Footfalls Short Story Analysis Essay

Posted on by Fek

For this project, I wanted to read some short plays at some point, as short plays can get away with doing deviant formalistic things that longer plays can’t. I chose these three plays by Samuel Beckett because they are sometimes collected together, or performed together, and with good reason. While each play was written separately, all of them overlap in their treatments of time and memory.

Not I

Not I is a monologue performed by “Mouth.” When staged, the actor playing Mouth wears black make-up over her face, and the lighting is as isolated as possible to just the mouth. The effect is of a disembodied mouth, floating in darkness, rapidly reciting sentence fragments which tell a story of a woman—presumably the owner of the mouth—who has lived a solitary, bleak life, and who has scarcely spoken throughout all of it. The title comes from the repeated refrain of Mouth: “what? … who? … no! … she!”—denying that what she is describing happened to her.

The play explores the disjuncture between experience and retelling, with the speaker being an extreme case of someone whose speech has become drastically separated from her experience of the world. The whole play, Mouth is trying to make sense of the woman’s life, constantly asking questions, constantly doubling back, always unsure, and always careening forward to dig up some other scrap of memory. The way Mouth bolts through fragmented sentences puts in mind a person searching through a library for a book, and reading aloud titles and last names of authors as they go.

The speech is not just an attempt to retell what has happened in this woman’s life for the sake of the audience—it is an attempt to make sense of it for herself. Almost all her life she has been speechless, unable or unwilling to connect her experiences with linguistic structure, and so Not I is an attempt to do so. It is a demonstration of the difficulties of manifesting a life verbally, of making sense of events through retelling, and of the disconnect between the person who lived an experience and the person telling it (even if they are one and the same.)

Footfalls

Footfalls is a short play about an old woman and her daughter, middle-aged, who has lived with her all her life, taking care of her. Similar to the woman in Not I, the daughter in Footfalls, May, has had very little interaction with the outside world. She spends a great deal of the play pacing, slowly and methodically, back and forth on the stage.

Footfalls explores the monotony of time, with the paradox of the footfalls. While the footfalls very clearly, literally, mark time, the play moves at a glacial pace, creating the illusion that no time is passing. The play is full of pauses, and long moments of silence in which the only sound is the clomping of May’s feet.

At one point, May asks her mother “Would you like me to inject you again?”, and the mother answers, “Yes, but it is too soon.” May then asks “Would you like me to change your position again?”, and the mother answers, “Yes, but it is too soon.” May follows this by offering a litany of services, from “Pass you the bedpan?” to “Moisten your poor lips?” concluding the whole list with, “Again.” And the mother answers, “Yes, but it is too soon.” (240) In this little interaction, Beckett uses a present moment to give us a sense of the entire continuum of these two’s existence. Although May is asking her mother if she wants her to change her position now, she ends the sentence with “again,” evoking a series of regular events that stretches far back into the past. And when the mother answers, she says it is too soon, evoking a series of regular events that will continue into the future, and an impression that there will never be an end to the “again”s.

While the footfalls are an attempt to count down, and measure away the minutes and hours of May’s life, they seem to have the opposite effect, only highlighting how endless and repetitive her existence is, as she repeats the same routines with her mother, and paces back and forth along the same line on the stage.

Rockaby

After these two plays, the first a reckless ransacking of memory, the second a drudgery of time measured without any change, Rockaby feels merciful. The play is essentially a monologue, focusing on an old woman in a rocking chair, as she listens to a recording of her voice. The recorded voice is lineated, and performed with slight pauses in between each line, as the woman slowly rocks back and forth in her chair. In this way, it is like a slowed down version of Not I, with the voice often repeating fragments, and describing the events of her own life in third-person.

The difference between Rockaby and Not I is that the voice in Rockaby is not attempting to make sense of her life. It speaks on command from the old woman, then eventually stops, and after a pause, when the old woman says, “More,” it will start speaking again. Rockaby portrays an old woman sifting through her memories in the last stretches of her life, not trying to understand them, or retell them. The memory is performing the same function as the chair—it marks time in a slow, steady, rhythm, and it gives the woman some small gentle comfort.

Perhaps the biggest distinction between this play and the others is that it has an ending. In Not I, the stage directions instruct that Mouth be talking, unintelligibly, before the curtain rises, and to continue talking unintelligibly after the curtain falls—the idea being that this unending stream of telling and retelling, cycling through memories over and over, has no end in sight. Of course in Footfalls, the whole impression is that time is painfully slow (at one point May is told that she is in her forties, and she responds, “So little?” [240].) However, in the end of Rockaby, the voice describes herself dying one night in her rocker, and the play ends with the line “Rock her off,” (282) and the rocking chair coming to a stop, followed by a slow fade out. The only end of time—of the convolutions of memory, and of the tedium of time in general—is death.

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Not to be confused with the Samuel Beckett play Footfalls.

Footfall is a 1985 science fiction novel by American writers Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. The book depicts the arrival of members of an alien species called the Fithp that have traveled to our solar system from Alpha Centauri in a large spacecraft driven by a Bussard ramjet. Their intent is conquest of the planet Earth.

Plot[edit]

The alien Fithp resemble baby elephants with multiple prehensile trunks. They possess more advanced technology than humans, but have developed none of it on their own. In the distant past on their planet, another species was dominant. This predecessor species badly damaged the environment, rendering themselves and many other species extinct, but left behind their knowledge inscribed on large stone cubes, from which the Fithp have gained their technology. Facing possible extinction due to the long-term effects of biological weapons, a group of high-ranking Fithp were selected to escape to the stars. The Chtaptisk Fithp ('Traveling Herd') are divided between 'Sleepers' and 'Spaceborn', as the ship is both a generation ship and a sleeper ship. The original leaders are subordinate to the Spaceborn, who are prepared to start a space based civilization, but are still dedicated to the generations-old ideal of conquest.

The Fithp are herd creatures, and fight wars differently from humans. When two herds meet, they fight until it is evident which is dominant; fighting then ceases and the losers are incorporated into the winning herd. The Fithp are confused by human attempts at peaceful contact. Upon arrival, they attack the Russian space station (in the novel, the U.S.S.R. is still a major world superpower) where Russians and Americans wait to greet them. They proceed to destroy military sites and important infrastructure on Earth. United States Congressman Wes Dawson and several Russian cosmonauts are captured from the ruins of the space station.

The human characters fall into two major groups, those on Earth and those who are taken aboard the Fithp spaceship as captives. Civilians are used to show the effects of the war on day-to-day life in the United States, while military and government personnel convey a more strategic overview of events. Science fiction writers are employed as technical advisers on alien technology and behavior; the characters are based on real writers, including Niven ("Nat Reynolds"), Pournelle ("Wade Curtis"), and Robert Anson Heinlein ("Bob Anson").

After their initial assault, the Fithp land ground forces in the center of North America, primarily in and around Kansas. They initially repel attacks with orbital lasers and kinetic energy weapons, but a combined Russian and American nuclear attack wipes out their beachhead. The Fithp, who are familiar with nuclear weapons but prefer to use cleaner ones, are shocked by what they consider the barbarity of humans' willingness to "foul their own garden" with radioactivity. The Fithp respond to the defeat of their invasion by dropping a large asteroid into the Indian Ocean, whose impact results in environmental damage on a global scale, in particular the almost total destruction of India. The Fithp then invade most of Africa, successfully subjugating most of the people on the continent. On numerous occasions, the Fithp are assisted by warlords seeking to keep their power over the masses.

The United States secretly builds a large, heavily armed spacecraft in the state of Washington propelled by nuclear bombs (a real concept known as Project Orion). The ship is named after the Biblical Archangel Michael, who cast Lucifer out of Heaven. The Michael launches and battles through small enemy "digit" ships in orbit. Though seriously damaged, she pursues the alien mothership. One of the space shuttles carried aboard Michael rams the Fithp ship, seriously damaging it.

On Earth, American President David Coffey receives an offer of conditional surrender from the Fithp. Coffey is willing to let the Fithp withdraw into space, and is reluctant to destroy their technology and cargo of females and children. He is opposed by his advisors, who feel that by allowing the Fithp to escape and regroup, he risks the whole of humanity. When Coffey seemingly folds under the pressure, National Security Adviser Admiral Carrell stages a bloodless coup d'etat, circumventing the President and communicating the rejection of the aliens' terms. An act of sabotage by the humans aboard the alien vessel disables the Fithp engines, allowing the Michael to inflict heavy damage, which forces the Fithp to accept humanity as the stronger species and surrender themselves to become part of the human "herd". In the final scene, the Fithp leader lies down on his back in a submissive gesture, and allows former captive Congressman Wes Dawson to place his foot on his chest, this being the formal Fithp gesture of surrender.

Timeline[edit]

  • ~1915 – The Chtaptisk Fithp ("Traveler Herd") leave Alpha Centauri for Earth on their spacecraft, the Thuktun Flishithy ("Message Bearer").
  • ~1919 – The sleepers go into their death-sleep.
  • September, 1976Thuktun Flishithy swings around the Sun, maneuvering towards Saturn.
  • November, 1976Thuktun Flishithy reaches Saturn.
  • June, 1980Thuktun Flishithy has been resupplied.
  • June, 1981 – The Fithp have established themselves on the Foot, an asteroid colony.
  • April, 1995 – The Thuktun Flishithy begins its journey towards the Earth.
  • May, 1995 – Human astronomers in Hawaii realize that there is an alien ship on a trajectory towards the Earth.
  • June, 1995 – The initial attack of the Fithp. Kinetic weapons wreak havoc on the Earth, satellites are shot down, the Soviet space station Kosmograd is destroyed, its passengers captured.
  • July, 1995 – The Fithp launch an invasion of Kansas. Shortly thereafter the Jayhawk Wars begin, a conventional attack against Fithp forces which is rapidly destroyed using space support. About two weeks later, the Americans and Soviets cooperate in a combined nuclear retaliation that defeats the Fithp forces and wrecks much of Kansas in the process.
  • August, 1995 – Footfall. The Fithp drop the Foot into the Indian Ocean; tsunamis devastate surrounding landmasses, while the entire globe is enveloped in an endless salty rainstorm. India is practically destroyed, while the Fithp successfully invade much of Africa.
  • July, 1996 – The flight of the Michael; ends with the formal surrender of the Chtaptisk Fithp to US Congressman Wes Dawson.

Reception[edit]

Footfall was nominated for the 1986 Hugo Award for Best Novel and the 1986 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel,[1] and was a No. 1 New York Times Bestseller.[2]

Kirkus Reviews considered it to be "(o)verblown and largely underdone", judging it to be "more tedious and less thoughtful" than previous joint Niven-Pournelle works, with "barely relevant" subplots and a "cumbersome cast of thousands", but praising the fithp society as "particularly well worked-out".[3]

David Langford called it a "ripping yarn", but stated that it had "typical blockbuster flaws", including slow pacing and an overly large cast with less-than-relevant characters; he also noted that "(t)he authors' enthusiasm for space weaponry comes over disturbingly strongly".[4]James Nicoll found it to have "the mediocrity and tedium of a much longer novel", with weak characterization, and a scientifically inaccurate portrayal of the effects of the asteroid's impact, but conceded that it was better than the majority of works in its subgenre, and commended Niven for his portrayal of the fithp.[5]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]

Look up footfall in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
  1. ^"1986 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-20. 
  2. ^Book Review Desk (May 18, 1986). "Paperback Best Sellers". New York Times. pp. Section 7, Page 42, Column 2. 
  3. ^FOOTFALL, By Larry & Jerry Pournelle Niven, at Kirkus Reviews; published June 16, 1985; retrieved May 23, 2017
  4. ^Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle - Footfall; originally published in Starburst #88, December 1985; archived online at ansible.uk; retrieved May 23, 2017
  5. ^Footfall, Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle, reviewed by James Nicoll, at JamesNicollReviews.com; published August 3, 2014; retrieved May 23, 2017
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