The Dumb Waiter

by

Harold Pinter

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The Dumb Waiter Symbol Analysis

The Dumb Waiter  Symbol Icon

The dumb waiter represents power imbalances and the power of authority. A dumbwaiter is a small, elevator-like platform used to carry items (usually food or prepared dishes) between the different levels of a building. In early-20th-century London, they were common fixtures in the houses of the privileged; domestic servants would use them to move laundry between different rooms of the house. By virtue of its historical use alone, the dumbwaiter functions as a symbol of class disparity: the way a dumbwaiter physically distances the lower classes from the upper classes they serve illustrates the way that Ben and Gus’s and Wilson’s different socioeconomic statuses create a power imbalance between them. As working-class men, Ben and Gus are at the mercy of Wilson, their boss, and the way they use the dumbwaiter to communicate demonstrates this power imbalance. Midway through the play, Wilson (one presumes—it’s never made clear who is upstairs) begins using the dumbwaiter to send Ben and Gus food orders written on pieces of paper. The orders come with no notes of explanation, and Ben and Gus lack the kitchen appliances and food necessary to fill the orders. Put simply, they’re at a complete loss as to why Wilson is sending them these orders and what he wants them to do. In this way, the dumb waiter shows how Wilson’s position of authority allows him to intimidate, manipulate, and exploit Ben and Gus without repercussion. The food orders confound Ben and Gus, yet they (and in particular Ben) are too terrified of disobeying and upsetting an authority figure to question Wilson’s motives or explain that they are unable to fulfill his requests. Because Ben and Gus cannot communicate directly with Wilson, they remain uncertain about how to properly fulfill his requests and avoid punishment—and this leaves them utterly ill-equipped to do anything to improve their situation.

The dumb waiter also demonstrates how Ben and Gus’s power imbalance pits them against each other, ultimately playing a key role in Ben’s betrayal of Gus. Eventually, Ben and Gus discover that the dumb waiter comes with a speaking-tube that people on different floors of the building can use to listen and speak to each other—this facilitates communication somewhat, but there are serious limitations. Only one person at a time can listen to or speak into the tube, and so it’s only Ben, Gus’s superior, whom the dumb waiter grants direct communication with Wilson. This means Gus must rely on Ben to relay Wilson’s messages—and it also means he must trust that Ben is being truthful about what Wilson is saying. And with Ben’s climactic betrayal of Gus (at the end of the play, it’s revealed that Gus is the target that Ben must kill), the play makes it clear that Gus cannot trust Ben—yet his lower status leaves him with no other option. The dumb waiter thus shows how Gus’s low-ranking position leaves him vulnerable to manipulation by authority figures that he can neither fight nor understand. 

The Dumb Waiter Quotes in The Dumb Waiter

The The Dumb Waiter quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Dumb Waiter . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
).
The Dumb Waiter Quotes

GUS (thoughtfully). I find him hard to talk to, Wilson. Do you know that, Ben?

BEN. Scrub round it, will you?

Pause.

GUS. There are a number of things I want to ask him. But I never get round to it, when I see him.

Related Characters: Gus (speaker), Ben (speaker), Wilson
Related Symbols: The Dumb Waiter
Page Number: 101-102
Explanation and Analysis:

GUS. […] Do you mean I can keep the Eccles cake then?

BEN. Keep it?

GUS. Well, they don’t know we’ve got it, do they?

BEN. That’s not the point.

Related Characters: Ben (speaker), Gus (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Dumb Waiter
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

GUS (calling up the hatch). Three McVitie and Price! One Lyons Red Label! One Smith’s Crisps! One Eccles cake! One Fruit and Nut!

BEN. Cadbury’s.

GUS (up the hatch). Cadbury’s!

Related Characters: Ben (speaker), Gus (speaker), Wilson
Related Symbols: The Dumb Waiter
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

BEN. […] Do you know what it takes to make an Ormitha Macarounada?

Related Characters: Ben (speaker), Gus, Wilson
Related Symbols: The Dumb Waiter
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

BEN. Do you know what he said? Light the kettle! Not put on the kettle! Not light the gas! But light the kettle!

GUS. How can we light the kettle?

BEN. What do you mean?

GUS. There’s no gas.

Related Characters: Ben (speaker), Gus (speaker), Wilson
Related Symbols: The Dumb Waiter
Page Number: 112-113
Explanation and Analysis:

GUS. […] What about us?

Related Characters: Gus (speaker), Ben, Wilson
Related Symbols: The Dumb Waiter , The Matches
Page Number: 113
Explanation and Analysis:

GUS. […] We send him up all we’ve got and he’s not satisfied. No, honest, it’s enough to make the cat laugh. Why did you send him up all that stuff? (Thoughtfully.) Why did I send it up? […]

Related Characters: Gus (speaker), Ben, Wilson
Related Symbols: The Dumb Waiter
Page Number: 113
Explanation and Analysis:

GUS. What do we do if it’s a girl?

BEN. We do the same.

GUS. Exactly the same?

BEN. Exactly.

Pause.

GUS. We don’t do anything different?

BEN. We do exactly the same.

GUS. Oh.

Related Characters: Gus (speaker), Ben, Wilson
Related Symbols: The Dumb Waiter
Page Number: 116
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire The Dumb Waiter LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Dumb Waiter PDF

The Dumb Waiter Symbol Timeline in The Dumb Waiter

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Dumb Waiter appears in The Dumb Waiter. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The Dumb Waiter
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
...his bed. Then he lifts a panel on the wall to discover a hidden serving-hatch—a dumb waiter . He pulls out a piece of paper and reads it aloud: “Two braised steak... (full context)
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
...“WELL, WHO’S GOT IT NOW?” Gus asks. But before Ben can answer the question, the dumb waiter descends once more. (full context)
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
Ben holds his revolver as Gus approaches the dumb waiter and draws out a piece of paper. He reads aloud, “Soup of the day. Liver... (full context)
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
...beer. Ben orders Gus to put everything on the plate. They do so, but the dumb waiter goes up before they can put the plate on it. (full context)
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
Ben blames Gus for missing the dumb waiter . Gus asks what they’re supposed to do now. Ben says they’ll have to wait... (full context)
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
Just then, the dumb waiter descends. Gus approaches it and retrieves a piece of paper. He reads the paper aloud:... (full context)
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
Gus grumbles about having a headache. Just then, the dumb waiter descends. The sound makes Ben jump up from his bed. Gus gets up, picks up... (full context)
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
...for a pencil, but then he notices a speaking-tube hanging from the wall, beside the dumb waiter . Ben says they should have used the speaking-tube instead of shouting up the hatch.... (full context)
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
Gus’s rant is interrupted by the dumb waiter , which comes down the shaft behind them. Gus goes to the dumb waiter and... (full context)
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
Ben lies down on his bed. He and Gus sit in silence. Then the dumb waiter ascends once more. After a pause, they hear the dumb waiter come down again. They... (full context)