Numerous critics have said that much of the action of “The Caretaker” by Harold Pinter is dominated by the characters’ struggle for power over one another. As Michael Billington remarked in his book “The Life and Work of Harold Pinter”, “Power is the theme: dominate or be dominated.” Pinter shows, Billington continued, “That life is a series of negotiations for advantage in which everything comes into play.” Indeed, in “The Caretaker”, this often seems to be the case. Davies tries to play Aston and Mick against each other as he struggles to establish a foothold in the room. Mick maintains power over Davies by physical as well as verbal assaults. And at the end of the play, Aston exerts his power by forcing Davies to leave; the struggle for power is a dominant theme in the play.
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On the other hand, Mick does have at least some feeling, even if only a sense of obligation, for his brother and is, in fact, taking care of at least some of Aston’s needs by allowing him to stay in the room. Although he expresses anger at his brother when he breaks the Buddha against the stove, although he tells Davies that Aston’s trouble is that he does not want to work, Mick does defend Aston against Davies’s cruel remarks – and he allows Aston to stay in the room. The desire for power motivates him but it is not his only motivation. Nonetheless, it does seem fair to consider the desire for power as a primary motivation for both Davies and Mick.
While Davies and Mick are dominated by their own drives for power, to suggest quite the same of Aston is to simplify his character as well as the play as a whole. Aston’s attempts to care for Davies and to talk to him seem motivated, at least in part, by kindness and concern for the tramp. On the other hand, it is hard to see Aston as motivated entirely by altruism. Indeed, one could argue that Aston is kind to Davies because he wants to control him, because he wants to meet his own needs and thus is as motivated by power as are Davies and Mick.
In truth, neither interpretation of Aston’s character captures the whole man. Aston does make an effort to meet his own needs but not in a cynical search for power. What Aston truly desires throughout most of the play is real contact with another human being. It is only when his efforts at connection fail that Aston exerts simple power over Davies.
In Act I, after the opening scene in which Mick looks about the dismal room, then leaves, Aston comes onstage followed by Davies. Upon entering the room, Davies begins to speak of the encounter that led Aston to bring him home. Davies was involved in some sort of scuffle at the restaurant where he was working, and Aston saw a man “have a go” at Davies. In relating this incident, Davies complains a great deal about his treatment at the restaurant, claiming that he was not being treated according to his station, that he was told to do work he considered beneath him.
In spite of his concern with his place in the world, however, it is clear from Davies’s clothes that he is a tramp and, whether such a viewpoint is moral or not, most so-called “respectable” people would consider him beneath them. While many would feel sorry for someone in Davies’s position, almost no one would actually take such a person home to care for him. Aston’s bringing Davies home, therefore, seems an act of incredible kindness.
Such kindness can also be seen to some extent in the way Aston and Davies converse. For the most part, Davies speaks and Aston listens, enduring the old man’s complaints, never challenging even the most absurd of Davies’s claims, such as his assertion that women have often asked him if he would like to have them look at his body. When Aston does speak to Davies, most of the time he asks questions about the old man’s needs and desires.
As Act I continues, Aston makes a number of offers to Davies and these offers seem to escalate in extremity. He offers the tramp a cigarette, shoes, and money. He says he will retrieve the belongings Davies left in the restaurant. He offers to let Davies stay in his own room and even gives the tramp the keys to the house. By the end of the first act, Aston’s offers of help become so extreme that they would seem incredible to most people. So unbelievable is Aston’s kindness to Davies that it raises the question of motivation. It is hard to accept that a person could be that kind simply out a sense of responsibility towards one’s fellow man.
There are, however, some hints that Aston may be acting from something other than kindness, may in fact be seeking to have Davies satisfy his own needs. In the first act, Aston twice tells Davies of incidents from his own life. First he tells Davies a simple story – that he went into a pub and ordered a Guinness, which was served to him in a thick mug. He tells Davies that he could not finish the Guinness because he can only drink out of a tin glass. Davies completely ignores Aston’s story and immediately begins speaking about his own plans to go to Sidcup.
Later, Aston tells Davies of his sitting in a cafe and speaking to a woman who, after a brief conversation, put her hand on his and asked if he would like her to look at his body. Davies responds first with disbelief, saying “Get out of it,” then goes on to say that women have often said the same thing to him, not quite ignoring Aston’s remarks this time, but using Aston’s experience simply as a means to boast about himself.
In both cases, there is no logical prelude to Aston’s stories. They seem to come out of nowhere. The most likely interpretation seems to be that Aston simply wants someone to talk to, and this interpretation seems borne out in Aston’s speech in the second act in which he tells of how he was put in a mental hospital after he “talked too much.” This suggests that Aston’s kindness might stem from his own need to connect with a human being, any human being, even Davies. If this is the case, Davies offers no satisfaction to Aston, for the tramp is interested only in himself.
Toward the end of the first act and throughout most of the second, Aston begins to seem less motivated by simple kindness. His leaving of Davies alone in the house seems, on the face of it, an act of consideration and of trust but it is in fact somewhat ambiguous. Aston almost certainly knows that Mick may come into the house and that, if he does so, he will view Davies as an intruder. In a sense, Aston, while not at this point confronting Davies with his own power, leaves Davies in a position in which he may have to face the anger and power of Mick. Thus Aston exerts a sort of familial power over Davies.
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After Mick’s encounter with Davies and Aston’s return to the room, Aston continues to show ambiguity in his treatment of Davies. When Mick keeps Davies’s bag from him, Aston makes some attempt to get the bag back to him, but finally, he gives the bag to Mick, and it is Mick who returns it to Davies. Aston still attempts to acquire shoes for Davies, and
“IT IS ONLY POWER THAT DAVIES UNDERSTANDS”
He offers him the job of caretaker, but he complains that Davies makes noises when he sleeps. When Davies complains about the draft and rain from the open window, Aston asserts himself by telling Davies that he himself cannot sleep without the window being open.
Toward the end of the second act, though, Aston temporarily gives in to Davies on the matter of the window. He tells Davies he can “close it for the time being.” In his giving in to Davies in this way, Aston may be motivated by simple kindness, or he may seek to appease Davies so that he can again attempt to talk to the man, to engage him in some sort of relationship. Again, this can be interpreted as an effort to control Davies in order to meet his own needs.
At this point in the play, it is more difficult to believe that Aston acts only from kindness. It seems possible that Aston may truly be motivated by the desire to manipulate Davies in order to use him to satisfy his own need for contact. The situation becomes more complicated, however, at the end of Act II, when Aston, in a lengthy monologue, speaks to Davies about his mental troubles. Aston tells the story of his talking too much in the cafe, of his hallucinations, his commitment, his mother’s betrayal, his experience of involuntary electroshock treatments. This monologue is like nothing else in the play. Aston tells the tramp a serious story about what is almost certainly the most painful experience of his life.
Aston seems again to want someone to listen to him, and one could again argue that he simply wants Davies to meet his own needs. Such a view, however, would be too simplistic. In telling this story to Davies, Aston takes a serious risk. The social stigma attached to those who have received such treatment in a mental hospital, particularly electroshock therapy, is strong, especially in the time in which Pinter is writing. When Aston tells Davies about his hospital experience, he makes himself extremely vulnerable to the tramp. He gives Davies ammunition to use against him. This is not a man in search of power but one who desperately seeks to make real human contact.
But Aston ultimately cannot make that contact with Davies. Pinter uses lighting to illustrate this. By the end of Aston’s monologue, he alone can clearly be seen; Davies stands in the shadows. This shows that no connection is made. His attempt to connect with a human being leaves him vulnerable and alone.
In the final act, Davies exploits Aston’s moment of honesty. He attempts to ally himself with Mick and against Aston. Aston, once again seeming to attempt an act of kindness, continues to seek shoes for Davies, but the tramp scorns Aston’s efforts to help. In fact, Davies verbally assaults Aston, insulting him, accusing him of being insane, telling Aston that he could go back into the hospital, that he could receive electroshock treatments again. It is at this point that Aston finally tells Davies he has to leave. His attempts to be kind to Davies, to connect with him, have completely failed. Even when he tells Davies to leave, however, Aston again shows kindness, offering Davies money. But still he finally and literally turns his back on Davies as he looks out the window and waits for the tramp to leave.
While it is clear that Davies, with no place to go, is alone at the end of the play, what is often overlooked is the fact that Aston is also alone. He has shown kindness to Davies. He has desperately attempted to make real human contact with him. In the end, however, Aston’s desire for connection cannot be saved. It is only power that Davies understands.
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