The Caretaker | Study Guide

Harold Pinter

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The Caretaker | Themes

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Harold Pinter is known for his creative use of dialogue and reveals themes through the dialogue between his characters. He explores the themes of power, loneliness, and communication through the ways the characters interact in The Caretaker.

Power

Power is a recurring theme. Each of the characters seeks power in his own way. Davies criticizes and attempts to manipulate others to feel a sense of power. Initially he is involved in a tavern dispute because he is offended when a younger coworker asks him to take out the trash. He is angry that someone who is not his boss asks him to do something, and in an attempt to regain control he provokes a fight with him. Davies seeks power rather than resolution, so he responds with anger. Davies also seeks power through his prejudices toward blacks and other nationalities. He interprets their very presence as a deliberate attack on him and asserts that "All them Blacks had it, Blacks, Greeks, Poles, the lot of them, that's what, doing me out of a seat, treating me like dirt." Because he has a need for power, he assumes others do as well and interacts with the world accordingly. Davies can have power or be a victim. Davies is so focused on defending his so-called rights that he does not use the control that he has. He makes excuses as to why he cannot go to Sidcup. In the meantime he uses his energy to secure a place for himself by turning one brother against the other. Davies fights for power over others, but he is least powerful over himself.

Aston has been stripped of power as a result of the shock treatments administered when he was young. He no longer has the ability to think clearly and maintain focus. He does not work and is dependent on his brother for a place to live. Aston no longer socializes because he believes that the oversharing of personal details led to his hospitalization. His mother exercised power over Aston when she signed the forms that authorized the shock treatments. Aston gains power through limiting his contact with people and controlling his voice. He fills his world with objects such as items to use for his shed, papers, buckets, and a Buddha statue. He is attached to items because they will not betray him. In some ways Aston has power over Davies though Davies would not agree. Regardless of Davies's ranting, Aston knows that Davies is at his mercy, and he could let him go at any time. However, Aston gets in his own way much like Davies. He says that before he can do anything else he must build his shed. The shed may not ever be built. Aston protects himself from interacting with society to give himself a sense of control.

Mick appears to have the most power of the characters, yet upon closer examination he does not. He owns the home where his brother is staying. He is clearly able to intimidate Davies with his erratic ways. Mick gains power over others through being aggressive and unpredictable. He is clever and enjoys watching Davies squirm. Mick does not display this behavior with his brother Aston. Instead he seems to avoid being around him which results in little interaction between them. It is possible that Mick has little control over his impulsivity, and what appears to be power over others is really a lack of self-control. Mick and Davies flex their muscles often, but perhaps it is Aston who is really in control with his quiet strength.

Loneliness

When Pinter was forced to evacuate London as a young boy, he suffered terrible loneliness. This experience had a lasting impact. He found value in connections and developed lifelong friendships. Pinter brought this understanding of loneliness to his characters in a number of his writings as he does in The Caretaker.

Aston spends most of his time alone and busies himself with fixing a plug and shopping for a jigsaw. He brings a stranger into his home on a whim and seems to find joy in providing for him. He listens patiently while Davies complains about the draught, his shoes, and the stove. Aston smiles at Davies before he wakes him. He shares his deepest pain with someone he barely knows. Aston's world is small, and he fills it with items he collects from different places. Aston experiences loneliness because of the shock treatments that limit his ability to connect with people. He wishes to connect with others, but fear and mistrust prevent it. Instead he retreats into the world he has created in his room and the plans that will happen once he has fixed the plug and built the shed.

Davies experiences loneliness because he has no true identity. He has no connections with family members. He does not have a home. When asked about his heritage he is at first vague and then emphatic which raises questions about his honesty. His belligerent demeanor keeps potential friends away. Davies does not even use a real name. He does not have a realistic view of himself, and he takes tremendous offense to being told that he "stinks." Davies readily accepts Aston's invitation into his home and almost immediately strategizes to secure his place there. Unfortunately, Davies desperately tries to connect in ways that ultimately drive others away. His boastful comments that are intended to foster acceptance instead guarantee his seclusion.

Communication

An inability to communicate effectively is prevalent throughout the play. While Aston and Mick show loyalty to each other, they do not share much. Aston does not ask Mick about bringing Davies into the home. In fact, the two men never have a discussion about Davies. Each man asks Davies to be a caretaker of the home, supposedly without the other's knowledge. It is possible, however, that more is understood between Aston and Mick than there appears to be. Both men smile at each other just before Davies is forced to leave. The characters' entrances and exits seem to be timed perfectly with the drama with Davies.

Both Aston and Mick share personal information with Davies. This is unusual given that they barely know him. Aston shares the horrific story of his hospitalization, while Mick shares his worries about his brother. It appears that neither Aston nor Mick share their feelings with each other. As a listener Davies attends with opportunistic ears. He later uses Aston's confession as a weapon to angrily expel Aston from his home. Rather than show compassion for Mick's worries, Davies mistakenly begins to add his own criticisms of Aston. He thinks that he and Mick are now a team and will force Aston to the sidelines. However, the family bond is strong, and when Davies tries to come between the brothers they throw him out. Communication is also about listening, and if Davies had listened to his common sense he may have still had a place to stay.

Aston and Mick use the word "stink" as a verbal weapon against Davies. Davies brags about his hygiene and claims "I'm clean. I keep myself up. That's why I left my wife." However, Davies is odorous which is why he is so defensive about it. Davies complains about the window being left open in the room, and it seems that perhaps it is open to offset the smell. Aston is polite and simply insists on keeping it open. He does not say anything to make Davies uncomfortable. Later, though, after Davies lashes out at him, Aston says, "You've no reason to call that shed stinking. You stink." This infuriates Davies enough for him to pull a knife on Aston and say, "I'll stink you!" The comedic element continues when Davies tells Mick about the confrontation, and Mick finally confirms what Davies already knows. This use of the word "stink" is childish, and the image of three grown men using the word to hurt one another is funny as it reveals the immature and ineffective way in which they communicate.

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