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The Dumb Waiter | Study Guide

Harold Pinter

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The Dumb Waiter | Symbols


The Dumbwaiter

The dumbwaiter represents the power of authority and the difficulties of communication. The dumbwaiter Ben and Gus use is a small elevator used to move objects between floors in a building. Even though it is just a household fixture, it becomes as forceful as a third human character.

The men's response to the dumbwaiter shows how easily authority figures can intimidate and terrify others. The noise of the dumbwaiter intrudes on Ben and Gus's dialogue. It delivers food orders on pieces of paper without explanation. Ben and Gus think the dumbwaiter, or whoever controls the dumbwaiter, simply assumes the two men will fulfill the requests. The absence of explanation makes the men's task more frightening. What are the consequences for sending up the wrong thing? They're never sure. Each time the dumbwaiter drops with new, mysterious contents, the atmosphere gains tension. Gus looks up the elevator's hatch, trying to solve the mystery. But there's no solution to be found.

The dumbwaiter facilitates deliveries between people who can't see one another. In the play the physical distance between floors leads to a breakdown in understanding. Ben and Gus see the orders the dumbwaiter sends, but they can't ask for clarification. Even when they get access to a speaking tube, they still can't communicate their situation clearly or comprehend what's required of them. Ben and Gus aren't cooks; they didn't expect this job. They're operating with a different set of expectations than the invisible people upstairs, making true understanding impossible.

The Newspaper

The newspaper represents knowledge and access to information. Whoever has the newspaper knows what's going on in the world. It's a portal of knowledge for both the characters and the audience. Ben and Gus are killers, but they never kill anyone onstage. The deaths in the paper, however, are described in detail. The gruesomeness of the newspaper stories—about freak accidents happening to ordinary people—disturbs both men. They realize how violence can affect people.

Gus seems to make a connection between the stories of faraway deaths and his own work. While the men spend most of their work in the dark, unsure where they are, the newspaper stories bring knowledge into the light. But this knowledge hinders Gus more than it helps him. He starts thinking about the implications of the murders he commits, and he grows more uneasy. Harold Pinter shows how ignorance and knowledge can handicap people in different ways.


The matches represent powerlessness in the face of larger forces. Gus wants to use the matches as a tool to help him—he wants to make tea. Matches briefly give him an illusion of power. But he's thwarted when the building's gas is turned off.

When Gus realizes whoever sent the matches must have known the men couldn't use them, he senses a more sinister agenda at work. Gus suspects the matches were a sign or signal from Wilson, the mysterious supervisor. But the men can't interpret the signal. Their confusion reveals Ben and Gus are pawns in a game they don't understand. Gus senses danger, and the matches make him demand answers he'll never get.

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