“She’s in a kind of despair that gives her a kind of freedom. Certain facts, like marriage and family have clearly ceased to have meaning” – Harold Pinter on Ruth (Prentice, 463)
One of the most confusing things about The Homecoming is the character Ruth, so I wanted to spend one post discussing possible interpretations of her motivations and actions. Ruth is a character who is hard to understand, because of both her silence and her ability to dominate the rest. When Ruth is first introduced she is very still and quiet and she only responds in short phrases. But then she switches abruptly into a much more aggressive role and shows how she is able to dominate the family (Free, 3). This makes her a very confusing character for audiences to understand. Her choices can be shocking and seemingly inexplicable, particularly her choice at the end to stay in England and not return to her family.
Even the other characters in the play seem to find it difficult to understand her (Prentice, 500). Her husband Teddy demonstrates this in their first scene together when Ruth says she is not cold he offers to make her a hot drink, and when Ruth says she is not tired he tells her to go to bed. When Ruth meets Lenny, she has to tell him twice that she is married to Teddy, when he says “you must be connected to my brother in some way”, she responds with “I am his wife” (743), then again when he asks “What, you sort of live with him over there?” she has to say “We’re married” (744). Lenny then tries to dominate her by telling stories about women he has beaten as a kind of disguised threat and he tries to take away her glass, but she defends herself: “If you take the glass…I’ll take you” (746), leaving him confused.
Ruth is the only female character who appears on stage, but there are obvious parallels made between Ruth and Jessie, Max’s wife and the mother of Teddy, Lenny and Joey, who is dead. Max says to Ruth “Listen, I’ll tell you something. Since poor Jessie died, eh, Sam? We haven’t had a woman in the house. Not one. Inside this house. And I’ll tell you why. Because their mother’s image was so dear any other woman would have…tarnished it. But you…Ruth…you’re not only lovely and beautiful, but you’re kin. You’re kith. You belong here” (761), which suggests how Ruth is being seen as the replacement for Jessie.
Jessie is described in contradictory ways which place her in the roles of wife, mother and prostitute. One moment she is described as “not such a bad woman” (736), a “charming woman” (739), who “taught the boys everything they know…taught them all the morality they know” (750) and who was “the backbone of the family” (750) with “ a will of iron, a heart of gold and a mind” (750). Then the next moment: “it made me sick just to look at her face”(736) and she is called a “slutbitch of a wife”. It appears that Ruth is meant to replace Jessie for these men, as they see her in the roles of mother, wife and prostitute.
Ruth begins the play confined in the roles of mother and wife in her life with Teddy in America (Ganz, 185). Teddy says “She’s a great help to me over there. She’s a wonderful wife and mother”(752) and “It’s a very good life. We’ve got lot a lovely house…we’ve got it all…we’ve got everything we want” (752) but when Ruth speaks about America her experience seems to be very different. She says “…six years ago I went to America. (Pause.) It’s all rock. And sand. It stretches…so far…everywhere you look. And there’s lots of insects there (Pause.) And there’s lots of insects there” (753). Ruth describes America as though she was living in some kind of desert or wasteland surrounded by insects and not people, a view which contrasts from the perfect image her husband presented (Free, 3). This helps to set up her decision to stay in England at the end of the play because she does seem to be unhappy (Ganz, 185). Also in Ruth’s scene with Lenny earlier where she asserts her dominance over him with the glass, she says “Oh, I was thirsty” which again suggests her unhappiness and lack of fulfillment with her life in America with her husband, and how she is now feeling much more fulfilled in England, giving into the physical, violent, sexual impulses that seem to drive this family (Ganz, 186). Her most confusing actions are her kiss and dance with Lenny, when she embraces and rolls off the couch with Joey, and the two hours she spends with Joey upstairs, as well as her decision to not go back with her husband.
However, some rationalize this behavior by pointing to evidence in the play that Ruth was a prostitute in England before she married Teddy and moved to America with him. Ruth does say “I was …different…when I met Teddy…first.”(752) and speaks with nostalgia about before she had her children when she was “a model for the body” (754), about how she was “born quite near here” (755), and the slow way she tends to speak is interpreted as being because she has a secret (Prentice, 462). If we accept this reading then the play is actually representing her homecoming, not Teddy’s, because of her choice at the end which is her “coming home to her former self” (Prentice, 458) and letting go of the old one. When Ruth says goodbye to her husband, she calls him Eddie suggesting how she is already willing to forget him and move on (Ganz, 187).
There is also some ambiguity in the ending as to whether or not Ruth will actually stay with the family and fill the role of mother and prostitute (Prentice, 459). In her negotiations she gives no real commitments, she says things like “I would want”, “I would need” and “you would have to” and the closest she comes to actually agreeing is when she says “It might be a workable arrangement”(762) and “it sounds like an attractive idea” (763). Ruth also chooses not to shake on it then, but to “leave it till later” (763). At the end of the play Pinter says “she is in possession of a kind of freedom” (Prentice, 458).
Ruth is an ambiguous character, who is able to silently wait and then assert her dominance and power over this family, and escape a life where she was unhappy for one where she was more in control and possesses agency. The men in the play try to possess her and place her into roles, but they all fail (Coe, 493). Lenny can’t intimidate her, Joey can’t go “whole hog” with her, Teddy can’t make her leave, Max is left begging her for a kiss at the end of the play, and while they may think they have convinced her to do what they want, it certainly appears as though she has the upper hand.
Black, Joseph. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Twentieth Century and Beyond. Toronto: Broadview, 2006. Print.
Coe, Richard M. “Logic, Paradox, and Pinter’s “Homecoming”” The Johns Hopkins University Press 27.4 (Dec. 1975): 488-97. JSTOR. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.
Free, William J. “Treatment of Character in Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming”” South Atlantic Bulletin 34.4 (Nov. 1969): 1-5. JSTOR. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.
Ganz, Arthur. “A Clue to the Pinter Puzzle: The Triple Self in “The Homecoming”” The Johns Hopkins University Press 21.2 (May 1969): 180-87. JSTOR. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.
Prentice, Penelope. “Ruth: Pinter’s The Homecoming Revisited.” Twentieth Century Literature 26.4 (Winter 1980): 458-78. JSTOR. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.