The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Highly recommended.
It’s difficult to believe how much Kazuo Ishiguro packed into The Remains of the Day, a short (by today’s standards), highly praised novel — a lifetime of work and relationships, the realization of inescapable regret, and the hope it is not too late to join the rest of humanity.
Stevens is a butler for an English house that is no longer great, nor is it owned by the family for which it is named. His postwar employer is, instead, an American named Farraday; as a stranger will point out to him later, “An American? Well, they’re the only ones can afford it now.” Farraday “affords” Darlington Hall by shutting much of the house down and using a reduced staff, which Stevens can understand, as the staff that would be available would not be up to his own high standards.
When he receives a sad, lonely letter from Darlington’s former housekeeper, Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn), and later is told by Farraday that he can borrow his employer’s car for a vacation on the road, he weighs the opportunity and decides to take it for “professional reasons” — to see if he can lure back the highly qualified Miss Kenton to her former position.
During the brief journey, he spends much of his time contemplating what “dignity” in his profession means — and whether he lived up to it. After a plethora of recollections about the late Lord Darlington during the prewar years and after his meeting with Miss Kenton, Stevens comes to two great understandings: he did not serve a great man as he thought he had, and, in doing so, he had missed a chance for love and fulfillment. His devotion to Lord Darlington has betrayed him, personally and professionally. “I can’t even say I made my own mistakes,” he laments. “Really — one has to say — what dignity is there in that?”
This revelation does not come quickly or easily to either Stevens or the reader. Each anecdote that Stevens recalls to illustrate a point he wishes to make to himself — the definition of dignity, how he upheld dignity by serving his employer while his own father lay dying — subtly reveals how much he has shut himself down emotionally in order to serve. With each story, it becomes clearer that Lord Darlington is an easily manipulated man, out of his league in world politics but insistent on playing the role of peacemaker — even when it is no longer appropriate or wise.
When his friendship with a woman leads him to fire two Jewish maids, it foreshadows his attempts to influence the British government into appeasing Hitler and the Nazis at any cost. He goes so far as to say that the U.K. should perhaps follow Germany’s lead. “Germany and Italy have set their houses in order by acting . . . See what strong leadership can do if it’s allowed to act. None of this universal suffrage nonsense.” Stevens unwittingly proves Lord Darlington’s point for him — he trusts Lord Darlington’s judgment as blindly as any German trusted Hitler’s, believing that “people like him” are too ignorant to make the decisions that must be made and following the great man contentedly — and thus making a bad decision.
When it comes to Miss Kenton, here too his perception is kept in check by his need for professionalism and dignity. His repeated emphasis on their “professional” relationship and his desire to reconnect with her as a “professional” only highlight the extent to which he will go to suppress his real feelings — and the very real possibilities that existed.
In life and love, Stevens realises he has been avoiding both. In the end, however, there is hope. After sending Miss Kenton home, back to her husband, Stevens turns to “bantering”; that is, engaging with people without resorting to pre-programmed professional phrases –in short, truly interacting with his fellow humans. “After all, when one thinks about it, it is not such a foolish thing to indulge in — particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth.” Indeed it does.
One doesn’t have to be a butler in service to others to use the remains of his or her own day to look back and appraise where one went wrong and where there is still room for hope. The Remains of the Day is an incredible journey toward understanding, written in a concise, spare manner that fits perfectly with the character of Stevens. Few writers have the gift of saying so much in so little space. More should learn it.
18 November 2001
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf