A Kind of Alaska

by Harold Pinter

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494

A Kind of Alaska is a modern, ironic version of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. While the fairy tale explores sexual awakening—the transition from girlhood to womanhood that allows for resolution in terms of a Prince Charming who awakens Sleeping Beauty—Harold Pinter comments wryly on such a resolution. He does so by focusing on Deborah’s disorientation as she awakes from a sleep of twenty-nine years and by denying her a resolution through her Prince Charming, Dr. Hornby.

Not only does Pinter call attention to the dilemma Deborah faces as she attempts to adjust to what seems like suddenly acquired womanhood, but he also extends the theme from awakening to one’s condition as a woman to being awake to the human condition. As Deborah questions her Prince Charming, Hornby, she seems to be questioning the patriarchy, and her questions provide a critique of society. Indeed, she makes the audience wonder to what extent either Hornby or Pauline is “awake.” Hence, on a literal or realistic level, Deborah is the disoriented victim of a sleeping sickness, while on a symbolic, archetypal level, Deborah’s disorientation suggests the fragmentation of the modern predicament.

Deborah’s disorientation indicates both a condition of lostness and fragmentation and a possible progress toward a fundamental reorientation toward rebirth, a true awakening. Pinter focuses this idea in terms of Deborah’s upcoming birthday, often referred to in the play in such a way as to suggest Deborah’s struggle with rebirth. Her description of a womblike condition in her “sleep” state, where all is silent except for the dripping of a tap, and the use of water imagery to suggest rebirth—when Deborah says she plans “to run into the sea and fall into the waves . . . to rummage about in all the water”—contribute to this sense of the play’s action as a struggle with rebirth.

Pinter conveys Hornby’s and Pauline’s investment in this action of rebirth by depicting Pauline as a widow; Hornby explains that he married Pauline after undertaking Deborah’s care but then left her to chart the progress of Deborah’s disease, which he designates as a journey to “a kind of Alaska.” The metaphorical suggestion here is that Hornby is dead, that he too has inhabited “a kind of Alaska.” By his obsessive dedication to charting Deborah’s “itinerary” into “quite remote . . . utterly foreign . . . territories,” Hornby would seem to be seeking a new awakening for himself as well as for Deborah.

Deborah’s final acceptance of her new condition is enigmatic. Perhaps she has completed the rebirth process, and unlike Rose R., whose case history Pinter drew on for the play, she will adjust to being awake. Alternatively, Deborah’s acceptance of the world offered her by Hornby may suggest a deeply ironic comment on the subjection of women. Pinter withholds a fairy-tale conclusion, but however one interprets the ending, the play dramatizes an archetypal struggle for a true awakening.

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