The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro opens with a butler, Mr. Stevens, getting used to a new employer. Stevens had long and faithfully served Lord Darlington, who has now passed away, and an American, Mr. Farraday, has bought Darlington Hall. Not only does Mr. Farraday do and think differently from an English lord, but times have changed as well. The staff has been greatly reduced, leading to a series of small mistakes. When Mr. Farraday plans to be away for a few weeks, he encourages Stevens to take the car and see the country, something Stevens has never done. Stevens has recently had a letter from a former housekeeper, Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, whose marriage seems to be failing, and he thinks perhaps she might be amenable to retaking her old position, which he feels will solve the staff problems. So he decides to take his employer up on his offer to take a “motoring tour” to see Mrs. Benn. The fact that he has a professional reason to go makes the trip more fitting to him than if he had just gone for pleasure.
The story is told in a series of journal-like entries during Stevens’ trip in which he combines the events of the day with recollections from the past and musings about life and his profession. He has given a great deal of thought and effort into determining how to be the best in his profession and what it means to have dignity. When other servants accompany their masters to Darlington Hall, the dominant topic of conversation seems to concern their profession rather than world events, books, music, etc. He comments that “Continentals are unable to be butlers because they are as a breed incapable of the emotional restraint which only the English race are capable of.”
Stevens is so emotionally restrained, though, that he stumbles over the concept of bantering. His new employer tends to make jokes in the course of everyday conversation, so Stevens feels it is expected that he should respond in kind. He studies the concept, and his attempts fall flat. When his own father is dying upstairs during a major conference at the house, Stevens takes pride in the fact that he maintained his dignity and performed his duties in such a way that his father would be proud (that and the strain in the scenes between him and his Father suggest that his father, also a butler, suffered from the same restraint). The only way we know that Stevens is at all affected by his father’s condition is the reaction of some of those he is serving who keep asking if he is all right.
Probably the most damage his restraint causes is in his relationship with Miss Kenton. At first they clash, but eventually they develop a warm working relationship. Ishiguro is a master of “showing, not telling,” especially in this relationship. Through a series of Stevens’ recollections, we deduce that Miss Kenton has feelings for Stevens, but either he is clueless or he is so restrained that he can’t accept them. In those days, members of the household staff could not marry without losing their jobs, so that probably played a big part in his lack of even thinking about the possibility.
Lord Darlington had a dear German friend who, after WWI, lost everything and ended up taking his own life. Darlington feels that the consequences meted out to Germany were too harsh and tries to set up conferences and meetings with leaders around the world to bring about what he thinks is justice. But in the climate of WWII, his affiliations cause him to be seen as a Nazi sympathizer, and he loses his good name and eventually his health. Though Stevens loyally defends the lord, he doesn’t admit to the people he meets on his trip that he worked for him, because he says it is just simpler that way. But part of his discussion about being a great butler included serving a great house and helping enabling great men to do their work well, and near the end he admits to himself he has lost even this.
It’s not until near the end of the book that we see some cracks in his armor. My favorite parts of the book are his last meeting with Miss Kenton/Mrs. Benn and a conversation with a perfect stranger on a bench at a pier where he rehashes his life and loyalties like he has done with no one else. Some say the book is a tragedy, but I think it ends on a hopeful note, with the stranger encouraging him to make the best of the time he has left. “The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it.” The evening, not just of the day, but of one’s life.
I saw the wonderful film of this with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson some years ago and enjoyed it, but it left me wondering what the author’s main point was. Was it a political commentary, or an unveiling of the problems in the old system where servants were expected to be nearly invisible and totally loyal, or an negative example of being so buttoned up and emotionally stifled that one can’t even have meaningful relationships? I’m glad to have read the book, which was much more fleshed out, of course, than the film, and I think that all of those subjects are a part of it, but primarily the last. There’s nothing wrong with thoughtfulness, loyalty, dignity, service, even sacrifice, or taking joy and pleasure in not being the big fish but rather aiding someone else in that position. But Stevens took it so far that he lost something of himself in the process.
I loved Ishiguro’s subtlety and style of writing. This isn’t a razzle-dazzle book full of action scenes; rather, it’s quite thought-provoking and emotionally compelling, especially near the end.
Here’s a trailer for the film. It’s been years since I have seen it, and I’d love to see it again now.
I also enjoyed reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s article How I Wrote The Remains of the Day in Four Weeks and listening to some of his comments here. I listened to the audiobook nicely narrated by Simon Prebble with occasional rereadings in a library copy of the book.
Genre: Modern fiction
My rating: 9 out of 10
Potential objectionable elements: The only thing I can recall is Mr Farraday’s coarse joke about Stevens’ taking a lady for “a roll in the hay,” which seems to go over Stevens’ head.