Pinter’s Views on Women in The Homecoming
In The Homecoming, Harold Pinter suggests that there are two types of women: whores or mothers. The whore, he believes, can have little success in family life; the mother, on the other hand, can create a successful family. Pinter’s statement is reinforced by the behavior of characters Teddy and Max toward Ruth, and by that of Ruth herself.
The character Teddy is instrumental to the portrayal of Pinter’s views on women and what constitutes an ideal, happy family. He responds passively to Ruth’s actions, e.g. “I didn’t say I found it dirty here,” and is very careful to avoid confrontation; he wants Ruth to believe he is happy to be home and is very considerate to her. He continuously asks Ruth what she would like, if she is tired, etc., almost acting the part of an idealized, caring husband. When Ruth changes from mother to whore, Teddy acts carefully as he is unwilling to start a fight with Lenny, Joe and Max. During Ruth’s transformation there is no indication that Teddy reacts in any way; especially noticeable is the lack of stage direction. He goes along with his family when its members decide Ruth will work as a whore, demonstrating a firm belief in family harmony. Teddy’s American family also enters the equation, as that seemingly perfect family contrasts greatly with the problematic English one he visits.
Pinter also uses Max to suggest that women are either whores or mothers. Throughout the play, Max changes his mind about which one Ruth is. At first Max remarks that Teddy has brought “a filthy scrubber off the street,” showing that he believes that Ruth is a whore. Later, however, he asks the pivotal question “You a mother?” After establishing that Ruth is a mother of three, Max treats her as a member of the family. He remarks she is “a charming woman” and must be a “first-rate cook,” but this view does not last. Once he thinks of her as a “tart” again, however, he continues to treat her as family – somehow he manages to hold perceptions of both whore and mother, the unlovable and the familial, simultaneously with regard to Ruth.
Ruth is the main vehicle through which Pinter portrays women and family in The Homecoming. She is the only woman in the play and is both a whore and a mother, though her attempt to be both fails as she reverts to her old ways. She asks permission to “sit down” which shows her politeness and good manners, which portray the image of the mother. Similarly, on learning of Max, Joey and Lenny’s plan to make her a ‘working whore’ she comments that it is “kind of” them. This consideration towards others points towards the image of the caring mother. On the other hand, Ruth’s knowledge of “the rocks” and the “proposal” she makes to Lenny reveal the whore, as does the strange, violent nature of her directive to Lenny, telling him to “Lie on the floor” so that she can “pour it down [his] throat.” In another contrast, Ruth tells Teddy “not to become a stranger” – the caring mother – but fails to consider the implications of leaving her children in America – perhaps not whore-like, exactly, but certainly not maternal.
At one point in the play the purported family man Teddy is instructed in stage directions to “look down on” Ruth, suggesting he is disgusted by her role as both mother and whore. This action exemplifies Pinter’s view that no woman can be both mother and whore and still have a harmonious family life.
“Perhaps the Fact That They Move is More Significant”: The Mother and Whore in Pinter’s Homecoming
The works of Harold Pinter question the traditional views of language and communication, asking the audience to reconsider the hierarchal relationship between speech/silence, presence/absence, and the role of each opposition in the struggle for power and dominance, whether in the context of class structure or gender. Is silence the absence of speech, what is truly present in vocal speech? In his essay “Language,” Martin Heidegger writes, “We are always speaking, even when we do not utter a single word” (187), silence is not a nothingness, lack, or absence; it speaks and communicates – leading to Pinter’s theory of “two silences.” The two categories of silence are:One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it…The speech we hear is an indication of what we don’t hear. It is a necessary avoidance…When true silence falls we are still left with echo but are nearer nakedness (518). (footnote 1)In this instance, vocalized speech becomes an evasion, an interruption, a repetition; a sign always referring to something else, deferring the presence of our true intention, with the hope of leading astray – it is silence. What is true silence? Pinter disagrees with his work being a “failure of communication” – silence interpreted as an alienated, broken void – “I think we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid…Communication is too alarming…To disclose to others the poverty inside of us is too fearsome a possibility” (15); true silence is like an exposed, gaping wound. Language is both weapon and shield in a battle of dominance and subservience; there is an attack, a retreat, an evasion, and the unanswered question – resulting in a silence of rejection or bafflement. In Homecoming (1965), the battle is between the mental and physical, including the power struggle between men and women. Matters of power and control begin in the opening of the first act between Max and Lenny, father and son; introducing the overwhelming physical inclinations of the family. Max asks Lenny, “What have you done with the scissors?” (520), and there is no reply, just a silence of rejection and dismissal. Max reveals he wants to cut something out of the newspaper, and then Lenny finally responds, “I’m reading the paper” (520) – a short declarative statement, saying more than his words disclose. The paper could be any object, and the scissors as well; the surface of the dialogue is absurd. Beneath the language is a territorial, very instinctive, power struggle over the role of alpha male. The situation escalates, Max yells, “Do you hear what I’m saying? I’m talking to you?” (520), and quietly, in opposition to Max’s anxiousness, Lenny calmly asks, “Why don’t you shut up, you daft prat?” (520). Max’s following tirade is interrupted only with a dismissive insult, “Plug it will you, you stupid sod, I’m trying to read the paper” (521), and ended with Lenny’s sarcasm, “Oh, Daddy, you’re not going to use your stick on me, are you?” (521). Max sits hunched, retreating into silence, as Lenny wins, perhaps not the first time. The episode between Max and Lenny sets the mood for the introduction of Teddy and Ruth.When Teddy and Ruth enter the house, they begin a small argument paralleling the one between Max and Lenny, over who will go to bed and when. Teddy first tells Ruth she should go upstairs and get some rest; however, Ruth responds with a clear refusal, “No, I don’t want to” (525). Ruth turns the conversation, gains control, and Teddy ends up being the one going upstairs to bed – the physical wins over the mental. After Teddy exits, Ruth and Lenny meet for the first time, a meeting fueled with sexual innuendo, allusions to physical violence, bafflement, and beneath the silence, a layer of tension; Lenny meets his match. Lenny, after ignoring the numerous mentions of Ruth’s marriage to Teddy, asks for “Just a touch…Just a tickle” (528) of her hand – his first move and intention is physical. Ruth disrupts his play for power with a simple, “Why?” throwing him astray. His response is a short anecdote about a diseased hooker he slapped around and thought of killing. Ruth responds to the tale, “How did you know she was diseased?” (528). It is an odd, unexpected reaction, bewildering Lenny; stunning him into silence to regain his comportment (His next story will be even more violent than the first). Ruth leaves Lenny completely vulnerable after calling him by the name his mother gave him, and with her remark over a glass near an ashtray, after Lenny insists of “relieving” her of it, “If you take the glass…I’ll take you. (Pause.) …Why don’t I just take you?” (529). Lenny can only respond with “You’re joking…What was that supposed to be? Some kind of proposal?” (529), followed by a defeat in silence. After this incident, Ruth becomes a woman of “proposals,” a wife, and mother, what is Ruth supposed to represent? Ruth first appears to represent the limited feminine role in the patriarchy: either the maternal Madonna or the erotic whore, but Pinter will later question the limitation. Max refers to his dead wife as either a “slutbitch” or the “backbone to this family” (533), switching her role throughout the play. This is Ruth’s “homecoming,” and the question is how will she overcome such pigeonholing? Can she? Max and his son’s expectations are made clear, as Joey proclaims, “Christ, she’s wide open…She’s a tart” (537), and Lenny’s idea to put her to the streets, in order to make some income while living with the family; to some extent she must be a whore, a slut. In opposition, in the final scene, Ruth, like a maternal Madonna figure, sits in a chair – after questioning the boys’ masculinity, “Rocks, What you know about rocks?” (538) – with Joey’s head in her lap, and Max on his knees, whimpering, “She won’t be adaptable!” (545). What should be made between these two opposite impressions? A possibility is Ruth’s movement into power was hidden, and made possible, by a distraction, like the distraction of underwear shown by the movement of her leg, or the distraction of words passing through lips, leading to misconception and misinterpretation. Her mimicry and mimesis of the “whore” role allowed her to silently slip into the position of a powerful, maternal figure; the attention and significance should have gone to the movement itself, instead of the decorative diversion. Footnotes:1) Ruth’s revelation is a good example, making clear Pinter’s intentions: “Look at me. I…move my leg. That’s all it is. But I wear… underwear…which moves with me…it…captures your attention. Perhaps you misinterpret. The action is simple. It’s a leg…moving. My lips move. Why don’t you restrict…your observations to that? Perhaps the fact that they move is more significant…than the words which come through them” (535). Works CitedHeidegger, Martin. “Language.” Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstader. New York: HarperCollins, 1971. 187-208.Pinter, Harold. “Homecoming.” Modern and Contemporary Drama. Ed. Miriam Gilbert, Carl H. Klaus, Bradford S. Field, Jr. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1994. 517-551.