Winnie is perhaps Beckett's most upbeat character. She is almost incessantly optimistic, except for her few moments of sadness. She chatters constantly, but her speech is consciously larded with references to great works of literature. Dependent on Willie, she needs someone to listen to her, at least some of the time, or else she feels like she may as well not speak at all. She fears the day when "words must fail"—when her dialogue with Willie is reduced to a monologue, and in a monologue, language carries no meaning for her. Nearly everything she does is an attempt to diminish her loneliness—her literary allusions make her feel like she is talking with the authors, and her recurring images of Shower and his fiancée create the illusion that someone is watching her and cares about her.
She fills this loneliness with constant talking and obsessive rituals (brushing her teeth, combing her hair, fiddling with her parasol). She is buried in the ground with a barely visible husband who hardly acknowledges her presence, and her environment seems just an extension of her previous married life. The days are long and, as she so often notes, there is so little to do or say. The rituals may fill up the time, but they also draw Winnie closer to death with their static routines. Nothing seems changed after a ritual is performed, and the empty chasm in her life only widens. Similarly, the song "I Love You So," the ritual Winnie most looks forward to, brings her great happiness but then saddens her. The song gives her hope for life, and then quickly snatches it away. She even compares it to how one might experience heightened emotions during intercourse and the ensuing post-coital letdown. Sex, too, is a life- affirming experience that also saps, literally, the life out of its participants. The English and French even used to refer to the orgasm in deathly terms, such as "little death." As one might expect, she has mixed attitudes toward death. While she generally fears it and holds out hope for an infinite life, she also looks forward to the "happy day to come when flesh melts at so many degrees and the night of the moon has so many hundred hours."
Perhaps Winnie's ambivalence stems from her confused sense of time. She is ruled by "public" time—she has to follow the bell system that wakes her and signals time to sleep, and she goes through her rituals in a systematic process. She has no "private" sense of time, in which she lives according to her own rhythms, and this is because she is suspended between the past and future. She holds on to memories of her life before the mound—sitting on a priest's lap, having her first kiss with a man in a shed, Willie's proposal, the story of Mildred—but can never recall further details. She even has problems remembering what a hog is, and her short-term memory is also spotty. In a changeless world, there is no difference between past and present, so memory is not necessary. If something does not exist now, such as her breasts, then it never has, and it becomes an "empty word." As for the future, all she has to look forward to, as discussed above, are the rituals, which are hardly a future but more a recurring present. This suspension is summed up when she says, "This will have been a happy day!" In the future perfect tense, this statement sits in a non-existent point in the past of the future. Winnie is a prisoner of her environment and her temporality, and her reactions often make the situation worse, yet she is happier than Willie. Beckett does not harshly judge her, nor should the audience, for she has made more of her life buried in the earth than most of us have on top of it.
Willie is everything Winnie is not. He is silent, speaking only when she irritates him enough with her requests for him to do so, or when he reads out the headlines of his newspaper, which he apparently started doing after they married. He is brutish, blowing his nose loudly and croaking out the tune to Winnie's music box. He is sexually minded, holding a dirty postcard among his few possessions and laughing at the word "formication." If Winnie is stuck between the past and future, Willie is rooted firmly in the past. His newspaper connects him to the outside world, and is either an old edition, or recurs as the same one each day, and the headlines he reads are either about death or, more frequently, about job openings for youths. When he craws out of his hole headfirst each day, it is as if he is being reborn, but this is an ironic image, since he is aging as much as Winnie is, his crawling worse than it once was. His position low to the ground, too, counters Winnie's upright position and her sensation of being "sucked up." However, they do not complement each, except for in Willie's final crawl. "Dressed to kill," as Beckett's stage directions read, Willie does seem outfitted for a funeral, and he displays his only moment of vulnerability when he whispers "Win." Through this line, Winnie does "win," as she gains the love she desires. But it may only be temporary, as she and Willie stare at each other without smiling through a long pause that ends the play, and we do not know if Willie has changed permanently, or if, as the play's static rituals suggest, he will revert back to his normal attitude the next day.