My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Remains of the Day (1989) by Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature in 2017, tells of an aging manservant named Stevens in Great Britain in the periods before and after World War II and the sacrifices he makes in the service and nature of his job as a butler who attempts to explain and define the ideas of “greatness” and “dignity.”
Winning the Booker Prize in 1989 The Remains of the Day, a mere 258 pages, includes an excursion by car after World War II through the English countryside the butler Stevens takes to visit a former colleague named Miss Kenton, and the journey takes roughly the course of six days (“six days” can also refer to the story of Creation in the Bible), but along the way the butler reflects and considers key past-events that transpired before World War II when he served Lord Darlington, an anti-Semite and a Nazi sympathizer.
Neatly divided into chapters, the timeline follows:
Prologue: July 1956: Darlington Hall (pgs 1-20)
Day One: Evening: Salisbury (pgs 21-45)
Day Two: Morning: Salisbury (pgs 46-115)
Day Two: Afternoon: Mortimer’s Pond, Dorset (pgs 116-133)
Day Three: Morning: Taunton, Somerset (pgs 134-149)
Day Three: Evening: Moscombe, near Tavistock, Devon (pgs 150-211)
Day Four: Afternoon: Little Compton, Cornwall (pgs 212-239)
Day Six: Evening: Weymouth (pgs 240-258)
An intense and insular butler who is self-driven and heavily focused on order and tradition, Stevens attempts to shake his own concept of “slavery” from the services he provides (at one point he leaves his dying father to go and serve Nazis) by contemplating what it means to have dignity and greatness, and he considers how he might rectify these two concepts through patriotism (albeit a bit jingoistic, but when it comes down to the truth, most citizens of a nation believe their country is the “greatest,” above all others), and Stevens also struggles with the devotion to his duties in his own life that has become a neutral occupation, a life where he chooses to forsake drama by not taking sides on any matter, and he reflects and projects this onto the landscape around him (many times characters, settings, and themes are bound together for a specific reason):
“I will nevertheless hazard this with some confidence: the English landscape at its finest—such as I saw it this morning—possesses a quality that the landscapes of other nations, however more superficially dramatic, inevitably fail to possess. It is, I believe, a quality that will mark out the English landscape to any objecting observer as the most deeply satisfying in the world, and the quality is probably best summed up by the term ‘greatness’. For it is true, when I stood on that high ledge this morning and viewed the land before me, I distinctly felt that rare, yet unmistakable feeling—the feeling that one is in the presence of greatness. We call this land of ours Great Britain, and there may be those who believe this a somewhat immodest practice. Yet I would venture that the landscape of our country alone would justify the use of this lofty adjective.
“And yet what precisely is this ‘greatness’? Just where, or in what, does it lie? I am quite aware it would take a far wiser head than mine to answer such a question, but if I were forced to hazard a guess, I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it” (pgs 28-29).
One method Stevens concludes to achieving “greatness” lies in maintaining “dignity” at all times even though his personal room “resembles a prison cell”(pg 174), and as the book rolls on back-and-forth through indecision and the resulting consequences, like when Stevens follows orders from Lord Darlington to fire two Jewish girls precisely because of their Jewry, and Miss Kenton confronts him and says: “If you dismiss my girls tomorrow, it will be wrong, a sin as any sin ever was one” (pg 157). Miss Kenton’s objection is idealistic and praiseworthy because she threatens to leave the house if the girls are dismissed (which they later are), but she decides not to quit her job because of her cowardice; she simply does not have the strength or the will to stand by her convictions. On one hand, Stevens blindly follows orders, which he feels is a function of his duty and his honor, and Miss Kenton objects to orders but ultimately bends beneath the heavy burden. So, who is right? Who is the greater of the two? Stevens adds to this controversial dilemma:
“For we were, as I say, an idealistic generation for whom the question was not simply one of how well one practised one’s skills, but to what end one did so; each of us harboured the desire to make our own small contribution to the creation of a better world, and saw that, as professionals, the surest means of doing so would be to serve the great gentleman of our times in whose hands civilization has been entrusted” (p 122).
And this can read as a warning for all generations since Stevens ultimately serves the “greater Evil” when he humbly and obediently follows Lord Darlington in all “the master” says and does without question and without fail, and without curiosity. So “dignity” must reside in something a bit deeper than pseudo-patriotism or blind duty. Stevens further suggests that for one to be dignified one must conform to a role, wear a cultural mask, exhibit self-control as an act of defiance (which could also be argued by many to be a form of patriotism and duty):
“And let me now posit this: ‘dignity’ has to do crucially with a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits. Lesser butlers will abandon the professional being for the private one at the least provocation. For such persons, being a butler is like playing some pantomime role; a small push, a slight stumble, and the façade will drop off to reveal the actor underneath. The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost; they will not be shaken out by external events, however surprising, alarming or vexing. They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstances tear it off him in the public gaze; he will discard it when, and only when, he wills to do so, and this will invariably be when he is entirely alone. It is, as I say, a matter of ‘dignity’…
“Continentals are unable to be butlers because they are as a breed incapable of the emotional restraint which only the English race is capable of. Continentals—and by and large the Celts, as you will no doubt agree—are as a rule unable to control themselves in moments of strong emotion, and are thus unable to maintain a professional demeanour other than in then the least challenging of situations…
“It is with such men as it is with the English landscape seen at its best as I did this morning: when one encounters them, one simply knows one is in the presence of greatness.
“There will always be, I realize, those who would claim that any attempt to analyse greatness as I have been doing is quite futile. ‘You know when somebody’s got it and you know when somebody hasn’t,’ Mr Graham’s argument would always be. ‘Beyond that there’s nothing much you can say.’ But I believe we have a duty not to be so defeatist in this matter. It is surely a professional responsibility for all of us to think deeply about these things so that each of us may better strive towards attaining ‘dignity’ for ourselves” (pgs 43-45).
When Stevens visits and stays for the night at a modest house in the countryside, he meets the “real” English-folk who have different ideas than Lord Darlington. One out-spoken Englishman named Harry Smith elaborates to Stevens about the idea of “slavery” and the unimportance of social classes in England, among other things:
“‘That’s what we fought Hitler for, after all. If Hitler had had things his way, we’d just be slaves now. The whole world would be a few masters and millions upon millions of slaves. And I don’t need to remind anyone here, there’s no dignity to be had in being a slave. That’s what we fought for and that’s what we won. We won the right to be free citizens. And it’s one of the privileges of being born English that no matter who you are, no matter if you’re rich or poor, you’re born free and you’re born so that you can express your opinion freely, and vote in your member of parliament or vote him out. That’s what dignity’s really about, if you’ll excuse me, sir.’
“‘Now now, Harry,’ Mr Taylor said. ‘I can see you’re warming up to one of your political speeches.’
“This brought laughter. Mr Harry Smith smiled a little shyly, but went on:
“‘I’m not talking politics. I’m just saying, that’s all. You can’t have dignity if you’re a slave. But every Englishman can grasp it if only he cares to. Because we fought for that right.’
“‘This may seem like a small, out of the way place we have here, sir,’ his wife said. ‘But we gave more than our share in the war. More than our share’” (pg 196).
Stevens is a flat or static character, meaning he never changes. He never grows curious about the reasons why German Nazis are visiting Lord Darlington, his master. He never questions what is spoon-fed to him by the upper-classes and rarely pays attention to the day-to-day countrymen who might have a better perspective on things than the elitists who claim the goodwill for individuals in positions of servitude. No, Stevens’s story is a tragic one. He ultimately clings to that which he has lost, which include the memories of Darlington Hall in its former glory. There’s nothing for Stevens to do but to accept his fate, fait accompli.
“After all, there’s no turning back the clock now. One can’t be forever dwelling on what might have been. One should realize one has as good as most, perhaps better, and be grateful…
“For a great many people, the evening is the most enjoyable part of the day. Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day. After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and me, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services. What is the point in worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course of one’s life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and me at least try to make a small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment” (pgs 251-257).
Now that is something we should all consider more deeply: the “hard reality” of things.
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a member of the Hemingway Society, Club Med, and the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), The Mystic’s Smile ~ A Play in 3 Acts (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), Little Hometown, America: A Look Back (2020); and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
You can follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 440,000+ followers