What are the issues of misogyny and gender in Harold Pinter's The Homecoming?
Harold Pinter’s play The Homecoming has been the subject of considerable and sometimes heated debate since its London premier in 1965. The story of a household of men dealing with the sudden, unannounced arrival of an attractive 30-year-old woman, apparently the wife of one of the brothers of the house who has been living abroad in the United States, and their attempts at manipulating the new development for their personal benefit has been accused of having a misogynistic tone insofar as the family patriarch, Max, and his sons, Lenny and Joey, scheme to seduce the woman, Ruth, and to parlay her sexuality and apparent promiscuousness to their financial advantage.
A family of adult men living without the moderating influence of a woman, Max’s wife, Jessie, having apparently died, is prime territory for routine displays of machismo and derogatory references to the opposite gender. Their name-calling directed against each other, including “slag” and “bitch,” serve to emphasize both the primitive nature of the environment into which Ruth and her husband, Teddy, a college professor and the only one of the bunch with any apparent education and social refinement, have entered and the misogynistic view these men hold absent any real female companionship. To the extent that The Homecoming has very apparent misogynistic overtones, it is in the very fact that the play’s sole female character is such an object of seduction and attempted manipulation. That Ruth is a willing participant in the sexual politics at play, however, serves to inform the viewer that she is no victim. On the contrary, the play concludes with Ruth seemingly firmly in control not just of her own destiny, but of that of the men with whom she has decided to live.
With a plot as steeped in connotations of prostitution – Lenny may be a professional pimp, and the men clearly intend to use Ruth’s promiscuousness to their financial advantage – and sexuality as that portrayed in The Homecoming, gender obviously plays a major role in the story’s evolution. The set design has been interpreted by critics as suggesting the void created by the departure of Max’s wife and Lenny, Teddy and Joey’s mother. The depravity apparent in the home is a consequence of Jessie’s death, and the desire and need for a genuine feminine presence (as opposed to the belittling of Max’s brother, Sam, and of each other by Max and the sons) to fill the void left by Jessie’s death is concentrated in the men’s attitude towards Ruth. Those attitudes are certainly misogynistic in terms of their desire to use her as a prostitute, but they are equally manifestations of insecurity and loneliness on the part of the men, as evident in the play’s finality when Ruth has clearly assumed the dominant position in the house, with Max pleading for a kiss and Joey’s head resting innocently in her lap. That Sam lies dead in the middle of the room through all of this serves merely to remind the viewer of the moral emptiness at the heart of Pinter’s play. After all, Sam's statement to Teddy early in the play that he "was touched" by the latter's letter to him suggests an emotional state entirely incompatible with Max's world.