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

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.