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.
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....''
As the narrative unfolds to reveal those occasions on which Stevens has displayed such dignity, the painful truth becomes ever more evident – to us, if not to him. Dignity for Stevens has consisted in remaining downstairs to serve at an important reception while upstairs his own father is on his deathbed. Dignity has meant voicing no objection, or even regret, when his employer, Lord Darlington, dismisses two servant girls because they are Jewish. In sum, Stevens's dignity has been based upon eviscerating himself both as a private and public person – as a man and as a citizen. He has mistaken the amorality of his professional code for a species of moral idealism: He believes that he has served humanity by having served a great gentleman in a great house.
Lord Darlington, the great gentleman in question, is now deceased. Stevens's current employer – the one who has so kindly encouraged him to take this brief vacation – is an American. Stevens respects him well enough, but his fondness for informality and banter puts Stevens at an uncharacteristic loss.
It's his time with Lord Darlington that Stevens considers the apex of his career in service. Stevens is proud of the contribution he made, but as we gradually discover the nature of what he was contributing to, we – and even Stevens himself – must drastically reevaluate his life's work.
In those years between the two world wars that Stevens served him, Lord Darlington did his best to foster ties between Great Britain and Germany. His gentlemanly, behind-the-scenes diplomacy began as a well-intentioned effort to temper the harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty. But it soon gave way to muddle-headed, but far less innocent, maneuverings on behalf of the Nazi regime. Ignorance, complacency, and upper-class smugness have combined to lead Darlington into a position that eventually tarnishes his name: His attitude and actions have run a course parallel to his butler's folly.
Interestingly enough, Ishiguro's previous novel, "An Artist of the Floating World,'' explored the soul of a Japanese artist whose sense of mission led him to become involved in the imperialist movement that propelled Japan into World War II. Ishiguro's subtle understanding of both these mentalities – the British butler and the Japanese artist – enables him to portray them from within. "The Remains of the Day,'' however, relies even more heavily on the narrative of a single character to reveal the blindness of his own sensibility.
Not surprisingly, Ishiguro's use of a narrative voice turned against itself has earned him comparison with Ford Madox Ford. Like "The Good Soldier,'' "The Remains of the Day'' exposes assumptions about class, correct behavior, and the "right kind of people,'' and exposes them from within, where we can see the damage done to those who presume as well as those who are presumed against.
Delicate, devastating, thoroughly ironic, yet never harsh, this is a novel whose technical achievements are matched by its insightfulness.