Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1310

Truth, Lies, and Fantasy
In The Caretaker none of the characters can be trusted to speak the truth. All are, to some extent, deceptive, twisting reality in order to manipulate one another and to delude themselves. The character who is the most deceptive is probably Davies. From the beginning, it is clear that he is a liar, first attempting to win Aston's respect by pretending to a past that rings false. ‘‘I've had dinner with the best,'' he says. He also calls everything he says into question when he admits to having used a false name; the audience cannot even be sure that his true name is Davies. Davies's talk of the future is also filled with lies and fantasy and serves two purposes—to manipulate Aston and Mick and to bolster his own self esteem. He speaks of getting even with the man whom he says attacked him:"One night I' ll get him. When I find myself in that direction.''

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Davies also tells Aston and Mick that he will go to Sidcup to get his papers. He talks throughout the play of his supposed plans to go to Sidcup, plans he will act on if he acquires shoes, if the weather gets better, plans that the audience soon realizes will never materialize. By his insistence that he is not merely a tramp, that he has a grand past and will support himself in the future, Davies manipulates Aston into continuing to let him stay in the room.

Mick and Aston are not obvious liars like Davies, but the truth of what they say is also questionable. When Mick, after hurling the Buddha against the stove, says, "I got plenty of other things I can worry about... I've got my own business to build up,’’ it is unclear whether he is speaking the truth or trying to persuade himself and Davies of his own importance. When he discusses his grandiose plans for turning the house into a vision from a home and garden magazine, he is either playing with Davies or deluding himself with plans for a future that will never arrive.

Aston's honesty is also questionable. Pinter himself has said that a common mistake among audiences watching The Caretaker is to assume that Aston is telling the truth about his experiences in the mental hospital. But even if Aston is truthful about that experience, he deludes himself with his talk of building a shed. Like Davies's trip to Sidcup and Mick's decorating plans, Aston's shed is a fantasy that will never materialize.

All of the characters in the play not only deceive one another but also delude themselves. Instead of revealing the truth, communication in the play obscures reality. In the world of The Caretaker truth itself becomes an illusion.

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Family
Ideally, the family is a source of strength and support for its members, but in The Caretaker, family members are disconnected and even hostile. The brothers Mick and Aston say little of their parents; in fact, the audience does not even know if their mother and father are alive. The little they do say, however, reveals relationships that are strained at best. At one point, Mick speaks to Davies of his ‘‘uncle's brother,’’ who may simply be another uncle, but who is more likely Mick and Aston's father.

If this is, in fact, the case, Mick is so disconnected from his father that he cannot use the familial term "father" to identify him. ‘‘I called him Sid,’’ he tells Davies, and in fact, Mick himself seems unsure of what his relationship with this man is: ‘‘I've often thought that maybe ... my uncle was his brother and he was my uncle.'' Although Mick's speech is obviously intended to have a comic effect, it does indicate that there is no real relationship between Mick and the man who may be his father.

Aston's mention of his mother is brief but revealing. While in the mental hospital, he says, he believed he was safe from electroshock therapy because he was a minor and his mother would have to give permission for such treatment. Although he wrote and asked her not to give permission, she signed the papers anyway, allowing the doctors to give Aston electroshock treatment. Aston's one memory of his mother is of his trust and her betrayal of that trust.

Aston and Mick's relationship is also one of distance, but that distance is relieved with some evidence of familial feelings. Mick has taken some responsibility for Aston—he allows Aston to live in his house, and Mick tells Davies that he and his brother take turns cleaning. And when Davies describes Aston as nutty, Mick takes offense, or pretends to take offense. But the brothers are also disconnected. They rarely speak to one another, rarely, in fact, stay in the same room together. In addition, just after Mick expresses anger at Davies's comment about Aston, he himself picks up Aston's Buddha and destroys it. This action reveals some hostility toward his brother.

The meaning of Mick's action is complicated, however, when Aston enters immediately afterwards, and, for the first time, the two brothers face one another, "smiling faintly.'' The meaning of the smile, however, is ultimately ambiguous. It may indicate a sort of reconciliation or connection, possibly a united front against Davies. Yet it could also indicate that a surface kindness, an appearance of connection, masks the hostility and estrangement of the brothers. It could even be intended to highlight the ambiguous nature of the brothers' relationship. However, even if the relationship is somewhat ambiguous, what does seem clear is that in The Caretaker the family is not an idealized haven from the world but a collection of various relationships, sometimes distant, sometimes hostile, always complicated.

Power
Much of the action in The Caretaker follows from the characters' pursuit of power over one another. This is evident from the beginning, when Davies, rescued by Aston from a possible brawl, first attempts to raise Aston's estimation of him by suggesting a past grander than his present, claiming social superiority over those with whom he has been working, and finding fault with virtually everything that anyone does for him. Davies presents himself as one who deserves much more than life has given him and so suggests that he has no reason to feel himself inferior to Aston.

Aston acts kindly toward Davies, but his motives are not entirely clear. For instance, by leaving the tramp in the room alone at the end of the first act, knowing that Mick could come in at any time, Aston leaves the old man vulnerable to Mick's anger—and thus may be asserting a sort of familial power. When Mick does find Davies alone, he first attacks Davies, establishing physical power over him, then threatens to take Davies to the police, reminding the tramp that he has little control over his future. Mick further establishes his power over Davies by his relentless questioning of the tramp, which leaves Davies confused and frightened.

The remainder of the play sees continual struggles for power. Mick keeps Davies's bag from him, frightens him with the vacuum cleaner, and angrily accuses Davies of falsely presenting himself as an interior decorator. Davies attempts to gain power by trying to get Mick to side with him against Aston. Davies also attempts to assert his own power over Aston by continually reminding Aston that he has been in a mental hospital and telling Aston that he could easily have to back there. Davies's attempts to gain power, however, finally backfire. Mick defends his brother, again establishing a sort of conjoined familial power, and Aston tells the tramp he must leave. In the final scene, it is Davies who is powerless in spite of his efforts. It is he who is alone and has no place to go.

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