Relationship between female and male are a power struggle in The Homecoming by Harold Pinter

Relationship between female and male are a power struggle in The Homecoming by Harold Pinter. Throughout the play the characters in the home fight for dominance through the use of abusive language, the threat and use of physical violence, the use of sexual prowess, and bragging about themselves. The men in the piece tend to use their physical presence to gain control while the woman uses psychological tactics to control the household.
Initially, it looks as if the patriarch, Max has full control of the family. Act one opens with Max carrying s stick, both for balance and as a phallic symbol, representing power; his brash tone and a tirade directed at his son, Lenny round out the first scene. The scene sets the air for the play, showcasing the father-son interaction. The exchange between elder and youth is very hostile as Lenny responds to his father’s words with, “Why don’t you shut up, you daft prat?” (1. 8.), to which Max replies, “Don’t talk to me like that, I’m warning you.” (1. 9). The two men show little respect for one another and use harsh language to try to make the other back down. Trying to assert his virility, Max brags on the time he spent with his friend, MacGregor. He seems to romanticize the encounters with his compadre to give himself more status; he does not talk of times where he stands on his own and makes an impression on people. Of the time spent with MacGregor, Max recalls: “We were two of the most hated men in the West End of London… We’d walk into a place, the whole room’d stand up, they’d make a way to let us pass.” (1. 21-23). Max is an older man who lacks physical strength so he employs tales from his past along with anger and violence to prove he still has bravado.
Although he lacks power, Max physically assaults his son Joey, to showcase his manliness. Joey challenges Max’s manhood by taunting him in front of company when he tells him “he’s an old man.” (1. 717). Hitting Joey not only embarrasses and hurts his son, he also hurts himself. Aside from the physical force, his words are used as a weapon, especially on his brother, Sam. Max is particularly mean to Sam it seems because of Sam’s sexuality. He comments how he has never brought a woman home, and how he is not a real man because he is a chauffeur by trade, not a butcher like he and their father. Sam is on the receiving end of a tongue lashing one morning as Max proclaims, “You spent your time doing crossword puzzles! We took you into the butcher’s shop, you couldn’t even sweep the dust off the floor… I gave birth to three grown men! All on my own bat. What have you done?” (1. 661-663, 667-668). Max measures machismo by the ‘manly’ things he has done, while putting his brother down. The patriarch is brought to his knees by a woman’s presence. Ruth’s decision to stay with the family brings Max’s insecurities to the surface. He stammers about declaring, “I’m not such an old man… She’ll use us, she’ll make use of us, I can tell you! … I’m not an old man.” (2. 734, 744-745, 747). At the end of Act two, we find that Max is an impotent old man who receives little respect and is literally begging Ruth to acknowledge that he is still virile.
In contrast to Max, Teddy is powerful. He is a man of academia, high social status, and wealth. In act two Teddy boasts about his life in America, where he wants for nothing. To Max, he brags, “It’s a great life, at the University… you know…it’s a very good life. We’ve got a lovely house… we’ve got all… we’ve got everything we want.” (2. 122-124). Teddy holds a doctorate in the study of psychology, making him an expert in the subject. He uses his education to belittle his family members, stating how his field of expertise is way too advanced for their unschooled minds. In one conversation, Ruth asks if the family has read any of Teddy’s works, to which he replies: “You wouldn’t understand my works. You wouldn’t have the faintest idea of what they were about. You wouldn’t appreciate the points of reference. You’re way behind. All of you.” (2. 320-322). Teddy is self-important and speaks to his family as if they are all beneath him.
However, Teddy’s lack of sexual and physical strength is apparent when Ruth refuses to go to bed with him, dances with his brother in front of him, and when she engages in lustful acts with family members while he stands there and does nothing. Teddy tries to exert force with his wife when they arrive to the home; he tells her that she should sit but she does nothing; he tells her to come to bed, she would rather take a walk. He is unable to control Ruth’s actions. Upon arrival, there is banter about whether there is room for the couple, followed by a struggle for power. Teddy suggests that she head to bed, and the tussle commences:
TEDDY Why don’t you go to bed? I’ll find some sheets. I feel… wide awake, isn’t it odd? I’ll stay up for a bit. Aren’t you tired?
RUTH No.
TEDDY Go to bed. I’ll show you the room.
RUTH No. I don’t want to.
TEDDY You’ll be perfectly all right up there without me…. You… need some rest, you know…. (1. 305-312).
Teddy tries to control her movements in the home by trying to put Ruth to bed. She stands strong and ends up taking a walk, alone. What Teddy lacks in sexual and physical potency, his brother, Lenny makes up in braggadocio and intimidation.
Lenny seems to have the most power in the house, unlike his father and brother. Like his father, Lenny uses harsh language and threats of violence to prove he is strong. In Act one, Lenny berates his father, telling him to “Plug it, will you, you stupid sod.” (1. 33). Max argues that Lenny should leave the home, since he does not like how his father runs things. The argument begins with Lenny criticizing Max’s culinary skills, and he retorts: “If you don’t like it get out.” (1. 73). He is very disrespectful to Max and mocks his promise of viciousness by using a child-like voice to feign fearfulness. The exchange turns violent and almost comical as it goes on. Lenny agitates his father, beginning with the statement of going out to eat. Lenny dominates the conversation when he says:
LENNY I am going out. I’m going out to buy myself a proper dinner.
MAX Well get out! What are you waiting for?
LENNY What did you say?
MAX I said shove off out of it, that’s what I said.
LENNY You’ll go before me, Dad, if you talk to me in that tone of voice.
MAX Will I, you bitch? Max grips his stick
LENNY Oh, Daddy, you’re not going to use your stick on me, are you? Eh?
Don’t use your stick on me, Daddy. No, please. It wasn’t my fault, it was one
of the others. I haven’t done anything wrong, Dad, honest. Don’t clout me
with that stick, Dad. (1. 72-82).
The argument is futile; neither of the men are leaving the home because they are radically codependent. The men need one another to feel validated. The banter is followed with silence as Max sits back in his chair, taking no action. Lenny gains the upper hand.
Lenny exhibits his authority by trying to dominate Ruth through intimidation and force. To gauge how far he can go with Ruth, he recounts an encounter with a prostitute and the events that lead to him assaulting the woman. To further drive his point home, he states that he stopped short of killing the woman because he did not want to “…go to all the bother… you know, getting rid of the corpse and all that…” (1. 491-492). His story implies that he is a dangerous man and capable of murder. Additionally, he challenges Ruth by telling her when she has had enough to drink and taking the ashtray that is near away. Following another one of his tales, he says, “So, as I don’t believe you’re smoking at the moment, I’m sure you won’t object if I move the ashtray… And now perhaps I’ll relieve you of your glass.” (1. 545-548). Ruth, ever the rebel, does in fact, object to Lenny’s actions. Though he seems to have command, he is overtaken by Ruth’s feminine wiles.
In contrast to the men, Ruth absolutely has control of the house. Beginning with her entrance into the home, she makes it clear that she will not be retiring to the bedroom with her husband, and instead goes for a walk. During her first meeting with Lenny, the power struggle ends with a confused Lenny shouting after her. During the quibble over the glass and ashtray, Ruth assures Lenny that if he takes the glass, she’ll “take” him (1. 560). The statement is a double entendre, as it could mean that she would engage in fisticuffs, or that coitus may be involved. Ruth uses her sexual proficiency to bring the men to their knees. She teases Lenny during an exchange in the living room, where she tells him, “Why don’t I just take you?” (1. 562). She also agitates him by telling him to “have a sip… Have a sip from my glass. Sit on my lap. Take a long cool sip. Put your head back and open your mouth.” (1. 567-569). Lenny is left bewildered as he screams after her, “What was that supposed to be? Some kind of proposal?” (1. 574).
Ruth gains control of the home when she agrees to be the mother/whore. She establishes her role as leader when she sits in Max’s chair and demands specifics for her flat. Additionally, the play closes with the men at her feet, showcasing her position as the new queen of the castle. Although Ruth appears to rule the home at the end, by negotiating the terms of her prostitution, she is still objectified. Instituting herself as the head of the household is diminished because she is still, essentially, an object of desire.