Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 348

The Homecoming is a drama of human relationships—relationships conceived by Harold Pinter as continually under negotiation and expressed in language, silences, and the sudden eruption of actual violence. The many possible meanings of the play are to be found in the varied psychology of the characters and the history of...

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The Homecoming is a drama of human relationships—relationships conceived by Harold Pinter as continually under negotiation and expressed in language, silences, and the sudden eruption of actual violence. The many possible meanings of the play are to be found in the varied psychology of the characters and the history of their previous relationships with one another. The “facts” of those relationships, however, remain elusive to the audience. What is the truth of Max’s relationship with his dead wife Jessie? Was she a whore? Are his three children really his or are they MacGregor’s? Whose “homecoming” is it—Teddy’s or Ruth’s? Perhaps it is a homecoming for them both, since Ruth lived in London, too, before her marriage.

Max is the patriarchal head of the London household, but his authority is constantly being undercut by Lenny, who taunts him with questions about his (Lenny’s) own paternity and ignores him as he sees fit. Sam may be homosexual; Max purports to believe so, but this may be rather his method of attacking Sam—by focusing on Sam’s ambiguous sexual identity. In any case, Sam has his revenge when he blurts out that the mysterious MacGregor “had Jessie in the back of my cab as I drove them along.”

Pinter has said, “What goes on in my plays is realistic, but what I’m doing is not realism.” He is a “hyperrealist” who presents a perfectly feasible surface of action and behavior beneath which there is a continual struggle by the characters to develop hegemony over one another. This may be said to be the theme of The Homecoming—but the meanings are many. The play presents in miniature the fragile and tenuous quality of human existence, conceived by Pinter to be forever irresolvable for the simple reason that meaning is never certain. As Tom says in another Pinter play, Tea Party, “I’ve often wondered what ’mean’ means.” The Homecoming has an apparently simple plot, yet it is a text which resists closure and elevates psychological ambiguity to the status of great art.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2077

Alienation and Loneliness
A family lives in the same house and though they live side-by-side physically, their emotional alienation and consequent loneliness is palpable. Perhaps the most alienated of all the characters are Teddy and Ruth They seem to have chosen to remain emotionally separate from the others. Teddy very clearly states this when talking about his "critical works." He says that it is a question of how far one can operate on things and not in things. He has chosen not to be emotionally involved with anyone and apparently has chosen to specialize in a very arcane branch of philosophy in order to maintain what he calls his "intellectual equilibrium"; more likely this field allows him to work with little contact with others. Teddy says his relatives are just objects and, "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 " Teddy displays a near complete apathy to the events that unfold during his visit. Despite losing his wife to his father and brothers (not to mention a life of prostitution), despite watching his uncle collapse in front of him, he remains passionless and isolated from an emotional tie to these events.

Ruth also chooses to treat others as "objects" to be controlled. She agrees to work as a prostitute, which by nature requires a lack of emotional involvement, and at the same time she agrees to "take on" the men of the family. She shows no hesitation or sense of loss when she chooses not to return to her three sons and her home in America. She even calls Teddy "Eddy" when telling him not to become a stranger as he leaves for America.

Anger and Hatred
Anger abounds in The Homecoming. The play opens with Max looking for scissors and Lenny ignoring him. Lenny then responds with, "Why don't you shut up, you daft prat9" Throughout the first scene, as the family of men are introduced, anger and hatred seem to be the main traits of their relationships and their preferred modes of conduct Lenny calls Max a "stupid sod," and Max responds with, "Listen! I'll chop your spine off, you talk to me like that!" Even when talking about the past, Max recalls that he and his late friend Mac (MacGregor) were two of the "worst hated men in the West End"; even something like nostalgia, which is typically happy and fond, is tainted with loathing.

None of the relationships in the play are warm and caring. When Max's brother Sam comes home from work, Max taunts him, and the seemingly gentle Sam retorts with innuendoes about Max's late wife Jessie and his friend Mac—a sore spot that has obviously been picked at many times before. In fact, the smoldering anger over the suspicion of what took place between Jessie and Mac is a weapon often used against Max by both Sam and Lenny. When Joey, Max's dullard younger son, returns home from the gym, Max turns on him and belittles his dreams of becoming a professional boxer. Joey is too slow witted to respond and simply retreats from the room The attempt to escape from this seething anger and vicious attacks was probably what drove Teddy to retreat into a narrow intellectual discipline, to marry without telling his family, and to move to America.

Appearance and Reality
Although there are flare ups of anger and even violence, most of the brutality in The Homecoming is covered with a seemingly sophisticated veneer. When the actual physical violence does erupt, it seems comic. Lenny's stories about the tart down by the harbor and the old woman that he beat up are told in an almost off-hand way. The violence is contained in the subtext, the threat of violence to Ruth or any woman for whom Lenny takes a disliking. Ruth also behaves with outward decorum which belies her inner fire and sexuality.

Act II starts out with the whole family having after-dinner coffee and cigars. They exchange pleasantries about the meal, the coffee, and family chat about how proud Jessie would be of her fine sons and how much she would like to see her grandchildren. It seems to be a warm family gathering. Seething beneath the surface, however, is a violent dominance game in which there is a constant right for control of the family. One of the rules of the family seems to be that when a blow is delivered the one who is attacked must not show his hurt. Even after Ruth has decided to stay and become a prostitute, Teddy's leave taking is comically conventional. He tells Max how good it has been to see him, there is advice on how best to get to the au-port, and Max gives him a picture of himself to show the grandchildren. This surface conventionality helps to make the emotionally violent reality stand out as even more grotesque.

Doubt and Ambiguity
Pinter's plays are filled with ambiguity. He does not spell things out clearly and the viewer must often construct the past out of small hints, which may or may not be true. Lenny's stones about beating up women may be true or he may be lying to bolster his image as a tough pimp. It isn't revealed where in America Teddy teaches or if he truly does have teaching post. It isn't clear what Ruth means when she tells Lenny she had been a “model for the body." There's further doubt regarding Sam's sexuality, Joey's boxing career, and Max's younger days (though it is revealed that he and Mac were something of a fearsome pair).

Perhaps most striking is the dichotomy in Mac's recollections of his wife, Jessie (he refers to her as both a "slutbitch" and as a warm, giving mother and wife). It is unclear which of his recollections best summarized his wife—or if they are both accurate. When Sam says that he knows that Mac and Jessie had had sexual relations, he immediately collapses with an apparent heart attack or stroke and yet no one pays any attention to what, again, may or may not be the truth. Part of what Pinter is saying is that life itself is mostly ambiguous and that people must often navigate their lives without satisfactory knowledge or guidance; the truth may set you free but good luck finding it.

Language and Meaning
Language in The Homecoming is used by the characters to attain tactical advantage. The language is seemingly a very accurate reproduction of normal speech. However, it is very carefully selected and, while still seeming "realistic," it reflects the fact that people think at different speeds, use language to evade confrontation, and think and speak in metaphors. Frequently people seem to misunderstand one another when they actually don't want to understand or to be seen to understand. Language, in Pinter's hands, is a weapon. Put into the mouths of characters like Lenny and Max, it seeks to hurt others. By belittling and verbally abusing the other characters, Lenny and Max can keep them off guard, control them. While this has been an effective tool in the past, the presence of Ruth upsets the balance. Not only can she match or better the men's verbal skills, she has nonverbal sexual skills which she uses to ultimately gain the upper hand.

Morals and Morality
One of the things that bothered some critics about The Homecoming is the complete lack of a moral framework. Although none of the characters seems to have any moral scruples at all, Pinter does not condemn any of them. That is part of the viewer's astonishment at Ruth's deciding to stay and "service" the family while also working as a prostitute. Equally astonishing is the calm with which Teddy accepts her decision. Pinter includes no hint of his personal feelings toward these characters actions. Their fates are stated objectively; it is up to the audience to decide what is moral and what is not.

Politics
At the time The Homecoming was written, many young British playwrights were writing plays with overt political messages. While Pinter addresses no political system in his play, The Homecoming does deal with politics: the psychic politics of the family and of the sexes. This play very powerfully shows these dynamics at work. By extension the audience is able to relate these politics to the wider arenas of organizations and even states. A viewer can easily extrapolate the relationship between Max and his sons to that between a politician and his constituents. Ruth's ascension to family dominance is, likewise, similar to a rebel force arriving in a capital and toppling the old regime in a coup.

Sex
The Homecoming is rife with sex, although none of it seems to have anything to do with love and little has to do with lust or pleasure. In most cases, sex in the play is another weapon used for gaining control. Jessie, the mother of Teddy, Lenny, and Joey, is viewed both as a nurturing figure and as a whore, a role that Ruth overtly takes over at the end of the play. Jessie's sexual relations with Max's friend MacGregor is a theme that is alluded to frequently throughout the play.

Ruth blatantly uses sex and Lenny's apparent fear of sex in order to dominate him in their first encounter. Later she again uses sex to dominate Lenny while they dance. Immediately after that she begins foreplay with Joey in full view of the rest of the family, including her husband. Later she spends two hours in Joey's room leading him on without "going all the way," and he is enthralled with her. She agrees to be a prostitute as a business proposition. Teddy seems to accept her sexual activity as somehow separate from her role as mother in their family of boys. Even Sara's lack of sexual interest is used as a weapon against him. When Joey and Lenny relate a story of their sexual escapade with two girls, it is really a story about having the power to frighten away the girls' escorts and then to have the girls in the rubble of a demolition site. Sex for these people is a matter of power and domination.

Sex Roles
Max has become the "mother" of the household in charge of the cooking. The men see women as objects to be dominated and to use for sexual gratification. Lenny runs a string of prostitutes; upon first meeting Ruth, Max assumes she is a prostitute; when Joey sees her dancing and brushing lips with Lenny in Act II, he exclaims, "She's a tart. Old Lenny's got a tart in here.... Just up my street!" Ruth is also the mother of three boys, as was Jessie. Part of what Pinter is dealing with, and part of what some members of the audience find astonishing and upsetting, is the fact that Ruth encompasses both of the stereotypical polar extremes assigned to women by men: Madonna and whore.

Sexism
The whole family of men assumes that women are there to be used. Teddy sees Ruth as a mother and helpmate. Max and Lenny immediately assume she is a whore. Moreover, Max attempts to lower the other men, attacking their maleness by calling them "bitches'' or other derogatory terms usually used to refer to women. Ruth, too, uses sexism to emasculate Lenny. After toying with Joey she abruptly stands and demands a drink: when Lenny asks if she wants it on the rocks, she says, "Rocks? What do you know about rocks?'' Her double entendre is not lost on Lenny. In fact, the whole play can be read as an attempt to keep women “in their place," and the victorious revolt against that effort by Ruth She takes complete control. She escapes from a dead, arid marriage, and she takes control of the business negotiations and demands a contract based on firm economic principles. She will use her body as she sees fit in order to gain what she wants and without any concern for what others, including her husband, think. As Pinter said in a conversation with Mel Gussow of the New York Times, "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.''

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