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[191] The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

remain“…a butler who is forever attempting to formulate his own strong opinions on his employer’s affairs is bound to lack one quality essential in all good professionals: namely, loyalty. . . . Indeed, I would be among the last to advocate bestowing one’s loyalty carelessly on any lady or gentleman who happens to employ one for a time. However, if a butler is to be of any worth to anything or anybody in life, there must surely come a time when he ceases his searching; a time when he must say to himself: This employer embodies all that I find noble and admirable…” [200]

At the end of his three decades serving at Darlington Hall, which an American has purchased from the English family, in the comfort of his new employer’s car, Stevens embarks on a week-long road trip in the country. During the sojourn that takes him off-the-beaten-path through Salisbury, Somerset, and Compton, the butler looks back in his career, which demonstrates exemplary professionalism, and reassures himself that he has served humanity by serving a great gentleman.

A great butler can only be, surely, one who can point to his years of service and say that he has applied his talents to serving a great gentleman—and through the latter, to serving humanity. [117]
. . . who believe that the sort of idealism prevalent amongst our generation, namely the notion that we butlers should aspire to serve those great gentlemen who further the cause of humanity. [138]

Lurking in the fray of his consciousness is doubt of Lord Darlington’s true nature and his role in the Treaty of Versailles. That the house will stand empty, in fact, for the first time since it was built while he’s away, makes Stevens feel reluctant about the trip. He will stay and attend to all the responsibilities were it not that he does have important professional reasons in respect to the staffing problems. He is to meet Darlington’s former house keeper, one Miss Kenton, who conveys her thought of returning to work. Sudden missive from Miss Kenton, who ponders with regret decisions made in the far-off past provokes in him a rueful nostalgia, although the prospect of seeing her fills him with exhilaration.

‘Do you realize, Mr Stevens, how much it would have meant to me if you had thought to share your feelings last year? . . . Do you realize how much it would have helped me? Why, Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend? [154]

Stevens’ rhetorical inquiry of what makes a great butler, which demands formal and proper diction that Ishiguro always exemplifies, mandates a dignity that suppresses Stevens’ individuality. In order to achieve this greatness, which is no more than will-o’-the-wisp, he denies and leaves unexpressed his personal feelings and beliefs, even love. He is deprived of any intimacy with anybody in the book, or worse, his life. As his caters to his employer’s interests, he inhabits the role of an imperturbable butler whose pursuit of refinery has completely taken over his personal life. Coiled with a rueful nostalgia, he reflects upon the loss of his father in his absence with the consolation that he might have achieved a modest degree of dignity in the face of contingent pressures.

‘Miss Kenton, please don’t think me unduly improper in not ascending to see my father in his deceased condition just at this moment. You see, I know my father would have wished me to carry on just now.” [106]
‘Indeed, why should I deny it? For all its sad associations, whenever I recall that evening today, I find I do so with a large sense of triumph.’ [110]

So misguided is his pursuit of dignity that Miss Kenton might have perceived her attempt to show affection toward him will be unrequited. The Remains of the Day explores of the sensation of memory that is forgone, memory that is only embedded in the mind. Stevens might not have expressed his shame but implicitly the novel delves into the loss of ideals and dreams.

245 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

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25 Responses

  1. Through your posts I’m slowly learning how to be a better reader. At times I have to read them twice so that I can fully understand them. I may have to read this book. Would you consider it cheating if I watched the movie first so that I could put the book into better context?

  2. A very good review. I enjoyed this book myself.

  3. I’m enjoying the book very much. Though I’ve only read part of this book I can tell that Ishiguro is one of those writers who presents his story through the lens of his protagonist so skillfully that the diction and phrasing of the text seem as if they emanate from Stevens own persona; he is a man who has stifled his inner self to such a degree that he is incapable of attaining a level of emotional maturity which would allow him to reach out, to nurture, to allow intimacy or ultimately to attain a deeper kind of love. And yet, while we experience the story through the emotional lens of the protagonist, we are aware that underneath a great novelist is at work, controlling the many layers and emotional viewpoints which inform the larger world in which Stevens lives. I’m looking forward to experiencing the rest of the book.

  4. I never could finish this book. Just didn’t hit me the way it seemed to grab others. I was pretty bored with it and I wasn’t interested i the characters. (Yikes! So sue me!)

  5. A great review of a great book! It was my first experience with Ishiguro, and I so appreciated his ability to delve deeply into difficult issues but to do so quietly and with great subtlety. While many authors attempt to hit us over the heads with their themes and messages, he lets the characters and his writing speak for themselves, and I just loved it.

  6. This is an excellent review! I second Staci’s comment. I have become a better reader who learns to relate passages in the book. This book also reminds me of Rebecca West’s formal style. Ishiguro focuses on the inner lives of his character and is doing so without relying much on a third -person point of view.

  7. Hi Matt! I’ve left a little something for you over at my blog: http://eveningreader.wordpress.com/2009/03/11/youve-gotta-have-friends/

  8. I’ve been very tempted to read something by Ishiguro, but for some reason have always held back. I think you’ve convinced me to pick this one up and give it a go.

  9. I plan on reading everything by Ishiguro and from all of the great reviews of “Remains of the Day” – I feel like this has to be the next one that I tackle.

    A wonderful review, Matt.

  10. Because the book is, as you deftly note, so internal, I don’t tend to recommend the movie.

  11. Staci:
    I always read the novel before watching the film because sometimes the novel (the written words) can be so internal that a visual rendition will not do the justice of the language’s beauty.

  12. Sandra:
    I feel that this is one of his best novels.

  13. Greg S:
    Ishiguro lets the character speak for himself. You don’t find lots of characterization in this book, although Ishiguro takes you to Stevens’ mind in which he debates what makes a great butler, in a rhetorical inquiry.

  14. Beth F:
    Maybe you need to recruit the help of a film. :)

  15. Rebecca:
    Excellent point! Since page one Ishiguro allows readers to get into Stevens’ world—his musing and inquiry into what makes a great butler. He asks a question in the beginning of each section, which is a travel diary as he drives along the countryside. I also realize that he usually imposes a very ambitiously broad question that he sometimes fails to answer or to support his point-of-view. Maybe that’s why the writing exudes a rueful, rather unspoken, feeling of shame that he no doubt has wasted on perusing something of which he has a misguided view.

  16. John:
    Ishiguro is known for his formal and meticulous prose. I thoroughly enjoy his writing style.

  17. Priscilla:
    Thank you so much for your kindness. :)

  18. Greg C:
    I’m a bit taken aback that you haven’t read Ishiguro. The Remains of the Day would be a very good starting point. :)

  19. lena:
    Thank you. This book turns out to be my favorite of all Ishiguro’s works. The Unconsoled is also very well-written, although the narrator, as I recall, is very unreliable.

  20. Jeanne:
    The book is very internal, almost like Rebecca West and Henry James. But I’m very curious about the film. :)

  21. Oh Matt, I hope you’ll see the film too. It’s wonderful. This is my favorite Ishiguro book and I loved reading your review. It’s been a long time since I read it but oh how I enjoyed it. I still have a couple of other Ishiguro novels to read yet.

  22. iliana:
    I am going to see it because Anthony Hawkins is in it. I’m game. I want to read the one with a Japanese woman reflecting upon the years of WW2.

  23. [...] The Remains of the Day (A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook) [...]

  24. [...] fifteen, attending the international school. She then left for boarding school in New Hampshire. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro is [...]

  25. [...] fifteen, attending the international school. She then left for boarding school in New Hampshire. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro is [...]

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