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Harold Pinter's The Caretaker


The Caretaker and individuality: Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker is an ideal play to study the I. It is largely about the need for and fear of three characters – two brothers (Aston and Mick) and a tramp called Davies – that their I may be recognised.

Initially, the attempt at recognizing the I takes place between Aston, who’s undergone psychiatric treatment for being different from other people, and Davies, a tramp Aston invites to share his flat with. Throughout the different stages of the play we follow their attempts at disclosing and/or hiding their I: we learn that Aston’s I was different from other people’s, that he underwent psychiatric treatment as a result of communicating that difference in the past, and that at present he is trying to establish an I-you relationship with Davies. We also learn that this relationship does not work because Davies neither knows nor wants to know himself.

In this sense, the tension which surrounds the disclosure of the individuality of each of the characters is present in the text. And yet, when we actually analyse the language used by the different characters, the I and the you dwindle to the different dimensions of otherness advocated by St Augustine, or the yearnings and fears theorized by Riemann.

Aston and metaphysics: Aston’s difference from other people is expressed in terms of metaphysics:

The trouble was, I used to have kind of hallucinations. They weren’t hallucinations, they … I used to get the feeling I could see things … very clearly … everything … was so clear … everything used … everything used to get every quiet … everything got very quiet … all this quiet … and … this clear sight … it was … but maybe I was wrong. (1967: 55)

Metaphysics is invoked here by placing Aston’s difference beyond reality, as it is both outside (“hallucinations”) and too much inside to be tied to material reality (the ultrarealistic clarity and quietness of things). The slowing down of Aston’s speech as clarity and quietness increase also gives an intimation of eternity which enhances the metaphysical quality of the quote.

Davies and society: Davies’s I, or rather his lack of I, is on the other hand clearly expressed in social terms. His half-hearted attempts to go down to Sidcup to get his papers express not so much his I, as the social recognition this I yearns for. Whatever Davies’s identity really is cannot be expressed. His I merely points in the direction of society where Aston’s I points in the direction of metaphysics.

Mick and change, Aston and eternity: The other possibility of disclosure of the I radiates out from Mick towards Aston and Davies. On the one hand we can see that most of the times Mick’s I plays hard to get; it hides behind the ironies and fibs he lavishes on Davies (Mick does not like Davies very much). However, his desperate attempt to do something profitable with Aston’s room culminates in a furious outcry which may well reveal something about that I:

Anyone would think this house was all I got to worry about. I got plenty of other things I can worry about. I’ve got other things. I’ve got plenty of other interests. I’ve got my own business to build up, haven’t I? I got to think about expanding…in all directions. I don’t stand still. I’m moving about, all the time. I’m moving…all the time. (1967: 74)

Whether Mick really does or only feels what he says here is beside the point. What’s important is that in his variety of interests, the business he wants to build up, and his relentless and aimless movement and expansion he expresses one of the yearnings of Riemann, that of constant change, which curiously opposes not only the pervasive feeling of stagnation of the play, but also the identification of Aston to eternity via metaphysics.

Conclusion: It is then these dimensions of being which structure the relationship between the three characters. Whatever else is left of an I cannot really be expressed in meaningful language. And yet, that inexpressible still takes place in The Caretaker, as when Mick and Aston “look at each other. Both are smiling, faintly” (1967: 75). There is an I definitely reciprocating a you here, there seems to be care, possibly love involved in this mutual smile. What really makes this action a unique action between unique individuals cannot, however, be said.

work cited

Pinter, Harold. The Caretaker. London: Methuen, 1967.

daniel.candel@uah.es | ©2008 Daniel Candel Bormann