Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day gives an eloquent treatment of the issue of how a stoic English butler’s unemotional reaction to the emotional world around him is damaging and painful, and how he resolves to make the best of the “remains of the day”—the remainder of his life. Ishiguro explores some of the differences between the old English Victorian culture—that of the stiff upper lip, no show of emotion, and repression of personal opinion—and the no-holds-barred American culture of free expression of opinion and emotion.
The American culture’s spread into England is hastened with the two world wars, and it ends Stevens’ old way of work, if not the job itself. Although Remains of the Day concentrates on a particular culture, and an obsolescent one at that, Ishiguro makes many insightful observations on human behavior in general. I will explore a few of these observations here, and attempt to show that Ishiguro’s work possesses meaning far beyond an examination of one emotionally-repressed servant. Ishiguro illustrates Stevens, and all of the old English butlers, as characters who basically amount to machines, unable to think for themselves.
They see loyalty to the master as the only thing that matters in the world. Every time Stevens ends his lines with “sir,” he is repressing his true identity. Ishiguro makes the reader wonder how on earth a person could get to be like this, for the sole reward of having the best silver in the house or the best-starched suits. The old service culture of butlers in England was destined to change dramatically after the two world wars; by the time Stevens decides to change his lifestyle the old ways are already gone forever.
Stevens even relates the subdued nature of English scenery to the proper way of dignified behavior, in his observation that the English countryside is more dignified than the showy American landscape, in its “lack of obvious drama or spectacle” (28). Obviously, most regular people in England did not act like the butlers. The behavior of the old butlers represents stereotypes which persist today in our conception of the people of England. After all, “butlers only…exist in England” (43). Indeed, Farraday judges the worth of Stevens, and Darlington Hall, according to stereotypical ideals of genuine Englishness.
In a moment of panic, Farraday demands of Stevens, “this is a genuine grand old English house, isn’t it? …And you’re a genuine old-fashioned English butler, not just some waiter pretending to be one. You’re the real thing, aren’t you? ” (124). The instance in which Stevens is called to the dining room to give his opinion on world affairs is particularly sad: the lordship and his guests want to have an amusing little discussion, but all Stevens can manage to say is, “I’m sorry, sir, but I am unable to assist in this matter” (196).
Behind each minor task of Stevens, Ishiguro raises deep questions about human beings’ relationships to their employers, and the repression of emotions which frequently occur. When Stevens learns that Lord Darlington’s reputation was totally wrecked after it was revealed that that he had sued a newspaper for libelous accusations about his alliance with Nazis, Stevens realizes that all his years spent trying to be dignified for Darlington were wasted. Darlington’s ruin makes a joke of Stevens’ years and years of personal service and devotion.
Ishiguro may be attempting to make a point about all people’s attitudes toward their employers: do not spend your whole life trying to please one boss because you may find in the end that it was not worth it. Ishiguro draws a comparison between the intense loyalty of a butler to his lord and the loyalty of the German people to Hitler. Though Stevens insists on referring to his father as “sir,” his loyalty to him leads to a break in his professional duty to his employer, since he supports his father’s attempts to hide the signs of his disability.
Stevens’ inability to acknowledge the decline of his father’s abilities may in fact be a suppressed emotion of love for him, but he cannot possibly acknowledge that. If Stevens had a healthier relationship with Lord Darlington, he might have been able to relate to his father as a son, instead of just another loyal employee. A key case of Stevens’ inability to realize the expression of love is his relationship with the head housekeeper, Miss Kenton. He allows the one potential love of his life to escape with his inability to espond to her overtures for a relationship.
Miss Kenton eventually marries and falls out of Stevens’ life, due to his excessive professionalism. When Stevens meets Miss Kenton, now Miss Bern, many years later, he is suddenly overcome by his repressed emotions and thinks, “Indeed—why should I not admit it? —at that moment, my heart was breaking” (239). Ishiguro’s description of Stevens’ and Miss Kenton’s interactions relentlessly reminds the reader how dysfunctional Stevens’ behavior is when potential real emotions toward other humans attempt to surface.
One of the most tragic parts of the book occurs when Stevens’ father, also a butler, lies dying in an upstairs bedroom, saying, “I hope I’ve been a good father to you,” and the most emotional thing the son can say is “I’m so glad you’re feeling better now,” over and over (97). This is simply the end product in a lifetime of unhealthy denial of emotions. Stevens treats these moments as merely another part of his professional duties, believing that it was “a turning point in my life…as the moment in my career when I truly came of age as a butler” (70).
Stevens sees these final acts toward his father as firmly ementing himself in a position worthy of his father’s good opinion, as the ideal, dignified butler. The younger Stevens saw as the “personification itself of…’dignity in keeping with his position’” his father’s rather creepy emotionlessness and unquestioning service to a general whose stupid mistakes resulted in a friend’s death. The rigid yet arbitrary social order provides Stevens his whole, yet limited sense of self.
The American Senator Lewis’ visit to Darlington Hall includes a speech in which he says that the British needed real “professionals” to run their affairs instead of gentle, dignified gentlemen who try to lease everyone, such as Darlington (102). Lord Darlington, like Stevens, also feels the effects of outdated ideals of politeness and duty. He reprimanded the important politicians and leaders of World War I for asking too many reparations from the Germans. Darlington gives a sense of how out of touch he is with his remark to Stevens, “…Deeply disturbing. It does us great discredit to treat a defeated foe like this.
Lewis’ speech also can be thought of as saying that Darlington Hall needs butlers who can effectively mediate and discuss emotional problems, rather than mindlessly approving verything the boss says. This issue can be related to Neville Chamberlain’s policy of dignified appeasement to Hitler: while he was busy trying to be polite, he helped expose his country and Europe at large to the threat of a man for whom dignity was quite beside the point. Ishiguro reveals to the reader the moral lapse in England’s leaders who failed to prevent Hitler from gathering power, so idealistic conditions such as peace, loyalty and duty could be maintained.
The English who shared Chamberlain’s weak, conciliatory attitude may have been part of the reason Great Britain declined as a orld power. In the colonial days, that way of doing things was not so harmful because Britain was the most powerful nation on the planet, but in the modern era with the once upstart United Sates as a budding superpower, and the Empire unraveling, the old idea of dignified talk and modest reserve would no longer do. Ishiguro discusses how Stevens Senior ran into this problem while attempting to treat Germany with “fair play” in the years leading to the start of World War II.
The American way of freely expressing pinion, even if feelings are hurt in the process, began to seep into not only England’s old homes but also its government. Stevens is a symbol of this change for the entire country. The rules of honorable conduct which Stevens had believed with all his heart absolutely necessary for the smooth operation of Darlington Hall and old England made way for an American-inspired, efficient professionalism in which knowing one’s place rapidly goes out of favor. Farraday, the easygoing American who takes over the hall after Lord Darlington’s death, requests of Stevens a give-and-take, “bantering” relationship.
Stevens hopelessly ponders how to banter, and shows how he thinks too much on trivial manners: “For one thing, how would one know for sure that at any given moment a response of the bantering sort is truly what is expected? ” (16) His seeming inability to give or take a joke without effort makes one wonder how Stevens can be human, and reminds one of the question of how the people in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four can be human without expressing real emotions. Stevens has real emotions, but he has hidden them for so long that he does not even know how to bring them to the surface.
If Stevens’ employers ran into trouble with the law for lying about taxes, doubtless Stevenswould not only repeat the lies to the media in order to defend his employer, but also make himself “believe” them in order to really be one with the employer, and thus the house. It is not just a job, but an almost holy sense of duty. This parallels Winston Smith’s job in Oceania, which not only requires him to repeat lies into a speakwrite, but to believe them as well. Mere obedience is simply not sufficient.
The agonizing formality of Stevens’ language and his inability to think objectively apart from the dignified duty of the job are forceful statements on how stunted Stevens is in dealing with real human thoughts. Ishiguro’s descriptions even make one wonder if Stevens needs to spend some quality time on a psychologist’s couch. It is worth noting that none of the people around Stevens ever suggest that he see a doctor for his problems—though his behavior is clearly abnormal, his acquaintances were so used to the peculiar culture that they could not quite grasp his behavior objectively.
Left to his own evices, it is hard to be optimistic about any real hopes for Stevens’ improvement. He may have found help in Jonathan Swift’s Directions to Servants, first published in 1745. Swift makes it clear that he detests the idea of one man willingly denying his own personality for the benefit of making another’s life run smoother: “Since those who dine at the same table are supposed to be friends,” he advises butlers, “let them all drink out of the same glass without washing; which will save you much pains, as well as the hazard of breaking them” (33).
Most likely, though, Stevens would have gaped (inwardly, f course! at Swift’s lack of regard for the proper, “dignified” way of doing things, and would have seen that the book was banned from Darlington Hall. It is another insight into Stevens’ rigid thinking that he views “bantering” as merely another duty that a butler must learn if the master of the house requests it. At the end of the book, he reflects that bantering might not be such a bad idea, if in it “lies the key to human warmth” (245). By still having Stevens talk in a stilted language, though, Ishiguro makes the reader wonder if the butler will actually make any progress.
On the surface, Farraday’s request for bantering appears to be merely a good-natured attempt at friendliness. Below the surface, though, just as Stevens below the surface grapples with unrealized emotions, Farraday may be using bantering as a way to keep the butler in his place. Farraday knows Stevens is embarassed by being unable to banter effectively, and thus move closer to the master’s way of thinking. The difference between the American and English viewpoints, at least of the butlers and “dignified” class, is highlighted when Farraday gives Stevens an auto vacation.
While Farraday’s idea of “country” is the scenic rural outdoors, Stevens thinks of it mainly as it concerns the social and political organization, made of the “great ladies and gentlemen of the land” (4). The novel attempts to illustrate the difference between the servant-master relationship in England and the more open relationships in the United States. There are, however, parallels between the butlers’ behavior and behavior by Americans in subservient positions. President Clinton’s staff loyally and unquestioningly defended his first statements about the Monica Lewinsky affair as true.
They laced their personal reputations on the line to serve Clinton—and in turn, many undoubtedly believed, the country. When Clinton’s statements were revealed as untrue, his staff was left humiliated and embarassed, their loyalty thrown away and abused. Stevens would have felt right at home in their position. However, Clinton’s staff members feel free to discuss their feelings about him after moving on to another job. Stevens did not feel comfortable discussing his former employers. America also has had its share of servants loyally serving their employers.
Stevens also would have felt right at home in a corporation such as General Motors. He would have been the perfect “team player,” putting his personal interests aside to be the most loyal adherent to dark-suit, white-shirt company policy. It is ironic that the 19th century industrial tycoons, such as Andrew Carnegie, who urged self-reliance and “making it on your own,” continued the European tradition of relying on servants. Apparently the theme of self-reliance did not extend to filling one’s own dinner glass or drawing one’s own bath.
This side of the Atlantic, though, never had elaborate definitions of protocol infuse themselves into every bit of our culture, as England did. The decline in England of the old ulture of the dignified butler and unquestioning servants, as American-inspired openness and “commonness” came into play, shows how shakily-rooted behavior such as Stevens’ actually was. However, simply because Americans do not have a rigid written code of social protocol does not mean that many of us, consciously or not, do not behave in ways similar to Stevens in everyday life.
Generally unquestioning obedience to the “household” –the school board, board of directors, union committee, in short, the cultural structure of most jobs—means that Americans’ jobs are a lot more similar to Stevens’ than we would like to think. Fortunately, we are usually allowed to express more of our personality (or loud mouth) than Stevens does. Of course, this was not true in slavery, and in the days before unions it was wise to keep one’s mouth shut with regard to true feelings toward the employer.
Even the idea of leisure implied in Stevens’ auto trip was totally opposite the ideals of self-denial he practiced so carefully; he describes feeling of the journey “a slight sense of alarm—a sense aggravated by the feeling that I was perhaps not on the correct road at all, but speeding off in totally the wrong direction into a wilderness” (24. For most people, the idea of a vacation is welcome, but for Stevens it brings almost panic, a hurried desire to justify it as part of the duties of the house, as he does by rationalizing it as a way to find new staff (10).
Stevens’ religious pursuit of a dignified existence in the service of Darlington Hall reminds one of Winston Smith’s pondering about why the Inner Party was so compelled to act the way it did. For Stevens, the pursuit of dignity and putting things in their proper state appears to have as much appeal as the pursuit of power did for the Party. In both cases, one sees repression of human emotions.
The Party was obviously much more successful than Stevens at operating purely like a machine, and at least Stevens had good intentions behind his repetitive “Yes, sirs. On his motoring trip, Stevens meets a man named Harry Smith, who argues his own definition of “dignity”: “there’s no dignity in being a slave…no matter if you’re rich or poor, you’re born free and you’re born so that you can express your opinion freely…that’s what dignity’s really about” (186). Stevens, naturally, merely said, “Of course, you’re quite correct. ” Even in this frank atmosphere he could not spill his thoughts candidly. Stevens is a very affecting character whose battles with his emotions are far from unique, either to himself or to his culture.
Most people, even Americans, sometimes find it difficult to say honestly what they feel, even when it is in their own best interests to do so. Occasionally they cannot even recognize what they feel, let alone put it into words. They are, then, like Stevens: perhaps full of feelings, but not recognizing quite what they are, or how to reveal them if they ever do seize their identity. Remains of the Day is a novel that anyone concerned about the difficulty of communicating openly and honestly should find rewarding.