Homecoming | Study Guide

Cynthia Voigt

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Course Hero, "Homecoming Study Guide," April 5, 2019, accessed July 29, 2021, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Homecoming/.

Homecoming | Themes

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Men and Women

The most prominent theme centers on the roles and interactions of men and women. The all-male household, presided over by patriarch and tyrant Max, is a study in dysfunctional masculinity. A retired butcher who brags of his macho youth and hurls insults at his brother and sons, Max sometimes resorts to physical aggression to assert his dominance. Max's attitudes toward women, including his deceased wife Jessie and his daughter-in-law Ruth, are based on their roles in relation to men and the family. Max frequently speaks of both women in derogatory terms—sluts and bitches—but dishes out praise for beauty, mothering, cooking ability, and other traditionally feminine traits. Of the men, he most fully embraces the expectation that women be both chaste and sexual—wives and mothers but also whores. He quizzes Ruth about whether she can cook and whether she is a mother but also refers to her as a tart and a whore. Max's sons embody other ways of being masculine. Lenny, the pimp, relishes his violent acts toward women, while Joey takes the part of the brute—athletic, unintelligent, and quick to satisfy his primal desires. He doesn't set out to harm women, but he doesn't listen when they say no to sex, either. As the least "masculine" of the men in the household, Sam endures constant ribbing from his brother, but given the failed masculinities of all the others, his ambivalent behavior as a man may even seem like a welcome change.

Into this hotbed of masculine vices and constant vying for a place in the pecking order comes Ruth. She is first viewed as a "tart" by the men in the household, before Teddy reveals she is his wife. As the play progresses, she is regarded as wife, mother, and lover ... and then again as whore. The constantly shifting roles Ruth fills are dictated in many ways by the needs of the men, especially Teddy's brothers, whose lives seem to have been marred by the lack of a woman's presence in their home. For Joey, who needs a mother more than a lover, Ruth becomes motherly—though her mothering is uncomfortably Freudian—stroking his hair even as they embrace and caress as lovers. For Lenny, she becomes a dominating seductress, based on sexual exploitation that she will not accept, to balance his own dominance toward women.

Power and Superiority

Linked to the theme of men and women is the theme of power and superiority. Before Ruth comes into the household, the power dynamics are shown to be a constant source of tension. Max, aging and physically weaker than he once was, is still the patriarch, but he feels his dominance in the family slipping. To compensate, he makes demands, picks fights, insults, sometimes becomes violent, and reminds everybody of how strong and virile he was in his youth. He refers frequently to his hardworking life as a bloodthirsty butcher, and, unlike Lenny, Joey, and Sam, he married and had male children. He trots these masculine credentials out to bolster his position and power in the family. Other kinds of power are displayed by or sought after by the other men. Lenny tells stories about his physical dominance and brutal treatment of women as he exerts his power over them. Joey trains as a boxer so he can physically dominate other men. Teddy's superiority is of the intellectual sort—he alone went on to higher education and believes himself superior because of his greater ability to observe situations without getting swept up in them. Sam, who has the least amount of power in the family, still brags about being the best chauffeur and, in the final scene, reveals a secret in a desperate attempt to make himself matter.

Ruth's authority, when she enters the house and begins to shake up its power structures, is primarily sexual. She makes overt advances toward her husband's two brothers and exerts her dominance over the men by seductively moving her leg as they watch, entranced. She does not simply seduce the men but remains in control of the sexual tension that forms among them. When Lenny first encounters her, she invites him onto her lap and then tells him to lie on the floor while she pours water down his throat. Used to being the aggressor in interactions with women, he is taken aback by how quickly she gains power in the situation. In her relationship with Joey, Ruth engages in "love play" but never gives him the satisfaction of intercourse—again establishing and maintaining her dominance of the sexual tension. Even when the family begins planning for her to become prostitute, housekeeper, and sex toy for their own use, she quickly turns the situation around, demanding a contract and a large flat of her own.

The final tableau is a picture of Ruth as the controlling power in the family. Max and Joey kneel at her feet as she sits, enthroned. Sam, who seems to have become irrelevant, is crumpled on the floor. Lenny stands by, a passive observer, perhaps the ultimate "Pinter pause," as Ruth dominates the scene.

Knowledge and Meaning

For all their one-upmanship, the characters lack real understanding of one another. Their conversations are studded with "Pinter pauses" and implications, and little is stated outright. This lack of connection among characters and between characters and the audience can leave audiences feeling as if they did not understand the real meaning of an interaction or of the entire play, nor are they sure what characters are implying. For example, in Act 1, Lenny asks Max if he was conceived intentionally or not and wants details about his conception. Max becomes angry. The interaction, coupled with the knowledge that Jessie, Max's wife, had an affair with Max's friend MacGregor, seems to suggest Lenny is not Max's son, but possibly MacGregor's. Is the paternity of all Max's sons in question, or just one? Is Lenny just giving his father a hard time, or does he really suspect he is not Max's biological son? Such questions are the subjects of various opinions that hang unresolved in the pauses.

The theme of knowledge and meaning is also developed through the conversation in which Lenny asks his brother Teddy—the philosophy professor—how one can give reverence to something he isn't sure exists (such as God) and notes that he and his drinking buddies sometimes wonder if, for example, a table is really a table. Though Teddy declines to answer, saying it isn't his specialty, Ruth moves her leg suggestively and notes that though this is just her leg moving, it may hold deeper meaning to the men observing it. The various ways a person can interpret words, silences, actions, and inactions is part of the way Pinter makes his audience question what is real, what can be known, and what something means in both physical and metaphysical senses.

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