Classic review: The Remains of the Day
The perils of living the life of a perfect English butler.
[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on Nov. 30, 1989.] Stevens, the hero of The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro's third novel, is the perfect butler. All his life he has sought to embody the ideals of his profession: service, composure, dignity, and discretion.Skip to next paragraph
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Having reached an age when, although still fully employed, he is starting to think about the shape of the rest of his life – "the remains of the day'' – Stevens has set out (with his employer's blessing, to be sure) on a highly unaccustomed (for him) motoring trip. His general aim is to see something of the countryside (where he's lived all his life but never really visited). More specifically, he hopes to persuade Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn), a former housekeeper, to return to Darlington Hall, which he hopes will run more smoothly again with her to help him.
Stevens is the narrator of his own story, and his perfect, perfectly parodied, butler's style of speaking can be contagious! That a writer born in Nagasaki in 1954 should have written a novel that so brilliantly captures the voice of a middle-aged English butler in the summer of 1956 reflecting on times past is remarkable, but not really another instance of the current "the Japanese do us better than we do ourselves'' syndrome.
Ishiguro has, in fact, lived in England since 1960, which makes him almost as English as Stevens, because Stevens (by his own unwitting admission) has tailored his life to produce a complete fa,cade. What makes his narrative so poignant as well as funny, its pathos and satire evenly matched, is the sincerity with which the fa,cade has been cultivated.
As he travels westward, taking in the scenery, Stevens's mind is more on the past than on the landscape. Yet, because he is hardly the sort of person who would launch into any activity as personal – and hence, improper – as recounting his own history, his story begins as a meditation on the "greatness'' of the British landscape, which, in his view, consists in its quiet, self-confident lack of conspicuous greatness. This leads him on to consider the "greatness'' of Great Britain and greatness in general – which leads, in turn, to the burning question, what constitutes a great butler?
For Stevens, the answer is contained in the word "dignity,'' a concept that means something different to him than it does to most other people:
" 'Dignity," explains Stevens, "has to do ... with a butler's ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits. Lesser butlers will abandon their professional being for the private one at the least provocation.... The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role ... 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....''