Themes

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Indifference of Betrayal

Despite its apparent simplicity, Betrayal is a play with different levels of meaning, just as the occurrences of "betrayal" among the characters are multilayered. The love triangle between Emma, Jerry, and Robert involves not only the necessary deception of an affair but the secondary "betrayals" between Jerry and Robert, longtime friends. It also involves the deliberate concealment by Emma of Robert's knowledge of the affair for years. But the principal theme behind these deceptions is the ordinariness of all of this, and of the fact that the situation in which the characters are enmeshed is not unusual but normal. Emma, Jerry, and Robert speak largely in a matter-of-fact, indifferent manner about all of these happenings, as if aware that their travails are the height of banality. The elements of a passionate conflict are there, but what Pinter presents is a kind of stripped-down version of it, to emphasize this theme of how unfortunately commonplace the web of dishonesty and "betrayal" is.

The Meaninglessness of Life

One theme that Betrayal brings up is emblematic of the basic meaninglessness of life, though this idea has been repeated so often in modernist literature that it's a truism to comment on it. Pinter's telling the story in reverse time sequence results in the audience seeing it as a finished series of incidents from the start, and this completed quality also gives an impression of lifelessness, as if all the real action were drained from the story. The telling of how things developed as they did is seemingly unimportant, and the characters themselves behave as though they are indifferent to the actions in which they have engaged. It is unsettling, too, that Robert knows about the affair and does not seem bothered by it. It appears to be unimportant to Robert and Emma that infidelity runs so rampant between them. There is no meaning in it. They somehow feel secure enough in their insecure connection to stay together for a number of years after Emma tells Robert. Their lives together—the love they have built—ultimately comes to nothing.

Double Standards

Throughout Betrayal, each character holds unrealistic expectations for their relationship, yet feels comfortable breaking their self-made rules for their partners. Emma and Jerry are, of course, both unfaithful to their spouses of many years. Despite Jerry being Robert’s best man and a longtime friend, he engages in a seven-year-long affair with Emma. He also finds it nearly impossible that his wife, Judith, could be having an affair herself. He thinks that she loves him too much to do so, but Jerry seems to love Judith, too, and that did not stop him from cheating. Emma also holds double standards for her relationship. She shares with Jerry, after the affair, that she is considering separating from Robert. Her rationale is that he has been unfaithful to her over the years. Of course, she sees little issue with her multiyear affair. Ultimately, Emma and Jerry are selfish and seem to see no problem with their own questionable actions. They assure one another of their faithfulness to each other, yet their fidelity is complicated. Their spouses almost don’t count as relationships.

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