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The Importance of the Ending and the Case of The Servant (1963)

Since they appeared on the planet, human beings have always felt the need to find a sense in their lives and they’ve expressed this necessity through a number of different forms of art, from cave paintings, to music and literature. In fiction, writers have worked out a way to make sense of their characters’ lives by dividing the plot into three parts, beginning, middle and end, bearing in mind that the end works as the synthesis between the thesis of the beginning and the antithesis of the middle, thus making sense of the whole story. In the present work, I am going to look into the importance of endings from the point of view of storytelling and I’m going to apply this notion of the end as the key to interpret the whole story to the film The servant (1963) adapted by Harold Pinter from a novel by Robin Maugham and directed by Joseph Losey.

In his best known work, titled The sense of an ending: studies in the theory of fiction [1], British literary critic Frank Kermode claims that humans have always struggled to find a “coherent pattern” to explain that so much has gone before us and so much will come after us and to acknowledge that we are actually in the middle of a story. In order to make sense of our lives, Kermode goes on, we need to find some “consonance” between the beginning, the middle, and the end, a logical connection which links the ending to the rest of the story and which, therefore, allows us to make sense of everything that happened in the past.

Watching The Servant, I have observed that, like in most stories, every single event which takes place throughout the story builds up to the ending, when the main character, Tony, realizes that nothing is what it seems, that he himself is not the kind of person he believed he was and that his antagonist, Mr. Barrett, is not the kind of person he thought he was. The Servant tells the story of a wealthy but naïve and weak young Londoner, Tony, who hires Mr. Barrett as his manservant, only to end up being manipulated by his employee, who proves to be smart enough to overthrow the master-servant roles, managing to take control of Tony’s property. Several elements which screenwriter Pinter accurately sets up at the beginning of the story are paid off in the end, thus effectively linking beginning, middle and end and providing the spectator with the interpretation key to reread the whole story.

In particular, an interesting storytelling device which can be observed in The Servant, is the use of location and its identity as a character on its own. In the film, the house plays an essential role in underlining the contrast between beginning and ending, since it works as a metaphor for the gradual and unstoppable decay the main character goes through during the story. At the beginning, the house is empty and bright, whereas in the end it is messy as there are objects scattered all over. This role of the house as a character on its own, which mirrors Tony’s ultimate débâcle, is underlined by a line uttered by Tony himself, at the beginning of the film, as he is showing Mr. Barrett around.

 

INT. TONY’S BEDROOM. FIRST FLOOR. DAY

Winter sun striking across floorboards. The room is empty but for two chairs. The door is flung open. Tony comes in followed by Barrett. His words get a slight echo in the room.

TONY

Damn lucky to get this place actually. Little bit of wet rot but not too much. […]

 

This “little bit of wet rot” mirrors the apparently insignificant details in Mr. Barrett’s behaviour through which he manages to win Tony’s trust and by the ending, this “little bit of wet rot” will have turned into a massive rot which will throw the house into a moral and physical decay.

Tony’s vulnerability is expressed through a line which he utters at the beginning, while explaining to Mr. Barrett the kind of service he is going to need.

 

TONY

Now, apart from cooking, I’ll need… well… everything.

(he laughs)

General looking after… You know…

MR. BARRETT

Yes, I do, sir.

 

The irony of this line is grotesquely paid off in the end, when what Tony gets is exactly what he had asked for, that is to say that Mr. Barrett “took care of everything”.

Watching The Servant reminds us of the theories of German philosopher Friedrich Hegel, a key figure in the German Idealism, who tackled the issue about the relationship between a Lord[2]. Hegel wrote about the need for human beings’ self consciousnesses to be acknowledged by other people’s self consciousnesses and he applied this theory to the relationship between a Master and his servant, elaborating the Master-Slave dialectic. Hegel stated that the Master’s self consciousness is dependent on the slave for recognition and it only has a mediated relation with nature. In fact, it’s the slave who works and interacts with nature, shaping it into products for the master. As the slave creates more and more products with greater and greater sophistication, through creativity, they see themselves reflected in what they have created and, as they gradually awake to the fact that their master is actually dependent on them, they are no longer alienated from their own labour and they achieve self consciousness. On the contrary, the master has become dependent on the products which have been created by the slave and they are no longer masters, in the sense that they are not recognised as such by the slave, thus ending up losing not only their authority but also their identity[3].

Since ancient times, human beings have always felt the need to make sense of their lives and, more in general, of their role in the history of the world. The main teaching we can draw from analysing The Servant is the masterful way in which the screenwriter honours the pattern man has elaborated in order to make sense of their lives, where beginning, middle and end are logically interconnected, all the events and facts build up to the final one which works as the interpretation key to reread the whole story.

“The Servant”: while Tony and his girlfriend are away, Mr. Barrett takes control of the house. Not only is this shot an important turning point in the story, but it also perfectly captures the moral value of it. Tony looks upwards, scared and defenceless, his girlfriend seems to be scared and resigned to Tony’s weakness and inability to defend himself and the things he cares about, whereas Mr. Barrett’s shadow looms over them.

[1] KERMODE F., The Sense of an Ending: studies in the theory of fiction, New York, Oxford University Press, 1967, 2000.

[2] HEGEL F., Phänomenologie des Geistes, Germany, 1807.

[3] Ibidem.