Born in Dublin and educated at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, and Trinity College, Dublin, he became a lecturer in English at the Cole Normale Supérieure in Paris and later in French at Trinity College, Dublin. From 1932 he lived mostly in France and was, for a time, secretary to James Joyce, with whom he shared the same tantalizing preoccupation with language, with the failure of human beings to communicate successfully mirroring the pointlessness of life which they strive to make purposeful. His early poetry and first two novels, Murphy (1938) and Watt (1953), were written in English, but many subsequent works first appeared in French. The plays En attendant Godot (1953, Eng trans Waiting for Godot, 1956), which took London by storm, and Fin de partie (1957, Eng trans End Game, 1958), for example. Godot best exemplifies the Beckettian view of the human predicament, the poignant bankruptcy of all hopes, philosophies, and endeavours.
His later works include Happy Days (1961), Not I (1973) and Ill Seen Ill Said (1981). He was awarded the 1969 Nobel Prize for literature. Although there were one or two increasingly short pieces in later years - Breath (1970) shows a heap of rubbish on the stage and has a soundtrack which consists of a single breath - he wrote very infrequently towards the end of his life.