Theme of Power in Harold Pinter's The Homecoming

Theme of Power in Harold Pinter's The Homecoming

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The Theme of Power in The Homecoming
Author: Sarah Marchant

In Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming" one of the important themes is power. Many of the characters try to exert power. Many of the characters try to exert power over others through various means such as sexuality and intelligence. The use of violence within the household is believed by the men to be the most important tool of power. However, when Ruth, the only woman in the play, enters, she appears to defeat the men's power, but not with violence. Her sexuality and apparent intelligence become part of the way in which she takes control of the house. Power itself is the ability to take control and exert authority over others. Violence is a physical form of this. It usually takes the form of a display of force and this could be an unjust or even unlawful action. There could be a use of violent language or an element of threatened violence. However, the degree of power this holds is determined by the reaction of those threatened, or whether or not anything comes of the threat.

Teddy introduces his wife, Ruth, into his childhood home that is a scene of tense threats and reports of violence - both sexual and physical. As soon as the play begins there is conflict between Lenny and his father, Max. Having been insulted by Lenny, Max threatens him with his stick, saying "Don't you talk to me like that. I'm warning you". However, nothing comes of this threat. The only element of power that can be inferred comes from the way in which Lenny makes no response. Perhaps he has previous experience of Max's anger, or it could be that both parties know that there is no point in pursuing the matter. The power that is expected to come with a threat is non-existent in this household as the threats are well-worn and always empty.

Max demands that Teddy and Ruth leave his house, yet by the end of the play, he is sobbing and yearning for attention from Ruth. The insults and derogatory terms used within the family are not so much an element of power as a way of life. As there is no real mother figure within the household, the men have lapsed into a way of life in which they can show no affection to each other. Instead they insult each other in ways usually reserved for women: "bitch" and "slag".

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A show of affection or even respect can result in argument, "Stop calling me Dad", Max complains. The men appear to hold power through unity. Although they fight, they work together to devise plans for establishing Ruth as a prostitute. Teddy excludes himself from the proceedings by refusing to contribute to the kitty and is therefore excluded from the unity of power that the other men now hold. It is unclear who the plans will benefit. By clubbing together in this way, the men think that they have found a way to control Ruth how they like. At this point however, they do not expect to be overpowered once again by Ruth. Her sexual dominance and quick wits are the power that ensures her demands of a three roomed flat and a personal maid.

Ruth undermines the strength of the group through her sexuality and alert mind which both serve to overpower the rough plans and ideas of the men. Her manner of questioning their actions and what they tell her undermine their long held confidence in what they do as being right. Yet the power of intelligence would appear to be small. Teddy is a teacher of philosophy and is ultimately defeated by his family and returns to America. He appears to be a fairly passive member of the family. His attempts to persuade Ruth to retire for the night are fruitless and he has no control over his wife's future. It could be inferred that Ruth is only acting in this way in England as she has found a release from the boring life of America. There she had three sons and was the wife of a university lecturer. It could be that this visit sees Ruth released from the dull domination of Teddy. This is not domination in the more physical form that his brothers and father use. This is the assumption that Ruth has all she needs or wants in life, without asking her. There is no way out for Ruth until they come to England and her escape in to a world where she can for once dominate in her own way becomes gradually apparent through her resistance of Teddy's ideas. Despite his position as a teacher, Teddy is unable to answer a question posed by Lenny. Ruth intervenes, but her answer reveals little intellectual power; it is another reminder of her sexual power. Her context for the question is her body and underwear, rather than the table that Lenny used as his example. Although Teddy is intelligent, he is defeated. Joey is ill-educated and gains power through violence, but he is not undefeatable. Ruth's suggested intelligence becomes a vehicle for her sexual power that distracts attention from Teddy. Ruth's actions have defeated her husband as he makes no attempt to stop what she is doing.

In a university course description, philosophy is described as "a calling to anyone who wishes to take life reflectively and thoughtfully, rather than just acting on prevailing assumptions, habits, and prejudices." If this is genuinely Teddy's "calling", his intellect is preventing him from gaining control of any situations by perhaps being too reflective and too slow to act. It is Teddy's brothers and father who act on "prevailing assumptions, habits and prejudices". Yet both the passive philosophical and the more violent unphilosophical men are overpowered by the forthright plain-thinking woman.

The positions of employment that the different characters hold do not necessarily give any indication of their personality. As mentioned before, as a philosophy teacher, Teddy is unable to even attempt to answer a question posed by Lenny. As a pimp, Lenny exerts what power he wishes over most women, but is easily overpowered by Ruth. Joey, a boxer and self-confessed rapist, is unable to sleep with Ruth even after spending two hours with her in the bedroom. "She's a tease!" exclaims Lenny. Ruth's role as mother and wife is seemingly forgotten as she abandons family life to establish herself as a prostitute for her husband's family. While the retrospective stories and angle taken on the men reveal much about them and their background, little is revealed for certain about Ruth. She unveils certain aspects of her life through euphemisms such as being "a photographic model for the body". Ruth holds the power of mystery and intrigue over the men. Ruth's air of mystery is an element of what allows her to control the men. As she is both a mother and a whore, she satisfies the fantasy that is apparently desired by Lenny as he questions his father about the night he was conceived. It is Lenny's view that many people his age think about "the night they were made in the image of those two people at it ". Ruth's position as a mother is shown through her cooking abilities and the need for attention from her "children", the men. Her position at the head of the family makes her powerful, but Ruth does not gain her position through violence. In contrast, her movements are more subtle and unpredictable.

The position that the late mother, Jessie, once held is filled by Ruth. As with Jessie, Ruth is considered in both an abusive and an affectionate way. Max initially refers to his daughter-in-law as a "tart", "a stinking pox-ridden slut". He later says that she is "lovely and beautiful" and craves her attention. Max refers to his late wife as a "bad bitch", but she later becomes the "backbone to this family". Ruth unites the family and Max remarks that "It's a long time since the whole family was together". Ruth provides the centre that has been missing in the family and the men focus around her. As Ruth is able to provide both emotional and sexual care, she is desired by all the men. Her manipulative power and insight into the required family structure enable her to take control of the family. Since Jessie died, the rest of the family have been headed by Max as the father figure, but Lenny only describes the set up as a "unit", not as a family.

Teddy and Sam are different from the rest of the family. They are calmer and more passive, but they both introduce a factor that causes disorder within the family. Teddy returns from America with Ruth. She adapts more readily than Teddy because she is able change her surroundings, and possibly herself to an extent. It could be inferred that Teddy originally left simply because he did not fit in with the rest of his family. Either unable or unwilling to change, he could not put himself in a position whereby he might be able to influence the others. Ruth appears to use a different part of her personality to gain control over each of the men. However, whether or not Ruth's new role is simply an old position brought to life again, is unclear because Ruth reveals little about her past. Sam, like Teddy spends time away from the house. Although he lives in the house, he is a chauffeur and can spend a great deal of time taking customers from place to place. He also escorted Max's wife, Jessie, while she was alive. It is a secret he reveals about this "charming woman" that causes a moment of disorder within the family. However, his collapse does not have the effect on the family that one would expect, Teddy simply says "I was going to ask him to drive me to London Airport". Sam's revelation about Jessie and MacGregor is just dismissed by Max as a "diseased imagination". The disclosure of his late wife's infidelity does nothing to Max as he closes the deal with Ruth on the matter of her prostitution.

Neither Teddy or Sam are able to exert much power over the other members of the family. Sam is a calm individual who is "an old grub", or "a maggot" according to his brother, Max. However, the rapport between Sam and his nephew, Teddy, reveals friendship and the fact that Teddy was his mother's favourite. On receiving a letter from Teddy in America, Sam was "very touched". The more sensitive natures of Teddy and Sam are detrimental to their exertion of power. They are affected by the behaviour of those around them. The other members of the family, including Ruth seem to be able to act independently of one another, taking little heed of threats or insults. In these situations insensitivity increments power. The one incident where Teddy could be said to be exerting a more vindictive form of power is when he takes Lenny's cheese roll. This follows Ruth embracing and kissing both Joey and Lenny and could be seen as a way of showing that he too can take whatever he wants. It is perhaps the first time that Teddy has taken from his family as they are now trying to take from him. However, Teddy's well-mannered theft has little effect on Lenny, who just expected a "bit of liberality of spirit" having returned after six years away.

Through his position as a pimp, Lenny has absolute power over his prostitutes. Ruth asked how he knew that his victim was diseased, he simply answers "I decided she was". His story of how he assaulted a woman down by the docks shows how his violent nature overpowered the woman. Lenny had ultimate control of the situation. The only reason that Lenny did not kill the girl was "all the bother... getting rid of the corpse and all that". There also appears to have been no police intervention, as before. In this way, Lenny's violence has been his most important means of exerting power and the non-critical reaction of his relatives only does nothing to stop his behaviour.
However, in relaying the story to Ruth, Lenny hopes to show his power. This is defeated as Ruth has been made aware of Lenny's capacity to be brutal, but she then openly challenges him after another story of violence. Lenny's report of how he assaulted an old lady becomes all the more horrific as it is surrounded by ordinary events. He gives the old lady "A short arm jab to the belly", then he "jumped on a bus outside". The subject is then abruptly changed as Lenny offers to move the ashtray. His violent nature has again been the most important element of power is defeating his primary victim. Yet after these two stories, Ruth still has the power to challenge Lenny's suggestions. Her power is not violence, but another form of physical power. She overpowers Lenny through her sexuality and her quiet self-assured nature saying, "If you take the glass ... I'll take you".

Joey's position as a boxer implies that he is physically strong. The rape that he and Lenny commit is evidence of his physical strength. They "told the ... two escorts ... to go away" and then they "got the girls out of the car". There is no evidence of consent in the actions. Joey's physical power, his violence, is undermined by his lack of intelligence. He cannot even tell his own story without omitting what Lenny considers to be "the best bit". The report of the rapes has little effect on the family. The story merges into a discussion about Joey's sexual activities with Ruth as if the rapes had never happened. The effect on the two girls can only be inferred. They were obviously overpowered in the first instant. There also appears to have been no involvement with the police, so in this way, Lenny and Joey's sexual and physical power has led to them being able to control their own situations, although later it appears to prove little to their own family.

While the men of the family believe violence to be the way in which to hold power and gain respect, this changes when Ruth enters their lives. Her exertion of sexual power overpowers them as they have been deprived of a central mother and sexual figure since Jessie died. The prostitution and rapes that are spoken of are a way of satisfying sexual urges and this gives the men control. For Max, his power comes from insulting others and holding the position of Father. Sam and Teddy are similar passive figures who stand apart from the sexual, physical tension and power that the household consists of. The power of intelligence is small as it plays no part in plans for prostitution. It is Ruth's cunning, rather than her conventional intelligence that enables her to work her own requirements into the deal she makes with the family. Ultimately, violence is a useful source for bragging, but is easily overpowered by Ruth's frank sexual nature and her position as a central mother and whore figure. It is Ruth's position as a "desired sexual object" that allows Ruth to triumph.

Work Cited

Pinter, Harold. The Homecoming. London : Eyre Methuen LTD, 1965.
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