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[346] The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

” There is one situation and one situation only in which a butler who cares about his dignity may feel free to unburden himself of his role; that is to say, when he is entirely alone. You will appreciate then that in the event of Miss Kenton bursting in at a time when I had presumed, not unreasonably, that I was to be alone, it came to be a crucial matter of principle, a matter indeed of dignity, that I did not appear in anything less than my full and proper role. ” [169]

[Re-read] Seeping through beautiful and quiet prose is a profoundly compelling portrait of a first-rank English butler who is an effective, dedicated, but also a repressed servant. At the end of his three decades of service at Darlington Hall, Stevens embarks on a country drive during which he looks back and reflects upon his career to reassure himself that, by abiding to principle and dignity, he has served humanity. A gentleman’s gentleman, Stevens is the epitome of courtesy and quiet skill when it comes to fulfilling his master’s needs.

There are certain members of our profession who would have it that it ultimately makes little difference what sort of employer one serves; 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]

Hindsight have, however, made the butler feel like one of history’s victims, as he comes to realize that he may have taken the wrong path. For the first time in decades, as he’s on a road trip to see Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn), a former colleague with whom he was once in love (he never admits to her), that he was not aware of the full implications of what he was doing. Nor was he keen to her romantic intention. The perfect touch with which he goes about his duties, the obsession with which he maintains mannerisms and public personae—albeit at every turn invokes dignity, are merely a blind for his emotional constipation and moral failure. Once he was naive to assume “one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton,” but the attempt to make amends for the mistakes and misunderstanding just comes a bit too late:

But that doesn’t mean . . . there aren’t occasions now and then—extremely desolate occasions—when you think to yourself: ‘What a terrible mistake I’ve made with my life.’ And you get to thinking about a different life, a better life you might have had. . . . After all, there’s no turning back the clock now. One can’t be forever dwelling on what you might have been. [239]

Subtly plotted, The Remains of the Day gives the impression that characters and scenes in the beautifully paced novel become no more than mouthpieces and backdrops for Ishiguro’s concern for the human condition: A desire to exceed one’s limitations. Not only is Stevens loyal to a fault, his former employer, Lord Darlington, however decent, honest, and well-meaning he was, was also playing a dangerous game by allowing himself to be used as a pawn in Hitler’s schemes. It’s only the benefit of hindsight that enables Stevens to see his master’s high ideals were just as toxic as immorality. Cleverly put together, the novel reads a dizzying dance and an emotional journey down memory lane.

245 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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29 Responses

  1. So glad you enjoyed this one, Matt. But then anyone who doesn’t is clearly crazy! It was one of my favorite reads of 2010 and made me completely reconsider my dislike of Ishiguro (now I’m determined to read everything by him, though I still stand by disliking Never Let Me Go!).

    • I know your frustration because Never Let Me Go was what I picked up to read after The Remains of the Day. Although the writing was just as quiet and elegant, I did not care for the story. I felt so disappointed at that one! As for The Remains of the Day, every person who considers himself/herself a serious fiction reader should at least peruse this book once. 🙂

  2. This book was my favourite from this author. Elegantly written story.

  3. A beautiful tale indeed 🙂 A book I read during a very difficult period that was the perfect choice at the time and really whisked me away. Never let me go is in the TBR pile so I hope I’m not disappointed!

    • The novel does not present the situation of Stevens as simply a personal one. It seems clear that Stevens’s position as butler, and servant, has gradually made it impossible for him to live a fulfilling emotional life. His father dies, and Stevens is too occupied with worrying about whether his butlering is being carried out correctly to mourn (something that he later reflects on with great pride). Stevens too cannot bring himself to express feelings about personal matters, as expressing such emotions would compromise his dignity.

      The social rules at the time were certainly a major constraint. As we see in the book, servants who wish to get married and have children immediately find themselves without a job, since married life is seen as incompatible with total devotion to one’s master. A truly “great butler” does not abandon his profession, and, as such, Stevens feels that such choices are foolish in regard to the life of a butler.

  4. I remember seeing the film in the cinema all those years ago … your opening quote was such a devastating scene between Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. I’ve not read the book, but have had a battered old second hand copy picked up in a charity shop sitting in my TBR for, oh, 6 or 7 years! Must bump it up near the top, thanks to your review.

    • Stevens is arguably aware on some level of Miss Kenton’s feelings, but he fails to reciprocate. Miss Kenton’s actions often leave Stevens bemused and puzzled, but his recollections reveal to the reader the lost possibilities of their relationship, as past interactions are recreated. However, Stevens is never able to acknowledge the complexity of feeling he possesses for Miss Kenton, insisting only that they shared an ‘excellent professional relationship’. It is not only the constraints of his social situation, but also his own emotional maturity (or immaturity) that holds him back. Emma Thompson and Antony Hopkins are made for the roles, and I am very much looking forward to seeing the film.

  5. this is one of my favorite books ever! 🙂 loved loved loved. glad you did too!

  6. I have been meaning to read this for ages. Your post broght this back to mind. Thanks!

  7. This is one of my all-time favorite books. It is written so beautifully, and is so heartbreaking. I am glad you liked it too. I haven’t read any other Ishiguro books, I always mean to get around to one though. 😉 Thanks for the review.

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  9. I thoroughly enjoyed Nocturnes & have this & when we were orphans in front of me, just waiting to go, so far this is an author that appeals.enjoyed your post, thanks
    Parrish.

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