“I’m not leaving. I’ve nowhere to go. I have no family. I’m a coward… I’m frightened of leaving and that’s the truth. All I see out in the world is loneliness, and it frightens me. That’s all my high principles are worth. I’m ashamed of myself.” Emma Thompson plays the housekeeper in Remains of the Day, opposite butler Anthony Hopkins. She’s not afraid of confessing who she is. In fact, I’d say she’s more afraid of not telling who she is.
It’s a movie all about loneliness: on one side about trying to feel nothing or at least to show no feelings. Actions and words went together to prove dignity, the hallmark of British society. The main characters never talked, then encountered people who do. How do you adjust to the demise of aristocracy as a philosophy? What the butler, Mr. Stevens, had always known as abstract turned out to be affecting personal lives.
(Mr. Lewis is an interesting thread to follow. He’s an American way ahead of the gentlemen in the democracy and equality world. The way he uses rhetoric is too direct for them. Initially he makes enemies everywhere. People think he doesn’t care about England or Europe. In the end his view of politics is proven right, and he also turns out to be very fond of England for its real value. It is he who preserves Darlington Hall. He represents America, I think, across nearly a century of its history.)
It isn’t that the butler can’t express himself or can’t feel anything. He just exercises self-control. His loyalty was misplaced. He chose self-control because his goal was dignity. By the end of his life, he’s second-guessing the direction he chose.
In the movie Lord Darlington explains why he wants to help Germany. He had a friend who fought on the side of Germany in the First World War, and afterwards was so devastated by its effect on his country that he committed suicide. Mr. Stevens watched a similar thing happen to his boss over the course of the movie. He feels obligated to honor the memory of his former employer and helps do as a free man what he couldn’t do as Lord Darlington’s servant.
Near the beginning of the movie, Miss Kenton the housekeeper comes into Mr. Stevens’ parlor bringing flowers and representing passion and life. She does her job well and respectfully, but offers a whole different approach to dignity, one that is more open and faithful to herself. She represents the other side of loneliness, the kind that feels alone even when she’s with other people.
Mr. Stevens never says what he means, following the example described by his father: the butler in India shot a tiger in the kitchen and entered the parlor a moment later to say dinner would be served at the usual hour, by which time there would be no discernible traces of the incident. All this calm, polite conversation to convey the death of a ferocious animal in the dining room.
So when Miss Kenton enters his room, he says that he prefers his room private, unchanged, and (seeming to refer to flowers but actually not) free of distraction. The relationship between the butler and housekeeper is reminiscent of Elizabeth and Darcy’s conversations in Pride and Prejudice. Until she got to know Darcy, he seemed rude and unfeeling. Once Miss Kenton likewise makes the patient and attentive habit of knowing Mr. Stevens’ character and tastes, she can, rather on faith, begin to interpret what he says or doesn’t say as a sort of code for his true meaning. Given her openness, he has the great advantage over her: the comfort of knowing when she agrees, security of being aware when she doesn’t, and even delight when her position entertains – all while, at first, safely hidden in his own opinions.
But she begins to see through him, utilizing Plato’s “plot is everything” to observe his life. She notices he doesn’t like pretty women on staff, and speculates, “Might it be that our Mr. Stevens fears distraction?” She has an excellent memory, and so no doubt began to understand what he had thought of her when she first entered his study with flowers years earlier. He didn’t trust himself.
Passion is a distraction from duty. Or is the other way around?
“Please leave me alone, Miss Kenton.” He wants to be alone, at least partly. And he wants her to physically pry the book from his hands, to talk and guess and look into his face for the answers he dare not show but can’t hide. He freezes, utterly conflicted for a moment, craving and fearing her closeness.
– Miss Hull on marrying without money.
Miss Kenton finds that being together in the same house isn’t enough. She might content herself with friendship, but he can’t. He must have formality or surrender to love, but he doesn’t know how to do the latter. She can’t bear the rejection, which is worse than loneliness.
She hurt him. She loved him and she hurt him. Maybe that’s why she left.
He didn’t owe her anything. She knew he didn’t, but she hoped anyway. That made her tears all the more bitter and self-reproaching when he couldn’t let himself admit he was in love.
Why does Miss Kenton do these things? She sees the outside world as lonely, in contrast to the house and servants (though Mr. Stevens sees the house as lonely). She above all fears loneliness, and works and sacrifices so that she won’t feel alone. This is why she eventually leaves. Though Mr. Stevens knows she is not alone, he makes the mistake of not telling her so. And she flees to what seems a sure thing, an offer of marriage to a man who says he loves her.
She is too needy for a marriage, and her husband didn’t always say what he meant, either – even when he first said “I love you.” The movie ends with the question of loneliness still hanging.