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Harold Pinter's Traditional Views on Language and Communication

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The works of Harold Pinter question the traditional views of language and communication, asking the audience to reconsider the hierarchal relationship between speech/silence, presence/absence, and the role of each opposition in the struggle for power and dominance, whether in the context of class structure or gender. Is silence the absence of speech, what is truly present in vocal speech? In his essay “Language,” Martin Heidegger writes, “We are always speaking, even when we do not utter a single word” (187), silence is not a nothingness, lack, or absence; it speaks and communicates – leading to Pinter’s theory of “two silences.” The two categories of silence are:

One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it…The speech we hear is an indication of what we don’t hear. It is a necessary avoidance…When true silence falls we are still left with echo but are nearer nakedness (518). (footnote 1)

In this instance, vocalized speech becomes an evasion, an interruption, a repetition; a sign always referring to something else, deferring the presence of our true intention, with the hope of leading astray – it is silence. What is true silence? Pinter disagrees with his work being a “failure of communication” – silence interpreted as an alienated, broken void – “I think we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid…Communication is too alarming…To disclose to others the poverty inside of us is too fearsome a possibility” (15); true silence is like an exposed, gaping wound. Language is both weapon and shield in a battle of dominance and subservience; there is an attack, a retreat, an evasion, and the unanswered question – resulting in a silence of rejection or bafflement.

In Homecoming (1965), the battle is between the mental and physical, including the power struggle between men and women. Matters of power and control begin in the opening of the first act between Max and Lenny, father and son; introducing the overwhelming physical inclinations of the family. Max asks Lenny, “What have you done with the scissors?” (520), and there is no reply, just a silence of rejection and dismissal. Max reveals he wants to cut something out of the newspaper, and then Lenny finally responds, “I’m reading the paper” (520) – a short declarative statement, saying more than his words disclose. The paper could be any object, and the scissors as well; the surface of the dialogue is absurd. Beneath the language is a territorial, very instinctive, power struggle over the role of alpha male. The situation escalates, Max yells, “Do you hear what I’m saying? I’m talking to you?” (520), and quietly, in opposition to Max’s anxiousness, Lenny calmly asks, “Why don’t you shut up, you daft prat?” (520). Max’s following tirade is interrupted only with a dismissive insult, “Plug it will you, you stupid sod, I’m trying to read the paper” (521), and ended with Lenny’s sarcasm, “Oh, Daddy, you’re not going to use your stick on me, are you?” (521). Max sits hunched, retreating into silence, as Lenny wins, perhaps not the first time. The episode between Max and Lenny sets the mood for the introduction of Teddy and Ruth.

When Teddy and Ruth enter the house, they begin a small argument paralleling the one between Max and Lenny, over who will go to bed and when. Teddy first tells Ruth she should go upstairs and get some rest; however, Ruth responds with a clear refusal, “No, I don’t want to” (525). Ruth turns the conversation, gains control, and Teddy ends up being the one going upstairs to bed – the physical wins over the mental. After Teddy exits, Ruth and Lenny meet for the first time, a meeting fueled with sexual innuendo, allusions to physical violence, bafflement, and beneath the silence, a layer of tension; Lenny meets his match. Lenny, after ignoring the numerous mentions of Ruth’s marriage to Teddy, asks for “Just a touch…Just a tickle” (528) of her hand – his first move and intention is physical. Ruth disrupts his play for power with a simple, “Why?” throwing him astray. His response is a short anecdote about a diseased hooker he slapped around and thought of killing. Ruth responds to the tale, “How did you know she was diseased?” (528). It is an odd, unexpected reaction, bewildering Lenny; stunning him into silence to regain his comportment (His next story will be even more violent than the first). Ruth leaves Lenny completely vulnerable after calling him by the name his mother gave him, and with her remark over a glass near an ashtray, after Lenny insists of “relieving” her of it, “If you take the glass…I’ll take you. (Pause.) …Why don’t I just take you?” (529). Lenny can only respond with “You’re joking…What was that supposed to be? Some kind of proposal?” (529), followed by a defeat in silence. After this incident, Ruth becomes a woman of “proposals,” a wife, and mother, what is Ruth supposed to represent?

Ruth first appears to represent the limited feminine role in the patriarchy: either the maternal Madonna or the erotic whore, but Pinter will later question the limitation. Max refers to his dead wife as either a “slutbitch” or the “backbone to this family” (533), switching her role throughout the play. This is Ruth’s “homecoming,” and the question is how will she overcome such pigeonholing? Can she? Max and his son’s expectations are made clear, as Joey proclaims, “Christ, she’s wide open…She’s a tart” (537), and Lenny’s idea to put her to the streets, in order to make some income while living with the family; to some extent she must be a whore, a slut. In opposition, in the final scene, Ruth, like a maternal Madonna figure, sits in a chair – after questioning the boys’ masculinity, “Rocks, What you know about rocks?” (538) – with Joey’s head in her lap, and Max on his knees, whimpering, “She won’t be adaptable!” (545).

What should be made between these two opposite impressions? A possibility is Ruth’s movement into power was hidden, and made possible, by a distraction, like the distraction of underwear shown by the movement of her leg, or the distraction of words passing through lips, leading to misconception and misinterpretation. Her mimicry and mimesis of the “whore” role allowed her to silently slip into the position of a powerful, maternal figure; the attention and significance should have gone to the movement itself, instead of the decorative diversion.

Footnotes:

1) Ruth’s revelation is a good example, making clear Pinter’s intentions:

“Look at me. I…move my leg. That’s all it is. But I wear… underwear…which moves with me…it…captures your attention. Perhaps you misinterpret. The action is simple. It’s a leg…moving. My lips move. Why don’t you restrict…your observations to that? Perhaps the fact that they move is more significant…than the words which come through them” (535).

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. “Language.” Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstader. New York: HarperCollins, 1971. 187-208.

Pinter, Harold. “Homecoming.” Modern and Contemporary Drama. Ed. Miriam Gilbert, Carl H. Klaus, Bradford S. Field, Jr. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1994. 517-551.

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Harold Pinter’s Traditional Views on Language and Communication. (2018, November 05). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 29, 2022, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/perhaps-the-fact-that-they-move-is-more-significant-the-mother-and-whore-in-pinters-homecoming/
“Harold Pinter’s Traditional Views on Language and Communication.” GradesFixer, 05 Nov. 2018, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/perhaps-the-fact-that-they-move-is-more-significant-the-mother-and-whore-in-pinters-homecoming/
Harold Pinter’s Traditional Views on Language and Communication. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/perhaps-the-fact-that-they-move-is-more-significant-the-mother-and-whore-in-pinters-homecoming/> [Accessed 29 Sept. 2022].
Harold Pinter’s Traditional Views on Language and Communication [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 Nov 05 [cited 2022 Sept 29]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/perhaps-the-fact-that-they-move-is-more-significant-the-mother-and-whore-in-pinters-homecoming/
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