Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 541

Because of the rich ambiguity of Harold Pinter’s poetic language, Family Voices can be interpreted in many ways. On the simplest and most realistic level, the play seems to be about failure of communication within families. Though mother, father, and son speak in the play, they do not hear one...

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Because of the rich ambiguity of Harold Pinter’s poetic language, Family Voices can be interpreted in many ways. On the simplest and most realistic level, the play seems to be about failure of communication within families. Though mother, father, and son speak in the play, they do not hear one another, nor do they ever connect physically. In truth, all three vacillate between expressions of love and yearning for one another and expressions of direct and indirect hostility (“If you are alive you are a monster,” says the mother in monologue 4). Perhaps because of these ambivalent emotions, all lie during the play, and all mask their feelings with clichés, which they employ almost as weapons. “Lady Withers asked me about you, mother,” the young man says in his fourth monologue. “I said, with absolute conviction, that you were the best mother in the world.” Hersh Zeifman has gone so far as to call Family Voices a parody of communication.

Others have seen the play as an exploration of the complex way in which a child’s family is replaced by surrogates as the young person matures. There are, after all, two families in the play: the son’s family, which he has at least overtly escaped, and the new family, the Witherses, in which he places himself. The audience hears the specific words (voices) of all the Witherses—save for Jane, who may be too young to have developed a consistent voice.

Much of the dramatic tension in Family Voices lies in the tug-of-war between these two families (Riley, who is a relation “of a sort” to the Witherses, denies the son’s true mother and sister access to him) and in the young man’s own vacillation between the two.

Indeed, the impossibility of determining the speeches’ true form (whether letters, voiced thoughts, or unvoiced thoughts) has led some interpreters to believe that the family voices heard in this play are not those of three people (mother, father, and son) at all, but voices projected only in the young man’s mind. In his opening monologue, the young man says, “You see, mother, I am not lonely, because all that has ever happened to me is with me, keeps me company; my childhood, for example, through which you, my mother, and he, my father, guided me.” Understood in this way, Family Voices becomes a play about a young man seeking—with considerable difficulty—to integrate the various voices of his past into a coherent identity. The play ends without successful integration; indeed, it seems to end in regression and paralysis.

Some critics have seen Family Voices as another Pinter dramatization of the Oedipus conflict. Mrs. Withers likes to “cuddle” the young man, recalling his possessive mother. Old Mr. Withers calls the young man “son” and warns him against the “disease ridden land.” Also, Mr. Withers is old and will die soon (just like the young man’s real father). Furthermore, in his new family the young man is able to divide his possessive mother into three female presences, two of whom (Lady Withers and Jane) are overtly sexual.

However one chooses to interpret Family Voices, Pinter’s focus is clear: the difficulty of integrating (or escaping) family influences.

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