To what extent can The Homecoming by Harold Pinter be seen as a criticism of patriarchy?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Harold Pinter’s play can be viewed as both supporting and challenging patriarchy in late 20th-century England. Although he includes a range of characters who exert power over others, not all of the powerful individuals are men. It must still be considered, however, whether the presence of a few powerful women challenges the fundamentally patriarchal structure of society. Pinter’s critique is primarily associated with the individual characters, so it is left to the reader or audience to decide whether—and if so, to what extent—those individuals represent the larger society.

The contradictory elements between the idea of “home” as a nurturing environment and the fundamentally antagonisms between many of the characters suggests the playwright’s critical approach to social relationships. Although Max considers himself to be a powerful patriarch, he actually exerts little control over the other family members. His constant challenges to, and attempts to bully, his sons and daughter-in-law are ultimately show to be hollow, as he is well aware of his powerless position. As the sons constantly jockey for position, competing with rather than supporting each other, they also represent the instability of established social relations. Teddy is a head-in-the-clouds philosopher who exerts no control over his wife.

As a strong women, Ruth can be seen to challenge patriarchal control, but there are severe limitations to this challenge as Pinter portrays her. Clearly, she is not submissive or a nurturing wife and mother, but she earns money in the sex trade. She does not merely challenge her husband’s primacy but refuses to return to America with him. Her independence seems limited, however, by her reliance on men's sexual activity for her income and, it is implied, on her husband’s family for her future home in England.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Pinter's criticism of patriarchy exists on a couple of distinct levels.  One such level is the critique of patriarchy as an order of comfort, a refuge or sanctuary that men flee to in their reverence for "the way things should be." This is how the family functions in the exposition of the drama.  Max is the head of the family, while each member has a distinct role.  This balance of how things should be is not interrupted.  Men refer to weakness is derogatory terms meant for women, while the patriarchal construction of women is to reduce them to objects and see them in dualistic terms:  Lady Madonna or Magdalene the whore.  

Ruth's arrival into the house is what Pinter uses to criticize this patriarchal order.  The patriarchal condition is one where each man hopes to exert his own power to control her.  Ruth shows that she is not one to be controlled, but rather controls others.  Lenny is impotent in his desire to control her, and Ruth puts him in check.  Joey thinks that in his labeling of her as a "tart" or in seeking to subdue Ruth with his tales of sexual exploit, he can assert control. Ruth disproves this.  Max's role as the controlling patriarch is reduced by the end of the drama; he sheepishly seeks to prove himself worthy of a kiss from Ruth.  Even Teddy, who has disavowed much connection with his family, cannot assert his own patriarchal control of Ruth.  She has no problem leaving him and the boys in order to do what she wants.  

Pinter has suggested that Ruth represents the force and power of pure freedom.  This is the sum total of Ruth's characterization:  "Ruth in The Homecoming—no one can tell her what to do. She is the nearest to a free woman that I've ever written—a free and independent mind.''   Freedom is the force used to undermine patriarchy.  Pinter uses this as part of his critique.  He uses Ruth to undermine the patriarchal system that has provided much in way of phony comfort to the men.  Their belief in their own power, their braggart ways, and their own sense of control over women and the world has been undermined with Ruth's presence. They cannot shock her.  They have little power over her.  Ruth is astute enough to control them.  The ending shows this, as Ruth sits in Max's chair, controlling the men in the home as the center of power. Ruth has undermined patriarchy as well as the truth that the men lacked any control over anything. Ruth simply becomes the force of recognition, the threshold of realization and freedom.

For Pinter, the patriarchal system is one where men's claims to power are more illusory than anything else. Power rests in woman, and Ruth demonstrates this.  While Teddy asserts himself to be different than his family, his description of such difference is a veiled criticism of patriarchy:  "You just…move about. I can observe it I can see what you do. It's the same as I do. But you're lost in it. You won't get me being. ... I won't be lost in it "  His "intellectual equilibrium" is an attempt to cerebrally exert patriarchal power.  This is vain, as it simply hopes to not being lost.  Ruth exposes the frailty in this system, one in which she is far from lost. Her entry into power reflects how weak the system of patriarchy actually was and is.  It is through Ruth and her freedom that Pinter is able to develop a stinging critique of patriarchy in The Homecoming.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team