Ishiguro, Kazuo (1988). The Remains of the Day. New York: Random/Vintage. 245 pp.
In 1956, an English butler reflects back on his life of service to a grand aristocrat in a grand mansion, Darlington Hall, during the tense political buildup to World War II. He is on a six-day road tour to the west of the country to visit Miss Kenton, a woman who worked under him years ago as head housekeeper. He will suggest she come to work again at Darlington Hall, now owned by an American businessman and operating at much reduced capacity.
Narration is first person, in an intimate, confessional tone, verging on second person at times when he addresses the reader directly: “…I hope you will not misunderstand my meaning here.” We feel very close, inside the character’s thoughts. Is this butler, Stevens, an interesting enough character to sustain a novel consisting entirely of his flashbacks and ruminations? Well, yes and no.
The life of a butler is hardly thrilling. In reminiscence, he polishes silverware and plans great banquets. His present-tense road trip to Devon is likewise mundane. He admires the countryside, runs out of gas, stays at a country inn, watches a heavy rainstorm. The real plot is not what happens, but the gradual revelation of who Stevens is. The author very skillfully lets us see, even if Stevens cannot, that what he considers his greatest virtue, was actually a liability that crippled his entire life.
In the beginning section, Stevens reflects on what constitutes a “great” butler. He examines several hypotheses and concludes that greatness comes from “dignity,” which he takes to mean always putting one’s duty ahead of one’s own needs and emotions. That, he concludes, is his greatest virtue.
In the middle section are flashbacks to his work at Darlington Hall in the 1930’s, when His Lordship convened elaborate banquets and conferences of European leaders, including von Ribbentrop, the German ambassador. Stevens is on the periphery of conversations, busy serving the soup, so he reports only snippets, but it is enough to suggest to the reader, if not to Stevens, that Darlington was a Nazi sympathizer.
A second strand in the middle section is Stevens’ interactions with Miss Kenton, head of housekeeping. They have a childish, competitive relationship that often turns hostile, in a petulant way. These interactions skillfully let us see, though Stevens cannot, that Kenton loves him. Their insistent formality with each other creates a delicious tone of propriety to contrast the unspoken emotions between them.
In the final section, as Stevens drives west, the tension is palpable because we know, even if he doesn’t, that his real reason to see Miss Kenton again is because he loves her, not really to offer her a job. In the end, she reaches out to him one last time, but he maintains his dignity, one last time. He seems to grasp that his so-called dignity has cost him a life of happiness, but he can’t or won’t change. “We can’t turn the clock back,” he says.
In the end, in the remains of Stevens’ day, we aren’t sure if he is blustering nonsense to preserve his dignity, or if he really doesn’t understand what is patently clear to the reader, that life has slipped past him, leaving him empty. That is Ishiguro’s achievement, to have a first-person narrator tell us his personal and heartfelt story, while letting us understand a completely different story.
Ishiguro’s authorial flaw is similar to Stevens’ flaw. In order to pull off this tour-de-force of storytelling, he had to make Stevens so emotionally shut down that he almost ceases to be a human being. No man could be as blind as Stevens was about Miss Kenton. No person could really be that emotionally repressed and still function in society.Stevens is a bigger than life caricature that gets the message across, but crosses the line of character believability. That is Ishiguro’s fatal flaw, as preserving his “dignity” was Stevens’.
The Remains of the Day won the 1989 Booker prize, and was made into a wonderful movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, whose voices I could not get out of my head while reading.