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The Birthday Party. Q. “In The Birthday Party , although the men are disagreeable, the women are even less likeable than the men.” How far would you agree with this comment on the portrayal of women in the play?. Analyse the quote – what are the key words?
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Q. “In The Birthday Party, although the men are disagreeable, the women are even less likeable than the men.” • How far would you agree with this comment on the portrayal of women in the play?
Analyse the quote – what are the key words? • Clarify the key words: ‘disagreeable’, ‘likeable’, ‘how far…’, ‘portrayal of women’. Expectations: Comparison is required. Select the relevant sections from all 3 acts. Construct a clear thesis and line of argument. Not necessary to go through the text chronologically. Develop your arguments with appropriate reference to the text and analysis of text. => provide good substantiation of your arguments.
Possible Points/arguments • None of the characters (men & women) are particularly attractive or sympathetic. All the characters are flawed and reveal weaknesses that are distasteful. Eg Stanley is no hero. Although presented as non-conformist, a ‘rebel’, the only acts of ‘rebellion’ we see on stage are quite trivial (eg being unshaven, ‘hiding’ away) and seen against the backdrop of his cowardice and fears. His real crime is left ambiguous. • His behaviour towards Meg seems quite unneccesarily cruel at times. Give eg.
The 2 female characters: Meg, elderly landlady and Lulu - sexy girl next door - have subsidiary roles in the play and are presented in an unfavorable light too. Furthermore, they are also presented as ridiculous and this strips them of any human dignity or respect. • Meg’s bovine intelligence makes her a constant figure of fun. Whilst Lulu’s presentation as a ‘party girl’ makes her ridiculous as well. Her attraction to older men, makes her a Meg in reverse ‘I’ve always liked older men, they can soothe you.’ pg 60.
Portrait of Meg is nothing more than a collection of all those traits that diminish a woman in the eyes of men. • Her most prominent feature is that of an oppressive wife and mother. • Note the way she is presented/introduced to us. • Play opens in a conjugal scene with a tiresome, talkative wife ‘dotes’ over a bored, monosyllabic wife. Meg is presented in her serving role which reflects her subordination to Petey. • BUT it also implies her impt position as the indispensable nourisher of men – the mother figure – which gives her a kind of power over him. Meg exerts this power over Petey by invading his privacy and pestering him with trivial questions. • As a result she is extremely unpleasant and tiresome and Petey can barely refrain from falling into complete silence.
Meg also tries to dominate Stanley in the same way she does Petey but with less success as he resists her questions and asserts his independence by criticizing her. • Petey leaves turning a deaf ear to Meg’s instructions and thus avoids her domination. Stanley remains to taunt Meg and enter into childish mind games with her. • In an amusing episode, the word ‘succulent’ used innocently to describe ‘fried bread’ – becomes a potential sign of abuse in meg’s repressed feminine mind/consciousness. • Meg is tempted into expressing her sexuality and attraction to Stan, exhibiting an erotic nature which she had earlier tried to suppress with her ‘horror’ & indignation. ‘You’re bad’ pg 17. • Meg loses the authority of a surrogate mother over Stanley when she does this. • The 2 men have her at their mercy. (??)
Critic Martin Esslin: refers contemptuously to meg’s ‘senile eroticism’. • Meg’s actual presentation as mother and whore/flirt at the same time, puts her at a disadvantage. Tainting her relationship with her lodger with quasi-incestuous desires => makes her a more repellant figure than any of the male characters. • In the rest of the play, the feminine is seen in continuous decline as more unflattering features are accumulated around Meg: coquetry, vanity, naïve credulity.
Goldberg(GB) knows how to manipulate her and put her out of the way by exploiting her feminine vanity. As a man of the world, he puts up a show of gallantry and employs totally trivial and unconvincing flatteries:- praising her dress, calling her a tulip – all to gain her confidence. • Till the end of the play, Meg is living the spell of a dream in which she is the ‘belle’ of the ball – an illusion manufactured by GB and readily endorsed by her. • End of play shows her to be an empty headed woman – over credulous and easily deceived, living silly delusions and unable to suspect the sinister game played right in front of her at her house. (c/r lulu who is more aware ‘I know what’s going on. I have a pretty shrewd idea’ pg 81
(because of the suggestion of incest) Maternity in her person is not only demystified by being stripped of authority and respect but it is also degraded by being exposed as an utterly hollow emptiness marred by selfish needs and stupidity. • Meg’s idiocy is also exposed when she is easy prey/victim for another of Stan’s playful, but sadistic mind games
Stan’s mock terrorization of Meg with the story of arrest and the wheelbarrow is the precursor of the brainwashing done to him. • Meg in this scene develops an unaccountably guilty conscience, is terrified out of her wits => she seems to have naively and stupidly internalized her lodger’s fears of persecution and insecurity. • Stanley’s fears are and guilt appear justified though not clarified – he’s in hiding. BUT Meg’s fears are unfounded. Apparently unmotivated. She seems to have no distinct personality boundaries – she is confusing her identity with Stan at this point. • Her quasi-existential anxiety is a mere parody of Stan’s grave situation. Meg is never conscious of the strangers’ manipulation. Stan is a tragic figure. Meg is only a cartoon.
Pinter admits to modeling Meg on an awful landlady – he dislikes her whilst having sympathy for his male characters. • The play falls easily within stereotypes – the weak oppressed husband, the over-mothered son and the silly oppressive wife. The father and son are victims; their weaknesses render them sympathetic but Meg’s stifling motherliness overshadows the more positive aspects of her personality. • Petey’s affection for Stan is seen as a natural paternalistic concern for the younger man BUT Meg’s is tainted with incestuous desires. • Also the men’s weakness can be psychologically interpreted as the result of Meg’s being the archetypal Great mother figure whose negative aspect – the terrible Mother generates paralyzing fear in the males related to her.
Meg’s relationship with Stan acquires unmistakable archetypal and mythical dimensions and becomes dangerous in Act 2. • In the surrealistic scene, when Stan tries to strangle her and rape Lulu, his undisguised aggression and unmotivated violence suggest their transformation (Meg and Lulu) into threatening symbols of femininity. Like a ancient ritual in which the female danger must be exorcised. (like severing the umbilical cord) • His sudden hallucination is placed within the vast existential ordeal to which he is subject. It is a small part of his existential plight. His emasculation by a female figure is fear rather than fact. (from critic Elizabeth Sakellaridou) • This scene confirm Meg’s presentation as the terrible mother figure.
She is not presented as a 3 dimensional figure with full complex psychology. • Meg’s voicing of her past :- ‘My little room…colours’ – true or fabricated, this speech allows her to voice her longings. Yet this speech is never developed into any significant discovery into her psyche. • The other characters show no inclination to perceive her any differently. Her portrayal is still archetypal and it often projects the masculine values in disguised form. Eg her preference for a boy child. Female wish ironically expresses the principle of male superiority which is a masculine value. => which she has internalized. • Meg is unable to understand or define herself at the conscious level. Whatever happens to her is automatic and unconscious.
Most critics see meg in relation to Stan and in the light of a morbid mother-son relationship. • They talk of her thwarted maternity, crushing motherliness and senile sexuality; foolish and disgusting infatuation with her lodger. She is the ‘universal clinging infantilizing seductive mother – who produces the Stanleys of this world. • From her Stan only gets illicit pleasure, infinite mollycoddling, meanness and poverty of mind and emotion. • Such interpretations only see meg in relation to Stan or other men only while ignoring her existence as an autonomous character/being.
Still the play does not encourage us to see Meg as a complex individual. There is little ambiguity and she is a rather flat 1 dimensional character that is easily understood and read in the world of the play. Together with Petey, they are the stereotypical long married, bored with each other couple. In terms of the home or family relationships, Meg is the one who is blamed primarily for its dysfunction. Petey is the absent but benevolent presence. Critics see him as a long suffering husband indulgent to wife with genuine affection for Stanley. • Any sympathy she might awaken is weak and incidental. • Counterargument: recent more up to date theories of feminine psychology see Meg as the female product of a decline in paternal power as a result of the absent father syndrome which causes – over-protectiveness, maternal ambivalence and seductivenenss
In the light of such theories, Meg’s state of mind and behaviour could be interpreted more leniently and the oppressive mother is seen as a suffering person herself. Eg her blind almost obsessive attachment to Stan can be justified on a realistic level as a result of the sterility of her own marriage. The neglect of her husband could account for her pressing need for a lover. Also her incessant questions on the quality of her cooking and standard of her boarding house can be explained as not her anxiety to serve men but inner need to prove her worth and justify her existence. • BUT Meg seems too silly and unaware to have such deeper psychological needs. Her personality seems shallow – exactly what is appears to be.
In the male characters, there is no distinction btw good and bad weak and strong, victims and victimizers. There are always redeeming features for their cardinal and petty vices – arrogance, brutality, selfishness and cowardice which render them almost sympathetic in their vulnerability. • This sympathetic attention is not paid to the women. No extenuating features are provided for Meg’s behaviour. Her defects are seen in connection to their harmful influences on the males. Never in relation to her personal situation and the ensuing problems for herself.
Lulu • Lulu is also treated unfavorably. She undermines the feminine in the play further. She is the typical young, provocative, empty-headed female, sex object with no real personality and no sense of responsibility. She willingly lends herself to GB and then poses as a victim of male lasciviousness and bestiality. • She has been called ‘ a passing tart’, ‘fluff, promiscuous, nymphomaniac etc.’ she is Meg’s double in silliness and sluttish ness. Film version, Pinter omitted her last scene with GB. • A few critics see more in her: she is the buxom lady who represents the life force in its clearest manifestation in the play.’ – her essential vitality contrast agst Stan’s inertia and passiveness. But her enthusiasm is connected with frivolity rather than inner vigour. She is also empty headed. • She typifies the view that women’s biological fucntions block her mental development and threaten that of the males.
Other women • Only respectable females are in GB’s mind – his nebulous mother, fictitious Girlfriend and mythical wife. His chaste stories and maudlin recollections clash openly with his brutality - very suspect.
In summary • There is consistent distrust and debasement of female figures whereas male figs preserve a sort of dignity. Meg is ridiculed and used by all and too idiotic to know it. Lulu is used by GB and then scared off. Men are never treated so humiliatingly, there is violence btw them but no mocking contempt. Men are taken seriously but women don’t count. • Meg proves as redundant and useless as Lulu. Business will be conducted by men the hero-victim is a man, even the benevolent vigilant eye Petey is male too. • Women are marginal and secondary never fully rounded personalities always defined by their relation to men as mother-whore and never having any extra-domestic activities or interests whatever. Only males have social functions and wider interests. Eg Stan is an artist engaged in an existential quest. GB narrates his rich exps in the world. Petey has an occupation outside the home and enjoys the company of other men BUT Meg is confined to her home (except when shopping) and Lulu to her sexuality.
NOTE: • You’ll be glad to know that in Pinter’s later plays, he is much kinder to his female characters.