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.
The Power in Harold Pinter’s ‘The Homecoming’
Everyone in The Homecoming Thinks they Have ‘the Power’. But who does have it?Clearly no one in the house has ‘the power’. The rivalry caused by the lack of a dominant force is the only reason the ‘family’ is able to function at all.Max considers himself the dominant member of the family at the beginning of the play. At the beginning of act one he accuses Lenny of having the scissors, “what have you done with the scissors?” in a very predatory, offensive way. He is wearing a cap and carrying a stick as a sign to others in the house of his claim in the family as the physically powerful male. However Max is clearly unsure abut his power as he talks at Lenny, rather than with him, continuing his next sentence before Lenny decides to reply. He also later has to remind Lenny, and himself that “I could have taken care of you, twice over. I’m still strong” reinforcing to himself and attempting to persuade Lenny that he is the most powerful physical force in the house. On the otherhand, in this confrontation Lenny thinks he is the dominant force, because he considers that he is powerful because his pimping business means he is the primary breadwinner in the house. This is backed up by his insistence on wearing a suit in his own lounge and his stories later to Ruth, where he is keen to mention that he was not “financially embarrassed”. Both Max’s and Lenny’s insistence on proving how powerful they are undermine their credibility. Max in the opening minutes almost makes the audience cringe with his exaggerated tales of “a man called McGregor” who he used to “knock about with” where McGregor is clearly the one who caused the “silence” in the rooms they went into and his insistence he still has “the scars” although he does not show them adds to the lack of credibility in Max’s stories. Lenny, later, when threatened by Ruth’s assertiveness feels the need to reel off stories of his past about old women he punched and prostitutes he considered killing which threatens his credibility and instantly make the audience see that neither Max or Lenny have ‘the power’. However both Max and Lenny give the impression the have the power in the house and until the threat of Teddy and Ruth turns up Lenny and Max appear to the audience as the two who have the power in the household.In contrast to Max’s attempts at physical power to gain overall ‘power’ and Lenny’s power gained through his business Sam has a much more subtle, yet unsuccessful, type of power to gain control of he household. His secret that “McGregor had Jessie in the back of my cab as I drove them along.” Gives him with a power over Teddy, Lenny and Joey and particularly Max. Max does not want the secret out in the open, because he refuses to talk with Sam when Sam repeatedly pauses during his monologue abut his chauffeuring of Jessie in the West End. Even when Sam mentions that Max “wouldn’t have trusted Mac” Max remains submissive because he does not want Sam to elaborate on the subject. This is highlighted to a greater extent once the conversation has steered away from Jessie and Sam begins to subtlety comment on Max’s poor judge of character by claiming Mac, who was a “stinking rotten loudmouth” was “a good friend” of Max’s. Max immediately bites back calling Sam “an old grub” showing that Sam’s power over Max lies only in his knowledge of Mac and Jessie’s affair. Although it appears to the audience that Sam has some amount of power through his aloof nature and his ‘secret’ throughout the play we clearly realise he has little power over the household once his secret is let out. They leave Sam lying on the floor and pay little attention to him, Teddy even whines that he was going to ask Sam for a lift to the airport and Max’s indifference to whether Sam is dead, shown by his blasé handling of whether Sam “had” or “has” a “diseased imagination” prove how little power Sam has over the family unit.Max is keen to assert his physical power over Sam. He makes Sam acknowledge that “I’m here, too you know” and the territorial nature of Max’s attempt at gaining power is shown through Max’s annoyance of Sam doing the washing up. Max, even after Sam offers to let Max finish the washing up, calls him a “tit”, which is an attempt to feminise Sam in his mind and he calls Sam a “maggot” and a “grub”, since both have little physical power Max is clearly trying to highlight Sam’s physical weakness and therefore dominate him physically. Lenny Clearly feels threatened by Sam’s title of “the best driver”. When Sam is showing off his cigars to Max, Lenny clearly feels threatened and although on the surface appears to be making general conversation about the “colonel, or something in the American Air Force” he is actually trying to belittle Sam’s success by showing him that “he knows the kind of man you’re talking about”, implying he is one of them, not a servant for them like Sam. Once again Lenny is projecting the image that he is successful and therefore powerful in the house. Because no one severely threatens him in his position, the falseness of his stories do not appear.Teddy and Ruth clearly have a great deal of potential power because they can both escape the family and live a life outside the claustrophobic environment the audience is experiencing. As a member of the audience we know they both realise their power to some extent because they both, at separate occasions acknowledge that they should go home. First Ruth at the beginning of the stay, and later Teddy at the end of the stay. Teddy’s power lies in his intellect and his life outside the family. He has already broken free of the restraints of the family and feels superior because he is outside their insular world. His lack of dialogue when the other brothers are discussing how they can turn Ruth back into a whore suggests he wants this to happen and that his trip home was simply to rid himself of Ruth. He insists he can “observe” what the others do and that they are just objects. This gives the audience the impression that the events are happening according to an agenda set by Teddy and almost, in the way he speaks, “you are just objects”, gives him a God like status above all the other members of the family. The fact he is not bound by their world also heightens this feeling. Furthermore, he recognises his own intellectual superiority, “”you wouldn’t understand my works, you wouldn’t have the faintest idea what they are about” and he clearly treats Lenny like a child in their conversation at the beginning of act two. When Lenny questions him about a table and tries to engage him in a philosophical argument, Teddy simply sees this as a trivial conversation and he chooses to give Lenny the simplest answers, “a table”. However Teddy’s does not have the power in the house. Because he does not allow himself to be confined to the house he cannot take control within it and therefore he does not achieve the status he deserves in the house. He does on the other hand have ‘the power’ over himself and all the other members of the family in the outside world and he knows this therefore he does not want ‘the power’ in the house and he chooses not to try to gain ‘the power.’ This is highlighted by his submissiveness in terms of Ruth when Joey is trying to sleep with her and his lack of dialogue when discussing how they are going to fund Ruth as a prostitute.Unlike Teddy Ruth is keen to attempt to try and assert her position as the dominant member of the family. She demonstrates that she thinks she has power over men in her encounter with Lenny, when she confidently tells him “I’ll take you”. This shows that she thinks she has ‘the power’ over all men through her feminine qualities. She asks Lenny to sit on her lap, which is both sexual, reminding the audience of a lapdancer and perhaps motherly. She also overtly sexual with him to “put your head back and open your mouth.” She make them all coffee at the start of act two, and considering it is not her house this is a particularly motherly thing to do and her sexually charged speech, when she tells them about if she moves her leg, “but I wear underwear” shows that she realises she has the potential to gain ‘the power’ in the house. By the end of the play, if someone had to be designated the owner of “the power” in the room it would most definitely be Ruth although Lenny is not completely submissive to her, respecting that the have “a deal”. Clearly Ruth is beginning to gain more power in the house. Without any outside interference Ruth will soon become the most dominant power.Ruth’s emergence as a potential leader in the pack suggests she is beginning to have ‘the power’ over the other members in the household. This is why the play has such a dramatic ending for me because it is a complete shake up of the hierarchical make-up of the family, which will create an even more dislocated family, where she is the dominant force with ‘the power’