I am going to be teaching Harold Pinter’s The Collection which is essentially a mystery play concerned with Stella’s infidelity and James’ seeming attempt to embark on a quest for truth. Note, his attempt is “seeming.” I want to explore the ways in which James is as much a fabricator of the truth as Stella, and paradoxically, neither of them function in ways one would assume.
In the play the two characters who would in fact know if Stella was unfaithful, Bill and Stella herself, seem to find it necessary to avoid acknowledging it one way or another. When they negate having an affair, it is deemed almost normal. What else would they say? Yet, at times, they actually admit to it, to the audience, and to James. This makes the whole business rather ambiguous. The act itself is never dramatized, and even the majority of Stella’s confessions are related to the audience second hand, through James.
The alleged confessions prompt James to contact Bill to verify Stella’s story. However, the need for verification insinuates that James might not fully believe Stella and needs confirmation. Think about this for a second. James’ wife just told him she had an affair, and he doesn’t believe her.
Bill believes women are “bound to have an outburst of… wild sensuality at one time or another… it is part of their nature.” The two men continue their conversation and it becomes clear that neither care whether or not Bill and Stella were together, but rather the fact that Stella could do it. And both agree that, yes, she could. But did she?
So, being left with the impression that Stella is intrinsically sexually sinful it would seem that James would attempt to prove Stella’s innocence, but the play reveals his most obsessive need to verify her guilt. In James’ first encounter with Bill, James insists upon the affair, refusing to believe it never happened. While Bill at first appears genuinely confused it brings the audience to question whether Stella’s earlier alleged confession did ever occur, of it was influenced by James’ need for it.
Also, I suppose now would be a good time to point out that at no time during the play does James want to leave Stella for her infidelity. He simply wants to believe it happened, making the whole thing even more bizarre. Why?
At this point Stella confesses to Harry (Bill’s partner) that she never slept with Bill, and even more noteworthy, that she never confessed anything of the sort to James. According to Stella, James “dreamed up such a fantastic story, for no reason at all.” There is always a reason, and the main question now shifts from whether the infidelity occurred to why James would want to portray his wife as a whore. However, this question would mean that “wife” and “whore” are direct opposites and that is exactly what James believes when he says to Bill “when you treat my wife like a whore, then I think I’m entitled to know what you’ve got to say about it.” What James inadvertently implies in this statement is that a wife can also be a whore and the two are not mutually exclusive, and he seems genuinely frightened by this. Yet, when given the option to separate the two, he continues insisting upon Stella’s infidelity.
There is also a lack of knowledge on the part of the audience and the characters. Aside from the obvious question, several more come up. Bill’s question to James “do you know her well?” echoed later by Harry’s observation “women are very strange. But I suppose you know more about that than I do; she’s your wife” depicts this disruption of knowledge that is created by the idea of adultery. By collapsing the idea of “wife” and “whore” into one existence, knowledge, or the perception of what is known, is lost. It becomes apparent that engaging in a marriage, or any intimate relationship, is not equivocal to knowing the other person. Intentions or acts outside the immediate relationship are always ambiguous. Actually, intentions and acts even within the relationship can be just as perplexing.
The act of adultery in the play is no longer important, but rather stands in for the gap in knowledge that the characters experience. They could, in theory, be fighting over whether or not Stella drank the last of the milk for all anyone cares. James wasn’t home, he returns, and there is no milk. Stella says she didn’t drink it, then changes her mind and says she did, and next thing you know James is outside riffling through the trash for empty milk cartons. And once he finds one she can contest whether she put it there or not.
Basically it all becomes reduced to a battle for control.
The play as a whole insists on Stella’s guilt. Even the version of Stella and Bill having only talked about committing adultery is considered just as negative as the actual deed since it may occur again. Her motives for having committed adultery, or confessing an adultery which may or may not have occurred, seem to be merely because she can. Ironically, the very thing James tries to use to assert his dominance is what gives Stella her power. In making her into a whore to suit his own purposes (whatever they may be), he demonstrates Stella’s dominance over him.
If she did actually confess to James and did so only to manipulate him, all his actions following the confession were due to her. If the confession did not happen, then James’ demand for its occurrence denotes her threatening actions that forced *him* to act, and in either scenario she is the one really in control of the relationship.
In an attempt to regain control, James tries to reduce Stella’s voice. As he reiterates her confession to Bill he is in fact speaking for her, if not blatantly placing words in her mouth. There are times when his statements send her into silence, and even tears. However, her silence at the end, at the exact moment when James’ need for dominance demands she speak, is her refusal to accept the burden of enclosure. Her silence forces the audience to reevaluate her relative silence throughout the play. An imposed silence may place her in the role of subordination, but in the final moments of the play it becomes clear that silence and subordination may not always be equated. Her passivity engenders empowerment since she actively and deliberately assumes it, essentially mocking James’s authority; it is not because of him that she is silent, it is her own doing.
Although Bill seems to have a negative view of woman-nature, he is asserting his authority in very much the same way as Stella. He plays the feminine role in his relationship with Harry, and thus he is also subject to similar ideals. By changing his story so often he is in fact playing with, and manipulating the other characters, perhaps for his own amusement. His motives seem to be even more ambiguous than Stella’s.
Stella is not the only one who in reality knows what happened, if anything. Bill was either there or not, so Bill’s motives for withholding the truth are his way of empowering himself against Harry and James.
Simultaneously, the same type of battle of control occurs between Bill and Harry.
Harry at first tries to make Stella into an adulteress in his confrontation with her to demonstrate Bill’s putrid nature in the seduction, only to reduce him, which empowers Harry. Harry must do so because he feels threatened by Bill’s infidelity, not with Stella, but what it signifies as a liaison with James. As with James, Harry’s demand for the affair only works against him. In trying to use the affair to reduce Bill, he is giving life to a sexual interaction between Bill and Stella which inadvertently means that by sharing Stella, Bill and James are brought together to forge a different type of relationship; Stella brings James and Bill together, not just by potentially sharing her, but within physical proximity when they meet. James immediately takes the dominant role within this relationship and thus replaces Harry when he progresses from intruder to guest in Bill and Harry’s home. Had he maintained the role of intruder, Harry would, ironically, have had less of a reaction, continuing to view James as an outsider.
In the end both James and Harry are forced to believe the final narrative told by Bill of what really happened at Leeds the night of the alleged adultery, and that is, that it never happened. However, the truth is never discovered, and the audience is left with the same ambiguity about the infidelity as in the opening scenes. Bill’s story at this point is as good as Stella’s previous one, and neither really answer the question. The characters have no choice but to believe what each one feels is most beneficial to the preservation of their current relationships. The even larger question of why each character had several different scenarios throughout the play is never revealed. Again, each offers their own reasons, but considering their narrative skills thus far, it is doubtful that they are now stating their true feelings on the matter. Yet even though motives can be abundant, true intentions are never known, or understood, clearly demonstrating the human condition of unknowing the other. And in this case, unknowing the self. Can it be argued that these characters even know their own intentions? Do they really understand why they chose to believe in the end? And what about Stella? After Bill’s last narrative she is not heard from again. Would she refute it, bringing the whole play right back to the beginning?
Is the end of the play really the end? Or has it simply just come full circle?