The Birthday Party

by

Harold Pinter

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Birthday Party can help.
Themes and Colors
Ambiguity, Meaninglessness, and Absurdity Theme Icon
Guilt and Transgression Theme Icon
Order, Chaos, and Sanity Theme Icon
Isolation, Freedom, and Independence Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Birthday Party, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Guilt and Transgression Theme Icon

Throughout The Birthday Party, Pinter portrays Stanley as a character saddled with guilt. Indeed, he casts Stanley as a man with a potentially unsavory past, one he’s eager to leave behind by moving into Petey and Meg’s boarding house. Unfortunately, he’s unable to escape his previous life when Goldberg and McCann arrive at the boarding house and hold him accountable for whatever it is they think he’s done. Interestingly enough, though, they never make clear why he deserves the psychological torture to which they subject him. Instead, they cite numerous outlandish offenses—so many that it begins to seem unlikely that he has actually transgressed at all. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that Stanley’s behavior becomes increasingly suspicious as Goldberg and McCann interrogate him. In fact, even their presence in the boarding house causes him to behave like someone who has a guilty conscience. In this way, Pinter insinuates that the mere suggestion of guilt is often enough to make a person feel as if they have transgressed. Even more importantly, Stanley eventually does fall from innocence by attempting to strangle Meg and rape Lulu after Goldberg and McCann accuse him of multiple crimes. As such, their accusations become self-fulfilling prophecies, ultimately suggesting that guilt has the power to completely unhinge a person regardless of whether or not they have committed any actual wrongdoing.

Pinter doesn’t provide many details about Stanley’s life, but it’s clear he’s wary of encountering people from his past. Indeed, before Goldberg and McCann even accuse him of anything, he is guarded and suspicious of them—a fact that suggests he already has a guilty conscience. During his first conversation with McCann, Stanley goes out of his way to insist that before living in the boarding house he led a calm and peaceful life. “You know what?” he says. “To look at me, I bet you wouldn’t think I’d led such a quiet life.” He thus acknowledges that he doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would lead a “quiet life,” indicating that he thinks McCann suspects him of living in some kind of transgressive way. As such, he tries to defend himself before anyone has even accused him of anything. Several moments later, when he and McCann start talking about Goldberg, Stanley says, “Has he told you anything? Do you know what you’re here for? Tell me. You needn’t be frightened of me.” At this point, it’s obvious that McCann and Goldberg’s presence has thrown Stanley into agitation and worry. What’s not obvious, though, is why this is the case. Pinter never clarifies this point, instead choosing to let audience members keep trying to figure out whether or not Stanley deserves the psychological torture to which McCann and Goldberg eventually subject him.

When Goldberg and McCann finally force Stanley into a chair and bombard him with questions and accusations, they fixate on small things that shouldn’t merit guilt. For example, when Goldberg asks why he originally came to this boarding house, Stanley replies by saying that his “feet hurt.” Goldberg then asks why he stayed, and Stanley says that he had a headache. “Did you take anything for it?” Goldberg demands, and when Stanley says yes, he asks him what brand of “fruit salts” he used, proceeding to inquire whether or not Stanley “stir[red] properly.” “Did they fizz?” he asks, and Stanley says, “Now, now, wait, you—” Cutting him off, Goldberg barks, “Did they fizz? Did they fizz or didn’t they fizz?” Of course, it’s completely arbitrary whether or not Stanley’s “fruit salts” “fizzed” when he stirred them. And yet, Goldberg poses his questions as if these are dire matters. What’s more, Stanley goes along with this notion, getting worked up over silly questions. In fact, he acts guilty, as if his failure to make his headache medication fizz is enough to condemn him for eternity. The absurdity of this moment is worth noting, because it proposes a kind of universal sense of shame that truly anyone could experience. After all, if Stanley is morally condemned for failing to properly stir his “fruit salts,” then seemingly everyone could be accused of having transgressed. Still, Stanley plays into this narrative, clearly accepting the idea that he is inherently guilty. As such, Pinter shows how easily people can slip into guilt and embrace the idea that they’ve acted wrongly, even if they haven’t been accused of anything that requires true repentance.

Throughout the course of their interrogation, Goldberg and McCann accuse Stanley of both severe and mundane transgressions. They ask him why he killed his wife (“What wife?” Stanley asks), whether or not he prays, and why he picks his nose. Because they make so many accusations—and because these accusations are so varied—their entire line of inquiry comes to seem pointless. Indeed, it’s evident that they don’t care what Stanley has done, but rather that he accept his own guiltiness. Unfortunately, Stanley does more than simply accept this idea. In fact, Goldberg and McCann’s accusations affect him so profoundly that he actually does transgress by attempting to strangle Meg and rape Lulu during his birthday party. Whether or not he was guilty before Goldberg and McCann arrived, he has now actually acted like a psychopathic criminal by putting Lulu on the kitchen table and, when everyone stops him from raping her, laughing manically in the darkness, his face lit with a flashlight. Of course, this act doesn’t clarify anything about Stanley’s morality before he came to the boarding house, but it does suggest that Goldberg and McCann’s treatment has driven him to do something he wouldn’t otherwise (after all, he has lived for a year in the boarding house without incident). In this way, Pinter demonstrates the detrimental, self-perpetuating effects of accepting oneself as an immoral, person. Although all humans may feel guilty from time to time, a person ought to avoid fully embracing him- or herself as inherently corrupt, as this attitude only invites further misbehavior.

Related Themes from Other Texts
Compare and contrast themes from other texts to this theme…

Guilt and Transgression ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Guilt and Transgression appears in each act of The Birthday Party. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
act length:
Get the entire The Birthday Party LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Birthday Party PDF

Guilt and Transgression Quotes in The Birthday Party

Below you will find the important quotes in The Birthday Party related to the theme of Guilt and Transgression.
Act Two Quotes

STANLEY. You’re here on a short stay?

MCCANN. That’s right.

STANLEY. You’ll find it very bracing.

MCCANN. Do you find it bracing?

STANLEY. Me? No. But you will. […] I like it here, but I’ll be moving soon. Back home. I’ll stay there too, this time. No place like home. (He laughs.) I wouldn’t have left, but business calls. Business called, and I had to leave for a bit. You know how it is.

MCCANN. You in business?

STANLEY. No. I think I’ll give it up. I’ve got a small private income, you see. I think I’ll give it up. Don’t like being away from home. I used to live very quietly—play records, that’s about all. Everything delivered to the door. Then I started a little private business, in a small way, and it compelled me to come down here—kept me longer than I expected. You never get used to living in someone else’s house. Don’t you agree? I lived so quietly. You can only appreciate what you’ve had when things change. That’s what they say, isn’t it?

Related Characters: Stanley Webber (speaker), McCann (speaker)
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

You know what? To look at me, I bet you wouldn’t think I’d led such a quiet life. The lines on my face, eh? It’s the drink. Been drinking a bit down here. But what I mean is…you know how it is…away from your own…all wrong, of course…I’ll be all right when I get back…but what I mean is, the way some people look at me you’d think I was a different person. I suppose I have changed, but I’m still the same man that I always was. I mean, you wouldn’t think, to look at me, really…I mean, not really, that I was the sort of bloke to—to cause any trouble, would you? (MCCANN looks at him.) Do you know what I mean?

Related Characters: Stanley Webber (speaker), McCann
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

GOLDBERG. You stink of sin.

MCCAN. I can smell it.

GOLDBERG. Do you recognise an external force?

STANLEY. What?

GOLDBERG. Do you recognise an external force?

MCCAN. That’s the question!

GOLDBERG. Do you recognise an external force, responsible for you, suffering for you?

STANLEY. (Starting up.) It’s late.

GOLDBERG. (Pushes him down.) Late! Late enough! When did you last pray?

MCCAN. He’s sweating!

GOLDBERG. When did you last pray?

Related Characters: Stanley Webber (speaker), Goldberg (speaker), McCann (speaker)
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

GOLDBERG. Is the number 846 possible or necessary?

STANLEY. Neither.

GOLDBERG. Wrong! Is the number 846 possible or necessary?

STANLEY. Both.

GOLDBERG. Wrong! It’s necessary but not possible.

STANLEY. Both.

GOLDBERG. Wrong! Why do you think the number 846 is necessarily possible?

STANLEY. Must be.

GOLDBERG. Wrong! It’s only necessarily necessary! We admit possibility only after we grant necessity. It is possible because necessary but by no means necessary through possibility. The possibility can only be assumed after the proof of necessity.

MCCANN. Right!

GOLDBERG. Right? Of course right! We’re right and you’re wrong, Webber, all along the line.

Related Characters: Stanley Webber (speaker), Goldberg (speaker), McCann (speaker)
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:
Act Three Quotes

Well, Mr. Boles, it can happen in all sorts of ways. A friend of mine was telling me about it only the other day. We’d both been concerned with another case—not entirely similar, of course, but…quite alike, quite alike. (He pauses. Crosses to the window seat.) Anyway, he was telling me, you see, this friend of mine, that sometimes it happens gradual—day by day it grows and grows and grows…day by day. And then other times it happens all at once. Poof! Like that! The nerves break. There’s no guarantee how it’s going to happen. But with certain people…it’s a foregone conclusion.

Related Characters: Goldberg (speaker), Stanley Webber, Petey Boles
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis: