the twentieth (or later) flip, you win $1 billion. If the first tail occurs before the twentieth flip, you pay $100. Would you play? (p.128)

No. I’d go and read an interesting book.


If Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences is meant to make its readers more numerate, it failed with me.

This is for a number of reasons:

  1. crucially – because he doesn’t explain maths very well; or, the way he explained probability had lost me by about page 16 – in other words, if this is meant to be a primer for innumerate people it’s a fail
  2. because the longer it goes on, the more convinced I became that I rarely use maths, arithmetic and probability in my day today life: whole days go by when I don’t do a single sum, and so lost all motivation to submit myself to the brain-hurting ordeal of trying to understand his examples

3. Also because the structure and presentation of the book is a mess. The book meanders through a fog of jokes, anecdotes and maths trivia, baseball stories and gossip about American politicians – before suddenly unleashing a fundamental aspect of probability theory on the unwary reader.

I’d have preferred the book to have had a clear, didactic structure, with an introduction and chapter headings explaining just what he was going to do, an explanation, say, of how he was going to take us through some basic concepts of probability one step at a time.

And then for the concepts to have been laid out very clearly and explained very clearly, from a number of angles, giving a variety of different examples until he and we were absolutely confident we’d got it – before we moved on to the next level of complexity.

The book is nothing like this. Instead it sacrifices any attempt at logical sequencing or clarity for anecdotes about Elvis Presley or UFOs, for digressions about Biblical numerology, the silliness of astrology, the long and bewildering digression about introducing a safety index for activities (summarised above), or prolonged analyses of baseball or basketball statistics. Oh, and a steady drizzle of terrible jokes.

Which two sports have face-offs?
Ice hockey and leper boxing.

Half way through the book, Paulos tells us that he struggles to write long texts (‘I have a difficult time writing at extended length about anything’, p.88), and I think it really shows.

It certainly explains why:

  • the blizzard of problems in coin tossing and dice rolling stopped without any warning, as he switched tone copletely, giving us first a long chapter about all the crazy irrational beliefs people hold, and then another chapter listing all the reasons why society is innumerate
  • the last ten pages of the book give up the attempt of trying to be a coherent narrative and disintegrate into a bunch of miscellaneous odds and ends he couldn’t find a place for in the main body of the text

Also, I found that the book was not about numeracy in the broadest sense, but mostly about probability. Again and again he reverted to examples of tossing coins and rolling dice. One enduring effect of reading this book is going to be that, the next time I read a description of someone tossing a coin or rolling a die, I’m just going to skip right over the passage, knowing that if I read it I’ll either be bored to death (if I understand it) or have an unpleasant panic attack (if I don’t).

In fact in the coda at the end of the book Paulos explicitly says it has mostly been about probability – God, I wish he’d explained that at the beginning.

Right at the very, very end he briefly lists key aspects of probability theory which he claims to have explained in the book – but he hasn’t, some of them are only briefly referred to with no explanation at all, including: statistical tests and confidence intervals, cause and correlation, conditional probability, independence, the multiplication principle, the notion of expected value and of probability distribution.

These are now names I have at least read about, but they are all concepts I am nowhere near understanding, and light years away from being able to use in practical life.

Innumeracy – or illogicality?

Also there was an odd disconnect between the broadly psychological and philosophical prose explanations of what makes people so irrational, and the incredibly narrow scope of the coin-tossing, baseball-scoring examples.

What I’m driving at is that, in the long central chapter on Pseudoscience, when he stopped to explain what makes people so credulous, so gullible, he didn’t really use any mathematical examples to disprove Freudianism or astrology or so on: he had to appeal to broad principles of psychology, such as:

  • people are drawn to notable exceptions, instead of considering the entire field of entities i.e.
  • people filter out the bad and the failed and focus on the good and the successful
  • people seize hold of the first available explanation, instead of considering every single possible permutation
  • people humanise and personalise events (‘bloody weather, bloody buses’)
  • people over-value coincidences

My point is that there is a fundamental conceptual confusion in the book which is revealed in the long chapter about pseudoscience which is that his complaint is not, deep down, right at bottom, that people are innumerate; it is that people are hopelessly irrational and illogical.

Now this subject – the fundamental ways in which people are irrational and illogical – is dealt with much better, at much greater length, in a much more thorough, structured and comprehensible way in Stuart Sutherland’s great book, Irrationality, which I’ll be reviewing and summarising later this week.

Innumeracy amounts to random scratches on the surface of the vast iceberg which is the deep human inability to think logically.


In summary, for me at any rate, this was not a good book – badly structured, meandering in direction, unable to explain even basic concepts but packed with digressions, hobby horses and cul-de-sacs, unsure of its real purpose, stopping for a long rant against pseudosciences and an even longer lament on why maths is taught so badly  – it’s a weird curate’s egg of a text.

Its one positive effect was to make me want to track down and read a good book about probability.

Related links

Reviews of other science books


Environment / human impact


  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)


Particle physics


  • Irrationality: The Enemy Within by Stuart Sutherland (1992)

Murphy by Samuel Beckett (1938)

‘Unless you want me to call a policewoman,’ said Murphy, ‘cease your clumsy genustuprations.’
(Murphy p.56)

This is Beckett’s first published novel. I expected it to be an improvement on his first published book, the collection of linked short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, but the essential feel, the worldview and style are very much the same.

It’s a difficult book to read. Though only 170 pages long it took three days because I was so reluctant to pick it up and so quick to put it down to do almost anything else. The prose is mannered, stilted and extremely repetitive. Quite quickly I realised that its paragraphs rarely move the story along or analyse character: they almost exclusively consist of repetitions, iterated phrases spinning out a handful of ideas or words, sometimes driving you mad with frustration, irritation and boredom.

Take this passage where the ‘hero’, Murphy, has moved into a garret which he discovers has no form of heating. No heating!! he exclaims to the friend, August Ticklepenny, who has fixed him up with a new job and the garret. Why couldn’t someone just extend the electricity or gas up there to fuel a heater?

He went on to speak of tubes and wires. Was it not just the beauty of tubes and wires, that they could be extended? Was it not their chief characteristic, the ease with which they could be extended? What was the point of going in for tubes and wires at all, if you did not extend them without compunction whenever necessary? Did they not cry out for extension? Ticklepenny thought he would never stop, saying feverishly the same thing in slightly different ways. (p.103)

Things which affect the ‘hero’ are described with a pedantic thoroughness which are surely on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum.

  • When he stops in a tea room for a cup of tea, Murphy spends at least a page working through a series of ploys he could use to get the reluctant waitress, Vera, to top up his cup for free.
  • When Murphy takes the six biscuits he bought at the tearooms to Hyde Park, he lays them out on their paper bag on the grass, and then elaborately works through all the possible permutations of eating them in different orders, 120 ways, apparently, though it all depends whether he keeps the ginger biscuit fixed as the first choice, or mixes it in with the rest.
  • When Murphy starts work at the lunatic asylum, we are given a grindingly precise description of the layout of the building in every detail, which lacks any warmth or sympathy, is completely irrelevant to the ‘plot’, but pursues the description with obsessive pendantry.

I am probably using the term incorrectly, but it seems to me the narrative has a kind of autistic quality. It doesn’t even much to describe other people or relationships between people – the ‘dialogue’ mostly just reveals misunderstanding and the ‘characters’ inability to communicate. For page after page the text maintains its obsessive and repetitive focus on the inner workings of the over-educated, under-motivated slob of an antihero as he shuffles round London, not really trying to get a job and surviving on a pittance while he does the only thing he enjoys, which is pore and pick over his own interminable mental lucubrations at gigantic length.

He distinguished between the actual and the virtual of his mind, not as between form and the formless yearning for form, but as between that of which he had both mental and physical experience and that of which he had mental experience only. Thus the form of the kick was actual; that of caress virtual. The mind felt its actual part to be above and bright, its virtual beneath and fading into dark, without however connecting this with the ethical yoyo. The mental experience was cut off from the physical experience, its criteria were not those of the physical experience, the agreement of part of its content with physical fact did not confer worth on that part. It did not function and could not be disposed according to a principle of worth. It was made up of light fading into dark, of above and beneath, but not of good and bad. It contained forms with parallel in another mode and forms without, but not right forms and wrong forms. It felt no issue between its light and dark, no need for its light to devour its dark. The need was now to be in the light, now in the half light, now in the dark. That was all. (p.70)

1. To be fair, this is not a completely characteristic passage, it comes from the four pages of chapter 6, in which the narrative comes to a dead stop while the narrator undertakes to explain to us the nature of ‘Murphy’s mind’. But the basic ‘ideas’ expressed in it underpin the whole book, and the obsession with the inner workings of Murphy’s self-absorbed consciousness is very much the book’s real subject.

2. Spending this much time on the experience of consciousness reminds us that Murphy was published in the late 1930s, when Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology was one of the dominating intellectual themes on the continent, picked up and refracted through the heavyweight existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger. The phenomenological approach of examining and describing the inner workings of the mind is important to the writings of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. In fact, Sartre’s first novel, Nausea, was published in this same year as Murphy, 1938, and is also about an aimlessly unhappy man (a post-graduate researcher in Sartre’s case), so obsessed with his own thoughts and feelings that the real world becomes intolerably alien and threatening to him, filling him with the nausea of the book’s title.

The plot

Murphy is a shiftless layabout, a ‘seedy solipsist’ (p.53) (just like Belacqua, the male protagonist of Beckett’s previous (and first) book, More Pricks Than Kicks).

He’s living in London. He met a streetwalker named Celia on the corner of Stadium Street and Cremorne Road in Chelsea (which nowadays looks like this). Celia is now haplessly trying to look after weird Murphy. His favourite hobby is tying himself to an armchair in dingy flats (in this he foreshadows the various trapped protagonists of Beckett’s later plays) and rocking rocking rocking, a process described several times in numbing detail.

As with Belacqua, it struck me that Murphy is a glaring epitome of the clever young would-be writer who is full of articulacy but has no real subject to write about. He wanders the streets not really looking for a job and feeling mighty superior about it.

For what was all working for a living but a procuring and a pimping for the money-bags, one’s lecherous tyrants the money-bags, so that they might breed. (p.49)

(This vaunting superiority to the bourgeoisie with their regular jobs and pay packets reminds me of the intellectually superior but wretchedly poor protagonist of George Orwell’s 1936 novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. A common delusion among young layabouts of all ages, that being poor but ‘free’ is superior to having a job, money and a life.)

Celia reports all this to her paternal grandfather, Mr Willoughby Kelly, who suggests she chuck him.

Meanwhile, in faraway Dublin (288 miles as the crow flies), Professor Neary smashes his head against the statue of Cuchulain inside the General Post Office building because he is in love with Celia, how or why, I never understood. He is rescued by one of his students, Needle Wylie who promises to track her down for him, by employing a private detective, Cooper. They meet the very beautiful Miss Counihan. It emerges that Murphy was till recently a student of Prof Neary’s and made all sorts of promises of love to Miss Counihan before leaving for London, after which no-one has heard from him.

Murphy goes to a tea rooms and spends a lot of time finagling to get a free top-up of tea from the reluctant waitress Vera. This process takes a long time. I could quote the several pages it stretches on for. He is approached by an impecunious Irish poet, Austin Ticklepenny, who bewails his job at a mental home, the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat. ‘Mercyseat’ made me laugh, though it’s more Irish than English-sounding. Murphy escapes from Ticklepenny, having dumped him with paying for the tea and biscuits ha ha! much to the frustration of Vera the waitress, and takes a bus to Hyde Park where he is debating in what order to eat his biscuits when he is asked by a clairvoyant to mind her dachshund while she feeds the sheep (which apparently lived in Hyde Park back in those days) lettuce which she’s brought for them. The dog eats Murphy’s biscuits while he’s not looking. The sheep refuse the lettuce. Murphy falls asleep.

Murphy awakes in the park. It’s night. When he gets back to the flat he shares with Celia he discovers he spread-eagled face down on the bed. Why? Well, first we have to read chapter six describing in great detail the tripartite character of Murphy’s cerebellum and sensorium, and then the narrative moves on to more distractions so we never find out.

The old man in the room above is found having slashed his throat with a razor. Celia negotiates with the hard-bitten old landlady, the virgin Miss Carridge, for her and Murphy to move into the dead man’s smaller room and so pay less rent. With his usual punning obscurity, Murphy says to Celia:

‘A decayed valet severs the connexion and you set up a niobaloo as though he were your fourteen children.’

This is typical of the ‘dialogue’ which is not really intended to be communication between human beings in the way you and I are used to. Instead it is a laborious literary in-joke. Niobe is a figure from Greek legend whose children were slain by the gods and lay unburied while she wept for them. This figure of weeping Niobe is a commonplace classical reference in Elizabethan literature i.e. Shakespeare. Beckett has made it into a very James Joycean joke/pun by combining the words Niobe and hullabaloo into niobaloo. So this apparently gibberish sentence can be explicated as Murphy criticising Celia for weeping for some dead old servant as extravagantly as Niobe did for her children. ‘Severs the connexion’ being a fancy phrase for ‘dying’. Was it worth all that effort to decode? Yes, if you like this kind of ‘joke’ and find this kind of ‘humour’ rewarding; no, if you don’t.

Murphy goes off to see about starting the job he had discussed with Ticklepenny at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat. Celia takes the Tube to Hyde Park to see if she can find her wheelchair-bound protector, Mr Kelly, flying his kite, as is his hobby. Unbeknownst to her she is followed by a man named Cooper who is acting as a private detective for Wylie so as to find Celia so as to reconcile her with his revered Professor Neary. Maybe I slept through the paragraphs where it was explained but I never did understand why Neary was so besotted with Celia. Anyway, Celia doesn’t find Kelly. Cooper doesn’t speak to Celia but follows her home to the flat she shares with Murphy in Holloway.

Meanwhile, Murphy is introduced to the head nurse at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, Mr Thomas (‘Bim’) Clinch who, it turns out, has staffed the place with his family, including his twin brother Mr Timothy (‘Bom’) Clinch and an aged uncle, ‘Bum’. ROFL. Murphy is enraptured by the place and especially the offer of a garret room on the premises, instantly moving into it and pulling up the ladder up to it in order to prevent anyone else ever entering it. Solipsist heaven. He forgets all about Celia.

Chapter 10 is long. The private eye Cooper joins Neary, Wylie and Miss Counihan (who is convinced she is in love with Murphy) to discuss their plans, and then they all proceed to meet Celia in her flat. The dialogue throughout this chapter is, I think, some kind of satire on all normal dialogue ever written by novelists and playwrights. It is gobbledygook for twenty pages.

‘One of the innumerable small retail redeemers,’ sneered Miss Counihan, ‘lodging her pennyworth of pique in the post-golgothan kitty.’
But for Murphy’s horror of the mental belch, Celia would have recognised this phrase, if she had heard it. (p.144)

Wylie has paid Cooper to find Celia so as to bring her together with his infatuated patron Professor Neary. But they all behave so incomprehensibly that I just read the words and sentences for their verbal quality, ignoring the dialogue and so-called ‘plot’ because I suspect both are made complex and/or impenetrable deliberately to frustrate and provoke the ‘conventional’ reader. I think they all agree to spend the night in Celia’s flat while they wait for Murphy to return there.

But Murphy doesn’t return. He does a night shift at the mental home. Some paragraphs describe his closeness to the dwarfish psychotic Mr Endon. On this night shift Mr Endon somehow gets out of his cell and releases some other inmates but any reader hoping for mayhem, some kind of romantic climax is disappointed for they’re all locked safely back up, though not without a compulsive-obsessive description of the home’s elaborate security systems and the schedule according to which warders are meant to visit each cell throughout the night.

Murphy plays a game of chess with Mr Endon. The game is laid out in standard chess notation in the text so we can follow it. In fact it includes po-faced comments on particular moves, as if it was annotating a fiendishly clever game between grand masters. But in fact, if you play it out, as I did on my own chess set, you quickly realise it’s gibberish, not played with any serious intent.

In fact there’s a useful video on YouTube which works through the entire game, After just two moves you can see it’s unorthodox and after four or five you realise it’s a nonsense game, a mockery of a game. On the YouTube video you can hear the (Russian?) guy who did it laughing at the ridiculousness of the moves.

For me this epitomises the book, as Beckett may well have intended it to. In every respect – in terms of narrative, plot, style, dialogue, character and setting it is – deliberately – a travesty of a mockery of a sham. From small puns to larger pratfalls to the inconsequence of most of the dialogue, to the silliness of the plot, the entire text is a ‘joke’, or a series of interlocking ‘jokes’, clever, witty but almost completely bereft of warmth or humour.

After the night shift ends Murphy heads back to his garret, stripping off his clothes as he walks through the dark grounds, till he’s naked. He lies in the wet grass trying to remember Celia, his mother, his father, anyone, and failing. He goes up to his garret, sits naked in his beloved rocking chair, rocking rocking rocking as usual described in autistic detail and the gas heater he’s rigged up explodes killing him. Oh.

In the next chapter Celia, Miss Conihoun, Neary, Wylie and Cooper are summoned from Celia’s flat by the head of the MMM, Dr Angus Killiecrankie to learn that Murphy is dead and are taken to see his fairly burned corpse in the refrigerator room. They confirm Murphy’s identity, Celia pointing out the birth mark on his thigh, which gives rise to the bad taste joke that, by being important to the identification, it is also a kind death mark. Birth mark, death mark, geddit?

One by one the various characters drift off, some pairing off on the way. OK.

In the short final chapter Celia takes her grandad to Hyde Park to fly his kite. She is absent for a while during which she turns a trick. She needs money, after all. Old Mr Kelly dozes off and his kite string falls out of his hand, snaps and the kite flies off into the sky, lost forever. He clambers out of his wheelchair and totters after it yelling in despair till Celia catches him up, with help from passersby restores him to the wheelchair and pushes him home.


The style – baroque, elaborate and contrived

There are far fewer really arcane and obscure words in Murphy than in Pricks, which is a shame because I enjoyed looking them up.

But Murphy‘s basic approach is still one of needless pedantry and clumsy, arch contrivance for its own sake.

The blue glitter of Mr Kelly’s eyes in the uttermost depths of their orbits became fixed, then veiled by the classic pythonic glaze. He raised his left hand, where Celia’s tears had not yet dried, and seated it pronate on the crown of his skull – that was the position. In vain. He raised his right hand and laid the forefinger along his nose. He then returned both hands to their points of departure with Celia’s on the counterpane, the glitter came back into his eyes and he pronounced:
‘Chuck him.’ (p.17)

To me this passage demonstrates the way Beckett has little or nothing to say, but goes on to say it at great length, and with as much circumlocutionary periphrasis as possible. In particular, the text is worried and nagged by an obsessive attention to the characters’ precise physical positions and movements. Often it is more modern ballet than fiction. (This obsession with characters’ precise positions and movements will become central to the plays of the 1950s and 60s, where every gesture of the stricken protagonists’ becomes charged with hypertrophic punctilio.)

And intellectual tricksiness. The adjective ‘pythonic’ in the quote above refers to the oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece, where the supernatural pythia supposedly spoke its prophecies through the mouth of a woman put into a demonic trance. So that one phrase ‘classic pythonic’ is enough to indicate – to those in on the joke – that the text is (absurdly) comparing Grandad Kelly to an ancient Greek oracle. This fact goes some way to explaining the glitter of his eyes and his generally unnatural gestures, notably placing his left hand ‘pronate’ on his skull, pronate meaning “to turn into a prone position; to rotate (the hand or forearm) so that the surface of the palm is downward or toward the back”.

And also explains that the whole paragraph is, in its arch, contrived way, a sort of joke. The joke is in the contrast between the classical epitome and its degraded modern-day embodiment. It is in other words, the classic Modernist trope of holding up the classical world as perfect, as a model of dignity and decorum (implicitly in Eliot’s The Waste Land, more implicitly in Joyce’s Ulysses) and contrasting the sorry sordid shambles of the modern world in contrast. This is why many critical studies of Beckett describe him as the last of the Modernists, a Johnny-come-lately to the game of contrasting the marmoreal perfection of the classics with the squalid spit and sawdust de nos jours. It is intellectual snobbery, pure and simple.

The same structural disjunction underlies the boom-boom ending when, after a paragraph making this calculated intellectual parallel, which is leading the (informed) reader to expect a declaration of potency and magnificence, all Grandad Kelly comes out with is the bathetically commonplace output, the pub slang expression: ‘Chuck him’.

Did you roll on the floor laughing? Were there mega-lolz for you? I happened to ‘get’ this joke because I had the misfortune to go through a very literary education, so I spotted the python allusion and thus grasped the overall dynamic of the paragraph and the mock comic intention. But I doubt whether anyone who studied more worthwhile subjects than ancient and modern literature would get the reference or realise the humour.

So is it funny?

Humourless humour

Is a joke which isn’t really funny still a joke? Does a joke need humour to be a joke? Can you have an utterly humourless joke, which has the structure of a joke, the shape of a joke, a build-up and a pay-off – but none of the warmth and collusion required for humour?

The modern introduction by a Beckett scholar talks breezily about it being a great comic novel but doesn’t give any examples. Is there comedy in the sustained mock heroic tone, the use throughout of ridiculously highfalutin language to describe what are in fact very humdrum activities?

At this moment Murphy would willingly have waived his expectation of Antepurgatory for five minutes in his chair, renounced the lee of Belacqua’s rock and his embryonal repose, looking down at dawn across the reeds to the trembling of the austral sea and the sun obliquing to the north as it rose, immune from expiation until he should have dreamed it all through again, with the downright dreaming of an infant, from the spermarium to the crematorium. (p.51)

It’s a very distinct and striking style of writing? But is it – could it possibly be taken as – funny?

Neary arrived the following morning. Cooper threw himself on his mercy, abated not one tittle of the truth and was turned off with contumely. (p.77)

For me this is one if not the central question in reading Beckett: I can see that much of it is intended to be arch, contrived, dry, bookish, intellectual, rarefied, allusive and ultra-clever humour – but I wonder if many other people do, and I wonder whether any of us should give a damn.

This was a joke that did not amuse Celia, at the best of times and places it could not have amused her. That did not matter. So far from being adapted to her, it was not addressed to her. It amused Murphy, that was all that mattered. (p.88)

‘It amused Murphy, that was all that mattered.’ Since Murphy is transparently another avatar of frustrated impoverished unpublished would-be highbrow writer Beckett, maybe we can simply say, ‘It amused Beckett, that was all that mattered’. Beckett and his tiny number of pre-war readers. The introduction is very long on the book’s textual history, and very short on actual analysis, but it does include its sales figure.

1938 – 568 copies
1939 – 23
1940 – 20
1941 – 7

The remaining stock was destroyed in an air raid. Beckett made £20 out of it – before income tax. Not Harry Potter, is it? It was only after Waiting For Godot completely transformed his fortunes in 1953, that publishers rereleased Beckett’s early novels and they quickly found a place in a retrospectively-created canon of his works, now used as evidence to interpret the difficult post-war plays, and to argue for his mock heroic, comedic roots.

Leslie Fiedler

Leslie Fiedler (1917 – 2003) was an American literary critic whose writings about American novelists I really enjoyed as a student. About Beckett, and Murphy in particular, he wrote in the New York Times:

Too much of the merely mannered is present, too much evidence of a desire to twit the bourgeoisie, too many asides, too many heavy-handed cryptic remarks, too much clumsy surrealist horseplay.

Which I agree with. But I can also see that amidst the mechanical verbiage is the core Beckett which will emerge after the Second World War; that once he’s abandoned the attempt to have realistic characters or plots or dialogue, he will arrive at grim scenarios where human puppets, trapped in repetitive plights, repeat the same meaningless gestures over and again and speak a speech composed of the inane repetition of shreds and tatters of clichéd, stereotyped, worn-out language. As Fiedler also points out:

But the eerie deadpan humour is already at work: the gravely mathematical working out of all the possibilities of the most trivial situation, the savage eagerness to find in the disgusting occasions for laughs. It is as vaudevillian of the avant-garde that Beckett especially tickles us, converting its most solemn devices into quite serious gags.

Astride the grave

Maybe. Typical of the stretched humour is a paragraph describing how Murphy’s problems go right back to his vagitus. I had to look up ‘vagitus’ to find out that it means ‘a new-born baby’s first cry’ – and then read on to process the extended ‘joke’ that Murphy’s vagitus was not on the international agreed standard of A (on the musical scale) but a woeful double flat of A, thus missing the correct note by two semi-tones. Hilarious, right? Never mind, writes the author – ‘His rattle will make amends’ (p.47), obviously meaning his death rattle. Birth-cry, death-cry. Everything comedic is here, a kind of structural symmetry, a neatness of vision and phrasing – except the warmth or the unexpected jolt which characterises a good joke.

Instead its flat, obvious nihilism reminds me of one of the most famous quotes from the 1953 play which made Beckett’s name, Waiting For Godot:

They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

This kind of self-pitying, maudlin, depressiveness strikes me as very male. Having been present at the birth of both my children I know that no-one gives birth astride the grave, they give birth in a cluttered operating theatre surrounded by surgeons and nurses, in a welter of blood and other substances. And – contrary to Beckett – it is actually quite a happy moment for all concerned.

Believing in Beckett’s words involves a kind of wilful denial of the world as we know it to be. The focus on the grim and pointless is contrived. I.e. it is not necessary. I.e. it is a choice whether to enter this artificial and gloomy worldview or not. Ditto the style.


About half way through I had a kind of breakthrough. To keep myself going I read chapter 9, the long description of Murphy’s arrival at, and work duties in, the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat (I grant you the name is quite funny) out loud and in an Irish accent.

Suddenly, it all made a lot more sense. Read – perceived and processed – in a received English, BBC accent, lots of it seems pretentious and flat. You can hear this in the impeccably English pronunciation of actor Ronald Pickup, reading a clip from Murphy on YouTube. The prose falls dead from his lips.

Read, however, in the accent of a Dublin chancer, with a bit of a brogue and touch of the blarney, as of two peasants discussing the finer points of your man St Augustine, I realised that quite a lot of the time the text is winking at you slyly, out of the corner of its eye.

Here is Murphy reflecting on the notion that the mental cases in the sanatorium are in fact correct to despise the worldly chaos of the scientists and psychiatrists. They are in fact happy locked up in their little worlds – as indeed Murphy would love to be completely sealed in his, but keeps falling afoul of the horrible quotidien. (It’s a separate issue that this is a dangerously childish, misinformed and romantically adolescent view of mental illness which isn’t much of a seraphic, Buddhist self-containment.) Anyway, Murphy thinks:

The melancholic’s melancholy, the manic’s fits of fury, the paranoid’s despair, were no doubt as little autonomous as the long fat face of a mute. Left in peace [by the authorities] they would have been as happy as Larry, short for Lazarus, whose raising seemed to Murphy perhaps the one occasion on which the Messiah had overstepped the mark. (p.113)

‘The Messiah overstepped the mark’. Saying it out loud in a cod Irish accent suddenly recalled the tone of all those characters in James Joyce who discuss religion and politics in floods of high-flown language which are liable at any time to give way to a sly crack or gutter phrase, all the better to puncture the mood.

‘Ah, sweet Jaysus, he was a good man, I’ll grant you that, but not always strictly following the orders of Him Upstairs, if you know what I mean. Ahr, that raising of Lazarus from the dead, sure I think that was overstepping the mark a bit, what do you say, Seamus?’

Maybe as an Englishman I’m not allowed to try on this accent, but it is the tone found in Joyce’s early stories, the Joyce who gave us ‘the Ballad of Joking Jesus’.

From this point onwards it struck me that the prose ought to be declaimed in a larger-than-life Irish accent, as of a Dublin pub politician declaiming with the gift on him of a divine afflatus, giving maximum weight to every rare and toothsome topic, rolling and relishing his fine array of grandee locutions but keen to avoid the accusation of being a preening gobshite by ducking into street slang for the humour it gives the audience of his erogatory ejaculations.

It turns out that the improvident drunken Irish poet Augustus Ticklepenny had been prescribed work at the mental home in a bid by an estimable German doctor to cure him of his alcoholism. Being relieved of the stressful burden of writing poetic epics for the Ole Country turns out to work surprisingly well.

This view of the matter will not seem strange to anyone familiar with the class of pentameter that Ticklepenny felt it his duty to Erin to compose, as free as a canary in the fifth foot (a cruel sacrifice, for Ticklepenny hiccuped in end rimes) and at the caesura as hard and fast as his own divine flatus and otherwise bulging with  as many minor beauties from the gaelic prosodoturfy as could be sucked out of a mug of porter. No wonder he felt a new man washing the bottles and emptying the slops of the better-class mentally deranged. (p.57)

Only in the scenes in the mental home did the book make sense to me. Here is the appropriate subject for Murphy’s spavined consciousness and it is no coincidence that Murphy surprises Bim, Bom and Ticklepenny by turning out to have a wonderful empathy with the closed-in mental cases, shut up in their own worlds. For that is how he would devoutly love to be.

The early scenes of being pointless in London are revealed for the shabby contrivances they are (counting biscuits in Hyde Park!) and when we return to what has now become the travelling gang of Neary, Wylie, Counihan, Cooper and Celia the narrative falls apart, and the dialogue becomes dismayingly divagatory – as presumably intended. The text – like the lead ‘character’ – is only really at home amid a certain kind of utterly fictional mental illness.

Contraptions and contrivances

1. Astrology

The first half of the book is threaded with an elaborate concern for astrology, with Murphy very aware of the position of planets rising and falling in the various star signs and so on, and the narrator similarly concerned to pin down the precise dates, times, and positions of the planets when various events occur. Thus Celia meets Murphy ‘on midsummer’s night, the sun being then in the Crab’ (p.10).

In chapter three Murphy opens a long analysis of his star signs, lucky numbers, days, colours, years and so on that has been generated for him by ‘Ramaswami Krishnasawmi Narayanaswami Suk’. Is this meant to be a satire on the post-Great War fad for all things spiritual, of the kind that snared W.B. Yeats or Conan Doyle? Murphy periodically relates Suk’s predictions to all the subsequent happenings in the book. Fine. But this contrivance doesn’t give structure or even meaning to the narrative, it is simply a net laid on top of it.

For Chaucer in the 1300s, astrology is a sign of his intellectual delight in the beautiful complexity of God’s wonderful creation. It closely counterpoises lots of events in the Canterbury Tales, notably the long Knight’s Tale which is awash with astrological symbolism.

In Beckett, this transient interest in astrology feels very like a) another elaborate but somehow contentless scaffold, a machine to help generate more reams of prose b) an affectless piss-take.

It is indicative that the astrology theme disappears in the book’s second half. In my opinion this is because the reality of the mental home eclipses it.

2. Timeframe

Much is made in commentary and introduction of the elaborate timeframe of the novel, with characters and narrator carefully referring to specific days, weeks, months in which events occur, referring back to them, calculating the time past or to go before further meetings or activities. Fine. I can see this generating innumerable PhDs, but, again, it doesn’t really add to any enjoyment of the narrative.


Surprisingly for such an alienated, disconnected narrative, there are regular references to sex. I think that some, maybe all of them, are at least partly there to cause controversy and fuss. For example, it is broadly hinted that Celia, the streetwalker enjoys being tied up and ravished, what we might nowadays call BDSM.

She could not go where livings were being made without feeling that they were being made away. She could not sit for long in the chair without the impulse stirring, tremulously, as for an exquisite depravity, to be naked and bound. (p.44)

And it is strongly hinted that Ticklepenny has his job at the sanatorium – and wangles a job for Murphy – because he is the gay boyfriend of the head man there, ‘Bim’ Clinch. Earlier in the book there is a not-so-subtle reference to kissing and not of the kind which removes the clapper from the bell i.e. French kissing. In the final stages Miss Counihan emerges as a Baywatch babe:

Miss Counihan rose, gathered her things together, walked to the door and unlocked it with the key that the exiled for that purpose from her bosom. Standing in profile against the blazing corridor, with her high buttocks and her low breasts, she looked not merely queenly, but on for anything. (p.136)

Maybe this was boundary-pushing stuff in 1938. Not so much in the era of 50 Shades of Grey.

The Beckett vision

There may or may not be an absurdist, nihilist, existential, phenomenological, post-Christian or whatever philosophy behind the novel. One thing that is certain is that periodically phrases pop out which anticipate the repetitive and monocular vision of the plays.

So all things hobble together for the only possible (p.141)… So all things limp together for the only possible. (p.146)

Right here, buried amid the textual tapenade, are ripe examples of the tone, the phraseology and the crippled worldview of the plays which made Beckett famous.

Kneeling at the bedside, the hand starting in thick black ridges between his fingers, his lips, his nose and forehead almost touching Mr Endon’s, seeing himself stigmatised in those eyes that did not see him, Murphy heard words demanding so strongly to be spoken that he spoke them, right into Mr Endon’s face, Murphy who did not speak at all in an ordinary way unless spoken to, and not always even then.

‘the last at last seen of him
himself unseen by him
and of himself.’

A rest.
‘The last Mr Murphy saw of Mr Endon was Mr Murphy unseen by Mr Endon. This was also the last Murphy saw of Murphy.’
A rest.
‘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.’
A long rest.
‘Mr Murphy is a speck in Mr Endon’s unseen.’
That was the whole extent of the little afflatulence. (p.156)

The poetry of paucity, the prosody of impoverishment.


Murphy by Samuel Beckett was published in 1938 by G. Routledge and Company. All page references are to the 2009 Faber paperback edition.

Related links

More Beckett reviews

The Second World War

  • First Love (1946)
  • The Expelled (1946)
  • The Calmative (1946)
  • The End (1946)
  • Molloy (1951)
  • Malone Dies (1951)
  • The Unnamable (1953)
  • Watt (1953)

Waiting For Godot (1953)

  • All That Fall (1957)
  • Endgame (1958)
  • Krapp’s Last Tape (1958)
  • Embers (1959)
  • Happy Days (1961)
  • How it Is (1964)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965)
  • Eh Joe and other writings (1967)
  • Without Words (1967)

1969 – awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature

  • The Lost Ones (1972)
  • Not I (1973)
  • First Love (1973)
  • Footfalls (1976)
  • All Strange Away (1976)
  • Company (1980)
  • Rockaby and other short pieces (1981)
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981)
  • Worstward Ho (1983)
  • Stirrings Still (1989)
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