Beckett’s bowler hats: maligned relics of the Irish Protestant middle-class

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Beckett’s bowler hats: maligned relics of the Irish Protestant middle-class
Julie Bates, International University of Sarajevo

The ways in which literary characters are capped or shod tells us much about their place in the world. In this presentation, I will explore how the battered and ill-fitting bowler hats of Beckett’s characters from the 1930s to 1950s function as relics of the Irish Protestant middle-class of his youth, a group to which little academic attention had been paid. Rónán McDonald has noted how the professional Protestant bourgeoisie of the early twentieth century was an insulated, largely apolitical class that slipped through the net of orthodox stories of the ‘landed Anglo-Irish ascendancy yielding power to a burgeoning Catholic middle class.’1

The bowler hat is an iconic twentieth-century item of dress which carries with it a host of associations. The most germane of these, for Beckett, are the cultural values travestied in his poetry, fiction and drama of this period: Irish Protestant middle-class mores of piety, professionalism and, above all, unquestioning adherence to habits of thought and behaviour. The enthusiastically rough treatment to which bowler hats are subjected in Beckett’s writing articulates clearly his opposition to convention, respectability and hard-headed thought.
However, bowler hats are also relics in the sense that they are valuable objects in Beckett’s establishment of a singular form of writing. By following the iterations and fluctuating uses of Beckett’s bowler hats over two decades and a range of genres, it is possible to chart the ways in which his writing proceeded by deliberately wrenching itself free of tradition and place, and by treating the culture and class to which the bowler refers as a lost world. For Beckett, crushing the bowler hat was an important part of this imaginative process.

1 Rónán McDonald, ‘The ghost at the feast: ‘Beckett and Irish Studies’ in Beckett and Ireland, ed. by Seán Kennedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 27.

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