The Butler Blew It: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989)

The Remains of the Day is a Booker Prize-winning novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.  Ishiguro was born in Japan,  emigrating to Britain at age five.  The Remains Of the Day is at once a period piece and a lasting encomium to the value of human connection.

The novel opens in the present day with Stevens the butler at Darlington Hall managing a sharply reduced staff.  Part of the manor has been placed in mothballs. The estate is now owned by a wealthy American, Mr. Farrady, a fact that perhaps best embodies the decline of a British “great house.” Mr. Farrady is traveling to America and gives Stevens permission to use the car for a road trip.  Seizing upon a letter that he’s received from Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper at Darlington Hall who Stevens believes wants to return to service, Stevens embarks upon a journey to visit her and assess her interest in returning to the estate.

During Stevens’ six-day trip, he ponders what it takes to make a great butler and reminisces about his service to Lord Darlington, the former master of Darlington Hall, and his relationship with Miss Kenton.  Stevens believes that the most important attribute a great butler must have is dignity. Further, a great butler must serve a “great gentleman,” shining brighter through reflected glory and having the satisfaction of contributing in a small way to his employer’s service to humanity. The great houses like Darlington Hall, Stevens suggests, are a hub, “their mighty decisions emanating out to all else, rich and poor, who revolved around them.”

It turns out that Stevens has pledged allegiance to hollow values.  Dignity is a code word for repression.  Stevens cannot reassure his dying father, he cannot comfort Miss Kenton after the death of her aunt, and he treats Miss Kenton’s discovery that Stevens is reading a romance novel as a personal assault.  Miss Kenton and Stevens had developed an affectionate, companionable relationship but she cannot let her hair down and he cannot loosen his upper lip so neither can communicate their mutual wish to stay together.  So Miss Kenton marries someone else, and Stevens is left alone.  During his visit with Miss Kenton, Stevens finally grasps the opportunity for love that he lost.

He also discerns during his travels that his preoccupation with dignity has destroyed his ability to “banter” and that banter is the “key to human warmth.”

Stevens untangles his feelings about Lord Darlington as he travels. More than once Stevens denies having ever served Lord Darlington. He’s suffused with shame even as he tries to deceive himself that he had attained his professional aspiration of coming as close to the hub as possible during his thirty-five years of service.  Far from having served a distinguished man, he served a borderline traitor who lived his final days in ignominy. Darlington is more naive than mean.  In the early 1920’s, he urges loosening the restrictions in the Treaty of Versailles upon Germany, a possibly correct view but uttered for the wrong reasons. Darlington believes it isn’t sporting to crush a defeated opponent. He admires the fascist leaders, flirts with Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists, and instructs Stevens to fire two Jewish maids.  He arranges clandestine meetings between Ribbentrop, the German ambassador to Britain and Lord Halifax, Britain’s Foreign Secretary.  Stevens tries to absolve himself from blame for Lord Darlington’s “misguided” views but ultimately comes to feel that he allowed himself to be duped. “I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom.  All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile.  I can’t even say that I made my own mistakes.  Really–one has to ask oneself–what dignity is there in that?”

A recurring theme is determining who are fit decision makers in a complex world.  An American senator visiting Darlington Hall derides Britain’s aristocrats as “amateurs,” who need to leave foreign affairs to the professionals.  Darlington believes the masses are unsuited to participate in the political process, maintaining that democracy is “something for a bygone era. The world is far too complicated a place now for universal suffrage and such like.”  Stevens encounters a farmer/activist Harry Smith during his travels who asserts that “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 opinions freely, and vote in your member of parliament or vote him out. That’s what dignity’s really about.”

Stevens ends his journey resolved to banter more and to look back less and “try to make the best of what remains of my day.” Both Stevens and The Remains of the Day deserve a second chance.




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