Analysis: the Homecoming by Harold Pinter
Characters and Their History:
The entire play takes place in a house of four men; four very strong willed and often violent men. Max is the father of the three boys, Lenny, Sam, and Joey, and the patriarch of the family. Lenny is extremely violent and it's suggested that he is a pimp. Sam is a driver for a well-established car service company. Joey has interests in boxing and works in demolition.
There are two female characters as well. The dead mother, Jessie, and Ruth. Ruth is married to Teddy, a philosopher, and accepts his motherless family to the point of taking on many of Jessie's roles within the house.
Throughout the play we are given hints about the characters' histories and insights into their personalities. Joey's enthusiasm as a boxer implies that he is physically strong. The sexual assault that he and Lenny commit is further evidence of his physical strength. Joey's physical power, though, and his violent side, are undermined by his lack of intelligence.
Lenny has absolute power over his prostitutes as their pimp. Ruth asks 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. His statement "all the bother... getting rid of the corpse and all that," when speaking about abusing the woman demonstrates his ease with committing murder and disposing of bodies. It hints at his criminal past and his lack of emotions concerning the lives of people.
Neither Teddy or Sam are able to exert much power over the other members of the family as both are more quiet and calm.
A Power Drink
Power is the most important theme throughout the play and all characters try to exert their power over the others in various ways. They fight each other, verbally abuse each other, and attempt to outsmart one another. The men in the house consider violence the most important instrument of power and are physically and verbally abusive toward all women. They are treated like "whores," objects that can be possessed. We are first shown Lenny’s dark thoughts towards women during Ruth's arrival.
Within the first few minutes of meeting Ruth for the first time Lenny attempts to exert his dominance by telling Ruth about how he beat up a woman by the docks. He follows this with an account of how he prodded an older lady in the stomach just for wasting his time. (He could have also done this because he was unable to move the iron/dryer and felt emasculated) He tells her these stories because he feels his masculinity is threatened by Ruth’s feminine power. He assaults Ruth in his antagonistic speech by attacking all women, who he considers vaguely responsible for giving him a disease.
Ruth does not speak throughout Lenny’s speech detailing the women he beat up, which causes him to question whether he has her attention. In an effort to gain it, he asks if the ashtray is in her way. He is defeated in the following exchange (with her proposition to seduce him being the thing that angers him the most):
Lenny: Give me the glass
Lenny: I’ll take it!
Ruth: If you take the glass, I’ll take you.
Lenny: How about me taking the glass without you taking me?
Ruth: Why don’t I just take you?
Ruth confuses Lenny with a proposal to sit on her lap and take a sip from the glass. Stripped by this sexual aggravation, Lenny needs to reinstate his dominance.
Lenny: You’ve consumed quite enough in my opinion.
Ruth laughs at Lenny’s reaction to her ‘proposition’ showing her strength and lack of fear towards dominant men. Ruth obviously comes out a winner in the exchange, she is the one who walked away from the conversation with Lenny shouting up at her feeling like he needed to get the last word in.
It's All About Context
In order to truly analyse and understand this sequence, we need to look at the context of the scene. Of all the factors that affect the outcome of the scene, Lenny’s attitude towards Ruth is the most convoluted. The ‘Homecoming’ Pinter is describing is Ruth's, not Teddy's.
It may be Lenny’s emotions towards his mother that ignite his violent feelings towards Ruth, since she is the only women in the house since the death of his mother, who may have been a prostitute (indicated in more than one scene; Sam telling Max he used to look after Jessie when driving her around the West End is one example). During Lenny’s outburst to his father about the circumstances surrounding his conception, he appears disgusted at the thought of his mother with his father. It may also explain Max’s ambivalent statements about Jessie. He praises her at one point then calls her a whore and slut. He also says that the boys learnt all the ethics they know from her, but since they are rapists, murderers and pimps, what exactly did she teach them? Max even blatantly says: “I’ve never had a whore under this roof before. Ever since your mother died”.
There are many similarities between Ruth and Jessie and this is no coincidence, she is the reincarnation of the boys' mother. She calls Lenny ‘Leonard,’ something only his mother called him. Ruth has three children, like Jessie. It is suggested that she was a prostitute before meeting Teddy. She says she was ‘different’ when she met Teddy first but we also know she was a nude model, which is sometimes a euphemism for prostitute. This may explain Max’s violent response to meeting her at first: being faced with an image of his dead wife.
Lenny feels confronted with his dead mother, or at least a representation of her. He feels like he needs to assert dominance, to show off how grown-up he is. Ruth undermines this strength through her sexuality, reminding him of his own mother's sexuality, which reminds him of his own conception. As she is both ‘mother’ and ‘sexual’ in Lenny’s eyes, it gives an oedipal twist to his feelings towards his mother, which he thinks is normal for a man of his age saying most people his age think about
“The night they were made in the image of those two people at it”.
Throughout the play, the acting out of dominance is part of a struggle for territory, and with the introduction of Ruth (and the fact that she is perceived as something the men can possess), the men feel the need to gain control over her as soon as possible so they can ultimately ‘own’ her and be seen as the 'man' of the house.
Ruth uses her sexuality to overthrow the power Lenny thinks he has over her. Lenny tries his hardest to be dominant but is unable to get one up on Ruth. Since he has only ever used violence as a means of dominance in the past, he knows no other way of asserting himself without violent behavior. He is unable to gain the ‘territory’ he aims for. He is left shouting after her as she calmly walks away. Ruth is the reincarnation of Lenny’s mother and her blatant sexuality causes him to think of his mother and her sexual experiences.
It can hardly be considered a power ‘struggle’ at all, since Ruth is calm and calculating in her dealings with Lenny, overthrowing his perceived dominance. This scene demonstrates that violence does not mean power and it does not represent strength. Ruth does, however, represent both power and strength for being able to gain control without the use of threats and violence.
There is irony in the ending of the play. Max assumes that Ruth is a prostitute when he first meets her, and by the end, after the men get to know her a bit more, she actually becomes a prostitute. The whole play seems to question the dynamics of family, of family values, and how family members treat each other.
Further Reading and Film Links:
- The Homecoming (1973) - Ian Holm
Film adaptation of the play
- Analysis of Pinters 'The Homecoming'
An analysis of the play
- The Homecoming - Review - Harold Pinter - Theater - New York Times
A review of the play
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