The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Presentation of Stevens in the Remains of the Day
Stevens believes that to be a great butler, one must maintain their professional facade at all times in order to remain dignified (or at least, the ability to maintain a professional facade regardless of one’s circumstances is Stevens’ definition of dignity). This results in him obsessing over his physical appearance and causes him to suppress his feelings. However, as the novel progresses, Stevens’ suppression of his feelings has caused him emotional distress as he is unable to be with the woman he loves. Moreover, it is established early on in the novel that Stevens is an unreliable narrator and this causes us, as readers, to further understand Stevens’ true desire in life.
Stevens’ obsessiveness with being a great butler is evident from the way he attempts to maintain his professional facade in order to remain dignified and is highlighted through Ishiguro’s use of diction and metaphors. Stevens states that he is “in the possession of a number of splendid suits”. The word “splendid” shows us that Stevens is trying to emphasize the fact that he owns suits that are of extremely high quality and very impressive. The fact that Stevens is trying to impress the reader regarding the quality of his suits shows us that he places too much value on his outward appearance and that through association with his well-dressed appearance, the reader would believe that was professional in nature. Therefore, this shows that Stevens attempts to be well-dressed at all times in order to maintain his professional facade. Moreover, the fact that he “do(es) not possess any suitable travelling clothes” shows that his whole life revolves around his occupation. In this case, travelling clothes are a symbol of relaxation, as one normally goes on holiday to relax. The fact that Stevens has no travelling clothes whatsoever proves that he does not go on holidays to relax and that he spends his days tending to his master. The word “not” is an absolute term and is used to further reinforce the fact that Stevens constantly has on a professional facade and can never really separate from it as his whole life revolves around being a butler. In Stevens’ eyes, this essentially brings him one step closer to becoming a great butler as he believes that a great butler is one who is not only devoted but loyal to his master. In his bid to become a great butler, Stevens suppresses his own internal emotions even though it causes him emotional distress. He believes that even though a suit is “clearly too small” for him, it is “ideal in terms of tone”. On a superficial level, it is evident that Stevens is obsessed with his appearance. Even though he could have donned a more comfortable suit, he instead chooses to wear a tight one that causes him physical discomfort as he believes that being well-dressed is essential in portraying his professionalism. However, on a metaphorical level, the tight suit represents Stevens’ suppression of his internal feelings. Ishiguro’s use of visual imagery is particularly effective here as a tight suit brings across the image of restriction and constraint, in the sense that one’s body is suppressed in tight clothing. The idea of restriction and constraint is effective in showing us how Stevens suppresses his internal feeling, just like how one’s body feels restricted in tight clothing. Therefore, the physical discomfort one feels in tight clothing is representative of the emotional discomfort Stevens feels by repressing his feelings. It is also crucial to note that just as how Stevens is planning to wear this tight suit in order to have a more professional appearance, his suppression of his internal feelings is also intended to portray his professionalism. Hence, Stevens’ desire to be a great butler has caused him to suppress his internal feelings and to be wary of his appearance in order to keep up his professional facade.
Stevens’ suppression his internal emotions and the emotional distress it has caused him in the long term is highlighted through his own contradictions as well as through Ishiguro’s use of diction. Considering Stevens’ ambition of always addressing other people correctly and properly, it is somewhat self-contradictory of him to refer to “Miss Kenton” by her maiden name instead of her married name Mrs Benn. For example, in one of his recollections, he declares his disturbance when Miss Kenton addresses his father by his first name, William, instead of Mr Stevens. He believed that it was “inappropriate(ness) of someone your (her) age” to address his father in that manner. Ishiguro’s use of diction is extremely effective here as the word “inappropriate” suggests that Stevens views Miss Kenton’s behaviour as highly unprofessional. Therefore, this highlights Stevens’ obsession of addressing people correctly, which can largely be attributed to him wanting to remain professional at all times. The fact that he drops his professional facade and addresses Miss Kenton by her maiden name already hints to the reader that Miss Kenton plays a special role in Stevens’ life. Stevens refers to Miss Kenton by her maiden name in order to avoid the otherwise constant reminder of her marriage in his narration, which the name Mrs Benn would have caused. Therefore, this shows us that Stevens is unwilling to accept the fact that Miss Kenton is already married as that means he would be unable to truly profess his love to her and could potentially be lonely for the rest of his life.Thus, since Stevens was unable to declare his love to Miss Kenton due to his obsession with maintaining a professional image, he desires to have a second chance to express his love towards her. Additionally, Stevens’ love towards Miss Kenton is further highlighted through Ishiguro’s use of diction. “Shortly after” Miss Kenton’s departure, Stevens is said to “often glance through Volume III of Mrs Symons’s work” in order to “gain some sense of the sort of place Miss Kenton had gone to live her married life”. The word “shortly” shows that Stevens’ feelings towards Miss Kenton are so strong that despite her only being gone for a brief period of time, he is already starting to miss her. This highlights the sheer magnitude of Stevens’ love towards Miss Kenton due to his need to always have some element of her, be it in person or in memory, present in his life. Moreover, the fact that he “often” glances through these encyclopedias serves to highlight the frequency in which Stevens seeks to remember Miss Kenton and drives home the point that Stevens has this constant need to have Miss Kenton in his life, highlighting his feelings of affection towards her. Moreover, since Stevens tries to gain “some sense of the sort of place Miss Kenton had gone to live her married life”, we can see that Stevens is projecting his own love towards Miss Kenton onto her marriage. He is trying to imagine what Miss Kenton’s married life is like as he is imagining what being married to Miss Kenton would feel like and how they could have lived the rest of their life together. He is essentially trying to derive some sense of joy through his imagination as he wonders what being married to his love would feel like. Since Stevens lost the opportunity to profess his love towards Miss Kenton before she left, his imagination acts as a substitute for what could have been. This highlights Stevens’ desire to be with Miss Kenton and therefore highlights his love towards her. Therefore, Stevens’ suppression of his internal emotions has caused him emotional distress as he is unable to be with the woman he loves.
Additionally, Ishiguro establishes Stevens as an unreliable narrator in order for the readers to evaluate Stevens view of events critically and more importantly, to understand Stevens’ true desires in life. Through Stevens’ use of prolepsis, it is evident that he wishes for the reader to perceive him favourably. When Stevens says “I hope you do not think me unduly vain”, he anticipates that the reader would regard his obsession with his appearance as vanity and hence, he wishes to prevent the reader from associating this negative trait with himself. Therefore, this shows us that Stevens is defensive over his actions that may be perceived negatively by others and diminishes his reliability as a narrator. Moreover, Stevens often contradicts himself throughout the passage. Here, Stevens that one must be “dressed in a manner worthy of his position” as he may be “obliged to give out” that he was from Darlington Hall. Ishiguro’s use of diction is particularly effective here as the word “worthy” shows that Stevens believes that he needs to be well dressed to justify the fact that he was working in such a distinguished household. The fact that Stevens feels that he needs to be dressed in a certain manner in order to justify his occupation shows that he believes that working for Lord Darlington is a privilege due to the latter’s high social status. Moreover, the phrase “Lord Darlington himself” shows that Stevens has a high amount of respect for his master and regards him as an extremely important individual. This is due to the fact that Stevens did not expect a man of Lord Darlington’s social status to pass down his expensive suits to his employee (a butler) and was therefore pleased that a man of such importance had given him some of his possessions. The word “himself” is used to highlight Stevens’ pride in the fact that his master, someone who he was meant to serve, would even consider passing down his possessions to him. Hence, since Stevens is proud of owning some of his master’s suits, albeit it being an old suit, it is evident that he respects Lord Darlington and cherishes whatever kind gestures his master shows towards him. By extent, Stevens would be proud of the fact that he works in such a distinguished household. However, despite Steven’s saying that he’s proud of working for such a distinguished household, he refuses to admit that he used to work for Lord Darlington. For example, Stevens denies working for Lord Darlington by stating, “Oh no, I am employed by Mr John Farraday, the American gentleman who bought the house from the Darlington family.” The interjection “oh no” shows us that Stevens was alarmed or concerned of being associated with Lord Darlington. This vehement denial is a stark contrast to Stevens’ previous loyalty and respect to Lord Darlington and therefore highlights Stevens’ contradictory behaviour. Stevens denies working for Lord Darlington as he is trying to prevent a conversation from occurring, which would most certainly result in the person judging Lord Darlington for his morally questionable anti-semitic actions. This is because if Stevens accepted that serving Lord Darlington was the opposite of “serving humanity”, he would have to admit that all of his life was wasted on serving the wrong man. Moreover, by refusing to admit that Lord Darlington was an immoral man and avoiding conversations which would portray Lord Darlington as immoral, he could keep up the pretence that he was serving a gentleman, which would enable him to maintain the feeling of importance he had being a butler in a distinguished house. By establishing the unreliability of Stevens as a narrator, Ishiguro enables us to further understand Stevens’ internal struggle. Stevens often chooses to omit or lie about information that would seemingly imply that he had lost his professionalism (or dignity, by his definition), and would prevent him from being viewed as a “great butler”. Therefore, it is evident that Stevens is a man who values his professional image and occupation above all else and that he would even be unreliable in order to further enhance his image towards the reader.
Essentially, Ishiguro establishes Stevens as an unreliable narrator in order to let the reader gain insight to Stevens’ character and what he truly values in life as well as to enable the reader to think critically of Stevens’ narration of events instead of merely taking them at face value.In conclusion, this novel serves to highlight Stevens’ obsessiveness of becoming a great butler. Even though he managed to maintain his professional image and served his master well, Stevens’ suppression of his feelings causes him emotional distress. Moreover, it is established early that Stevens is an unreliable narrator and this causes us, as readers, to further understand Stevens’ true desire in life and to critically evaluate his narrative.
The Revelation of Mr. Stevens as Modern Tragic Hero
The most crucial moment in the text of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, The Remains of the Day, does not occur until almost the very end of the book. The tragic implications of everything that has taken place before can only be put into the proper context for the reader by situating his consciousness within the timeline of the awareness of the story’s protagonist, Mr. Stevens. That timeliness has revealed him to be a personification of the concept of leading a life of quiet desperation as his passivity and inability to act upon either his emotions or his intellect has kept him virtually unchanged throughout the revolutions taking place in the early part of the 20th century. His sense of duty, loyalty to his employer and unquestioned acceptance of social customs and historical traditions has resulted in his being seemingly bereft of even the capacity to act as time has passed him over, the evil of his employer has been revealed and the only woman he loved married another. Situating the most critical moment in the life of Mr. Stevens an emotionally devastating climax which is experienced simultaneously by reader and character removes the element of irony from the story and thus succeeds in transforming the Ishiguro’s simple butler into a modern tragic figure of almost mythic dimension.
This transformative moment commences at the point at which Mr. Stevens finally decides to make an inquiry into the present state of the marriage of the former Miss Kenton. His very language which is marked by a propriety verging on quaintness is indicative of his detachment from emotional engagement. “I simply wondered if you were being ill-treated in some way. Forgive me, but as I say, it is something that has worried me for some time” is all surface and lacks the deeper meaning that he simply cannot bring him to explicitly state. The terminology is directed toward the reasoning behind Miss Kenton having temporarily left her husband on a number of occasions. Tragic implication can be found in the fact that even at this late stage of his life when he has been so terribly disappointed, Mr. Stevens cannot help but retain his proper and studied sense of reserve. What he is really asking here is not whether her husband has mistreated her, but whether her husband has given her adequate reason to leave him permanently and come go to the man who has loved her so deeply and so longingly from afar. The discipline continues with his reply upon learning that her husband has not, in fact, been particularly ill-treating toward her. His reply that this knowledge “does take a load from my mind” is betrayed by emotions so raw and close to the surface that all his training and commitment to emotional distance cannot keep them entirely hidden.
In that instant, Miss Kenton detects a note of humanity within Stevens despite his best efforts to suppress it. Her inquiry requires a follow-up that cannot be ignored. The question “Do you not believe me?” is one that his well-constructed sense of dignity could never possibly have allowed to go unanswered. Within that question lies an aspect of suspicion of his motives and a distrust that he has been entirely truthful. A man who has committed a lifetime to engendering trust and remaining truthful to this position to the point of that position obliterating every other aspect of his personality has no choice but to respond. So he does respond, but in a way that has to be excruciating to most readers, his response retains his sense of decorum at the very moment when his emotional state of being most requires that decorum be damned. Instead of opening up and delivering the full truth of how he feels, he couches those feelings behind a syntactical wasteland of confession to merely being “rather mystified as to the cause of [her] unhappiness.”
And yet, Miss Kenton, fully in touch with her own emotional state and doubtlessly aware to some extent of his, still manages to give him one more chance. After admitting that her marriage is hardly borne of uncontrollable desire and passion, but is one based more on mutual trust and comfort, she admits “I’ve grown to love him.” Then she remains silent. She give him that moment of silence to break free from the suppression of all his desires. She allows him just that one moment of silence upon those hardly inspiring words of devotion to her husband to let Mr. Stevens do something for once in his life that won’t push him toward dying from that life of quiet desperation.
His failure to seize the day seals his doom. If only all those repressed emotions and if only a lifetime of dedication to being something rather than someone had so gripped him within a shroud of fear and an inability to act, Mr. Stevens might well not have ended up the modern tragic hero he becomes. Instead of speaking up, he lets that moment of silence lapse for long enough that Miss Kenton fills the void. She even comes close to making the full confession herself when she muses that she has thought about what a terrible mistake she’s made with her life. She doesn’t come right out and admit that, however, and her confession ends up being only the most dreaded words in the vocabulary for Mr. Stevens: “There’s no turning back the clock now.”
Mr. Stevens does make a full confession. Not to Miss Kenton, to whom he should have made it, of course, but to the reader. At the words “my heart was breaking” he makes the transformation fully into modern tragic hero. He has sacrificed all for duty and that duty sacrificed nothing for him. He becomes situated as the person who gives everything to his ambitions without gaining anything from having those ambitions realized. The perfect butler, Mr. Stevens ends up weeping in his only genuine show of emotion as he becomes the most imperfect of humans: the human who does allow himself to experience the full gamut of the emotions extended only his species among all the species populating the planet.
Examining Lost Identity and Dignity through Stevens
The novel The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro examines the different facets of dignity. The protagonist, a butler named Stevens, adamantly seeks to become a great and dignified butler, a task that he believes only the most imperturbable can achieve. As he examines his life while on a motoring trip, the self-deception and disillusionment fostered by this concocted ideal become clear. Through Stevens’ interactions with his own personal affects, including his name, his room and his clothing, Ishiguro warns that excessive propriety and restraint lead to the deterioration of one’s identity, and deprive one of human warmth, and affection.
Ishiguro manipulates the utilization of names in order to illustrate how Stevens’ vocation and ideals wholly consume his selfhood. Since the novel takes place in pre-World War II England, a defined hierarchy is an integral part of society and names are direct reflections of one’s status. As a butler, serving the most prominent figures of England, Stevens is constantly required to adhere to the proper usage of titles, ingraining in him a correlation between names and dignity. In addition, his daily use of titles reinforces that he is a subordinate to lords and gentlemen. Due to Stevens’ complete immersion into the hierarchical environment of England, he is unable to detach his identity from his occupation. His ingrained association of names with honor is reflected when he confronts Miss Kenton, the housekeeper of Darlington Hall, for not addressing his father as Mr. Stevens Senior: “Miss Kenton, it is clear from your tone you simply have not observed my father. If you had done so, the inappropriateness of someone of your age and standing addressing him as ‘William’ should have been self-evident to you'” (54). Though technically Ms. Kenton does have a higher position in the house as the head housekeeper than Stevens’ father —the under-butler— does, Stevens objects to the traditional usage of firstnames in this instance. Through the inclusion of this argument, Ishiguro reveals Stevens’ creation of his own hierarchy based on his conclusions of honor and dignity. He concludes that his father’s ability to suppress his emotions and opinions even in the most distressing situations allows him to “manifest dignity in keeping with his position” (42). This ability then, according to Stevens, offsets the standard hierarchy of a household.
In addition, Ishiguro demonstrates how Stevens prefers surnames because their usage indicates that the person being referred to is dignified. This preference is further portrayed in that this novel is a first person narrative and Stevens is only ever addressed by his last name. The lack of usage of Stevens’ first name reveals that Stevens never displays any informality. As his name literally condenses due to his concocted beliefs of an honor system, his identity diminishes. By withholding his first name, Ishiguro creates an immediate distance between Stevens and those he encounters. Not only does the concealment of his first name sets him apart in his distinctions and status, it also emotionally disconnect others from Stevens.
Moreover, Ishiguro uses Stevens’ lack of variety in his clothing to demonstrate how he constantly upholds a sense of propriety, an act that ultimately deters him from expressing a wide range of human emotions and thus creating any meaningful relationships. As he describes his father’s accomplishments, Stevens compares the qualities of a butler to how one should wear a suit:The great butlers are great by virtues of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it 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 circumstance tear it off him in the public gaze…It is, as I say, a matter of ‘dignity’. (42-43)He correlates the suppression of emotion as a prerequisite to being a “great butler.” In order to maintain his self-described dignity, he must remain stoic and tempered at all times, which hinders his self-expression. He distinctly separates Stevens the individual from Stevens the butler when makes an analogy of inhabiting this “professional role” to always wearing a suit. The wearing of a suit, a physical and conscious act, initiates this process of “inhabiting his professional role.”
Furthermore, this analogy, combined with the fact that his closet only consists of professional attire and no “suitable travelling clothes,” suggests that he is always in the role of the butler, constantly trying to maintain his ideals of dignity (10-11). It also shows that he only exists within the capacity of his job. He has given up all existence outside of his work; his lack of casual clothing portrays that he does not travel nor have a casual day. As he dons his suits every day, he dons the mask of a disimpassioned butler, ridding himself of any expressions of vulnerability and emotions and becoming solely focused on his duties.
Ishiguro uses Stevens’ interactions with Miss Kenton and his father to illustrate how maintaining a professional role deters Stevens from truly connecting with his loved ones. When Stevens checks up on his ailing father, who had just recovered from a stroke, Stevens keeps an impersonal tone despite the somber and confessional topic of conversation: “‘I’m proud of you. A good son. I hope I’ve been a good father to you. I suppose I haven’t.’ ‘I’m afraid we’re extremely busy now, but we can talk again in the morning.’ My father was still looking at his hands as though he were faintly irritated by them” (97). Leading up to this point, the exchanges between Steven’s father and him have been only about work. This is the first time in which one of the Stevens men discloses their emotions willingly, but since Stevens did not reciprocate, they could not overcome the awkward and cold atmosphere of their conversation. Though this is the prime opportunity to progress his relationship with his father, the professional suit blocks the words of his father from reaching Stevens the son.
Although there should be a sense of urgency in the situation, Stevens brushes off his father’s statements of regret and says that they “can talk again in the morning.” Ishiguro furthers underscores the disconnect between Stevens and his father through the mention of Stevens Senior’s hands. He utilizes the duality of the symbol of hands as a representation of menial labor and familial love to demonstrate the two main sources of Stevens Senior’s life regrets. Steven’s father feels agitated for not having been a “good father,” and utilizing his hands to serve the needs of others rather than to convey affection towards his son. Despite being shown the consequence of excessive propriety and restraint through his father, Stevens continues to uphold these absurd values of dignity.
Another instance in which Stevens fails to foster any meaningful relationships is when Miss Kenton informs him of her engagement and the possibility of her resignation. In response to her news, Stevens says: “‘Miss Kenton, you have my warmest congratulations. But I repeat, there are matters of global significance taking place upstairs and I must return to my post.’” (219). Stevens suppresses his feelings for Miss Kenton and acts aloof towards her announcement. When he points out that “matters of global significance” are taking place, Stevens is reassuring himself in his decision to remain unflappable. Though he is responding to Ms. Kenton, these words are more of a reminder to himself that his role as a butler has “global significance,” whereas his feelings for Ms. Kenton do not and should thus be suppressed for the greater good. There is also a constant pattern in that whenever Stevens is faced with a situation that could force him to betray his emotions, he hurriedly escapes into the duties of a butler. The suit that he dons as a butler impairs his ability to play any other roles, including the role of the son and the role of the companion.
Moreover, in both scenarios, Stevens lets opportunity pass by as his father passes away and as Miss Kenton resigns from her post. This failure to act on his part creates loose ends and his desire for closure, especially with Miss Kenton. His suppression of his feelings in this instance and conviction to remain dutiful compels him to travel across the country just to get the answer to whether Miss Kenton is truly happy with her marriage (238). Similar to the fate of his father, Stevens’ devotion to his ideals stifles his chances at love and affection, rendering him to become lonely and full of regret.
Ishiguro utilizes the similarities between Stevens’ and his father’s room to display that all of their defining characteristics are all derived from aspects of their job. When Miss Kenton sees Stevens’ room for the first time, she comments: “‘But surely, Mr. Stevens, there is no need to keep your room so stark and bereft of colour.’ ‘It has served me perfectly well thus far as it is, Miss Kenton.'” (52). Stevens’ room merely functions as a shelter for him to reside in after working hours rather than a personal safe haven. Furthermore, his remark to Ms. Kenton is ironic because when he sees his father’s room, which is extremely similar to his, he comments its resemblance to a prison cell: “I was newly struck by the smallness and starkness of it. Indeed, I recall my impression at the time was of having stepped into a prison cell, but then this might have had much to do with the pale early light as with the size of the room or the bareness of its walls” (64). From the bareness of the walls to the general starkness of the room, Stevens’ and his father’s room are extremely similar. Despite these parallels, Stevens fails to see that he himself is also imprisoned by his own conclusions on dignity and honor.
In addition, both of the rooms fail to provide any insight into their personalities and their “bareness” only reveals that the two men are entirely subsumed by their occupations at Darlington Hall. Ishiguro then foreshadows the effects of this “bareness” on Stevens’ through Steven’s father: “When I saw him stood upright before me, I could not be sure to what extent he was hunched over due to infirmity and what extent due to the habit of accommodating the steeply sloped ceilings of the room” (65). The posture of Stevens’ father has almost been molded to the ceiling of Darlington Hall. Stevens’ father’s life has been so wrapped around serving others and becoming an imperturbable butler that he is posture now mimics a stable and rigid structure of the building itself. This accommodation and dedication to his work literally cripples him and his human agency and the same fate awaits Stevens himself.
Like his father, by allowing blind devotion and loyalty to overtake his sense of individuality and his convictions, Stevens becomes a mere extension of his employer, Lord Darlington. When Lord Darlington, who is later accused of being a Nazi sympathizer, asks Stevens to fire all of the Jewish employees, Stevens contemplates: “The maids had been perfectly satisfactory employees and…my every instincts opposed the idea of their dismissal. Nevertheless, my duty in this instance was quite clear, and as I saw it, there was nothing to be gained at all in irresponsibly displaying such personal doubts” (148). By going against his morals and obediently following Lord Darlington’s orders, Lord Darlington’s choices and beliefs are imposed onto Stevens. Even though his “every instincts” opposed Lord Darlington’s decision, he easily allows Lord Darlington to determine and overrule his own morals: “The fact is, the world today is a very complicated and treacherous place. There are many things you [Miss Kenton] and I are simply not in a position to understand concerning, say, the nature of Jewry. Whereas his lordship, I might venture, is somewhat better placed to judge what is for the best” (149). He adopts the belief that his own opinions and values are of less worth than Lord Darlington’s based on the fact that Darlington is given the title of “Lord.” He undermines himself when he says he is “not in the position to understand…the nature of Jewry.” Though Stevens may not be able to comprehend global conflicts, he does have basic sense of morals that to be able to judge that firing employees based on their religion is unfair and prejudiced. Stevens’ belief that honor can only be obtained by the most prestigious and wealthy gentlemen also makes him be complicit in his own subservience. As Stevens seeks his self-prescribed ideals of dignity and honor, his individuality diminishes and his capability to form close bonds with others is hindered. Since Stevens only ever knew the master-servant relationship, he is left without any sources of affection, regretting that he had not made choices out of his own volition. The ideals that he constructed, which were meant to help him become honorable and dignified, ultimately turns his life into one of waste.
Professionalism and Englishness in The Remains of the Day
In The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro exemplifies English identity from the perspective of the butler of a prominent estate, Mr. Stevens of Darlington Hall. Ishiguro uses Mr. Stevens’s account to establish English identity, allowing Mr. Stevens’s conservative perspective to be a commentary on that identity as it relates to professionalism and integrity. Ishiguro’s rendering of English identity privileges service (though not necessarily professionalism) over all, and other facets of humanity like pride and integrity are expected to yield to service; however, Stevens’s conservative nature slightly exaggerates these aspects of English identity as the society around him gradually begins to liberalize its Englishness, relaxing its privileging of professionalism.
Mr. Stevens is both the protagonist and the narrator of the text, and as the narrator, he communicates to the reader in such a way that evinces Ishiguro’s authorial intent to establish his account as unreliable. Stevens’s unreliability only applies, however, to certain contexts, and in many other contexts, the reader is led to trust his explanations. Broadly, one of the reasons Ishiguro does this is to make it easy for the reader to ultimately view English identity as slightly different from what Stevens exemplifies. Specifically, the reader easily sees Stevens as an old-fashioned representation of Englishness.
One way Mr. Stevens’s old-fashioned nature is made apparent to the reader is by way of Stevens’s many stories about his father who was also a butler; Stevens lives to be like his father for whom the profession was life, nearly in its entirety, and Stevens’s strict adherence to his father’s model and, perhaps, even greater conservatism strongly suggests that Stevens is, indeed, old-fashioned—fashioned after a previous generation. The arguably most reliable commentary on Stevens’s conservatism, though, typically comes from Miss Kenton who worked closely with Stevens at Darlington Hall for many years prior to the start of the novel. Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton reminisce together about an incident in which Lord Darlington fired two Jewish maids for no other reason than that they were Jewish, which greatly upset Miss Kenton at the time. Stevens was also disturbed by this, claiming in his account to be as disturbed as Miss Kenton, but he deemed it requisite of a butler not to question Lord Darlington’s decision, even in a private conversation with Miss Kenton; consequently, she assumed Stevens agreed with the decision until a year later when they discuss it all and Stevens informs Miss Kenton that Lord Darlington regretted firing the maids and asked Stevens to find them again. Miss Kenton’s reaction is not to Lord Darlington’s regret but to Stevens having withheld his true feelings about what transpired. She says, “Why, Mr. Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?” (Ishiguro 154). Her response confirms somewhat late in the novel that Stevens’s old-fashioned view of his profession is not representative of Englishness for everyone, even if it was once so.
For Mr. Stevens, English identity allows itself to be defined and stationed by one’s profession. Pride is irrelevant with regard to where one belongs, and those who would challenge their stations out of pride are deviant. Stevens does not vocally empathize with Miss Kenton’s reaction to Lord Darlington’s firing of the Jewish maids solely because he believes his station both does and should restrict him from doing so; he considers his own opinion undeserving of representation outside of his personal privacy. Even at the risk of Miss Kenton believing that he lacks integrity, Mr. Stevens maintains this notion.
Mr. Stevens’s Englishness is so contingent upon his professionalism, in fact, that he speaks of his professional development the way one would personal development as from adolescence to adulthood, which makes professionalism more encompassing of human identity. When discussing Lord Darlington’s convivial gathering of prominent figures who sympathized with Germany to discuss ways to loosen the Treaty of Versailles, Stevens says, “Let me make clear that when I say the conference of 1923, and that night in particular, constituted a turning point in my professional development, I am speaking very much in terms of my own more humble standards. […] For all its sad associations, whenever I recall that evening today, I find I do so with a large sense of triumph” (Ishiguro 110). Stevens’s words establish professionalism as the cornerstone of his identity as an Englishman because Ishiguro uses his father’s mortal illness to show what shapes Stevens the most.
Ishiguro expects that, for most people (including the implied reader), the death of a close parent or guardian would have the most profound effect on one’s personal development, but for Stevens, the most profound effect comes from his performance on the job under such unprecedented pressure; his father’s death is, in fact, reduced somewhat to being merely the ultimate challenge in performing his duties as a butler.
Since Ishiguro uses Mr. Stevens to depict English identity, Englishness forms in the text from its conservative fringe first and then expands to position that starting point relative to other, differing representations of Englishness. Because Stevens is a subaltern character (unlike Mr. Farraday or Lord Darlington), Ishiguro is able to create a rather reliable, thick description of the mid-twentieth century in England. He captures the discourse of the day (that which “remains” after observing Stevens’s angle) as growing less conservative and, perhaps, reducing professionalism’s ability to define an Englishman or Englishwoman in favor of, at the very least, integrity and a modicum of pride in that integrity.
A Quest for Closure: Stevens’s Journey in Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day
“The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.” Don Williams’s words of wisdom paint a vivid picture of the progress of life and the changes that occur in order to make us stronger, more durable people. In literature, Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day produces Stevens, an orderly butler whose constant mission is to serve Darlington Hall to his utmost capabilities. Stevens’s stalwart dedication to his work leaves little room for anything else. However, when the new owner of Darlington Hall, Mr. Farraday, gives Stevens the opportunity to take some time off, he decides to take a road trip through the West Country with the purpose of reconnecting with Miss Kenton. Miss Kenton, an old employee of Darlington Hall and friend of Stevens, is the source of many memories for Stevens and is very much a part of the nostalgia of Darlington Hall. As such, Stevens turns his journey into a business trip in order to see if Miss Kenton would like to take up her old position at the manor. In a quest rooted in the discovery of a new sense of “seeing” and an enlightened view of the world, Ishiguro takes the reader on a trip with Stevens as he tackles the questions of his career, namely his service to a “great gentleman.” All in all, Stevens’s journey forces him to divulge his true feelings to Miss Kenton and to really look deep into his service during the days of Lord Darlington, culminating in his realization of his own faults in dealing with Miss Kenton and Lord Darlington.On the first day of his journey in Salisbury, Stevens decides to pull over to take in the natural world when he is stopped by an old man sitting before a hill. The old man beckons Stevens to take a hike up the hill and to enjoy the view of the English countryside before it’s too late (25). The man’s remark catches Stevens off guard, and he finds the comment offensive. Nonetheless, Stevens treks up the hill and realizes that the old man was right about the scenery. In response, Stevens makes the following insightful statement:It was a fine feeling indeed to be standing up there like that, with the sound of summer all around one and a light breeze on one’s face. And I believe it was then, looking on that view, that I began for the first time to adopt a frame of mind appropriate for the journey before me. For it was then that I felt the first healthy flush of anticipation for the many interesting experiences I know these days ahead hold in store for me. And indeed, it was then that I felt a new resolve not to be daunted in respect to the one professional task I have entrusted myself with on this trip; that is to say, regarding Miss Kenton and our staffing problems (26).From the beginning, Stevens recognizes the magnitude of this trip, and makes reference to the fact that it will encompass more than just a settling of staff problems. Stevens’s leaving Darlington Hall represents the catalyst for change upon which his journey hinges. Although Stevens see his trip as purely professional before his departure from Darlington Hall, the sight on the hill literally opens his eyes to the splendors of the outside world and what he has to look forward to over the course of the coming days. Furthermore, Stevens’s adoption of an appropriate “frame of mind” is an early indication of the impending changes that will result as he begins to examine the pre-World War II events at Darlington Hall, and his reactions to various life-altering events, such as the death of his father, throughout the latter part of the novel.The question of “greatness” and its relation to the traditional English butler begins to occupy Stevens’s mind at the start of his journey. Dignity and greatness become two central issues that Stevens examines while touring the countryside, using examples from his daily interactions with various butlers and gentlemen and ladies of the highest order. Collectively speaking, Stevens looks at the career of his father, and in particular, an incident involving his reserved manner when faced with adverse circumstances. As such, Stevens examines “dignity,” and defines it as living up to one’s duty day to day with the desire to be unfaltering in dedication and service. Reaching a relative conclusion while driving through Salisbury, Stevens clarifies for the reader that “dignity has to do crucially with a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits” (42). Essentially, Stevens’s journey is in part an interpersonal session in which he examines the origins of his values and their practical application throughout his life. Nonetheless, Stevens will continue to examine the traits necessary to be of dignified service as he embarks on a quest to reunite with Miss Kenton.Stevens’s relationship with Lord Darlington is solid throughout the entirety of the novel, but as his journey progresses, Stevens begins to examine Lord Darlington’s actions during the pre-World War II years. The first mention of Lord Darlington and his downfall is reiterated by Stevens in the following manner: A great deal of nonsense has been spoken and written in recent years concerning his lordship and the prominent role he came to play in great affairs, and some utterly ignorant reports have had it that he was motivated by egotism or else arrogance… Whatever may be said about his lordship these days — and the great majority of it is, as I say, utter nonsense — I can declare that he was truly a good man at heart, a gentleman through and through, and one I am proud to have given my best years of service to (61).]Stevens’s defense of Lord Darlington and his activities, shrouded in pro-German sentiments, represents his unfaltering fidelity to Lord Darlington’s character and motives. Recollections of the conference of 1923 are crucial in understanding Stevens’s defense of Lord Darlington, as he tells the reader of Darlington’s friendship with Herr Karl-Heinz Bremann, whose deterioration after the war prompts Darlington to side with the Germans as they wish to revitalize their economy with the blessing of the world powers. Darlington’s heartfelt feelings for Bremann lead him to believe that the English traditions forbid such a manner of treatment (71). Ultimately, Stevens’s clarity comes into question in his retelling of the story, and while discussing Darlington’s desire for “justice in the world.” Dedication to professionalism clouds Stevens’s judgment when examining the crucial moments of discussion and debating at the Darlington Hall conferences.The “facts of life” discussion led by Stevens with Reginald Cardinal, Lord Darlington’s nephew, is a prime example of the sarcasm produced by Ishiguro’s writing. Prompted by Lord Darlington to talk with Mr. Cardinal before the start of the conference of 1923, Stevens is pushed into unknown territory as someone who lacks the essential “facts of life” himself. Nonetheless, Stevens gives a speech concerning “the birds and the bees,” resulting in Mr. Cardinal’s attention being focused on his duties to come at the conference. Much like Stevens, Cardinal is more concerned with his duties than with the outside world, as it were, and Stevens leaves the scene with the whole incident behind him. Consequently, Stevens’s desire to continue with his professional duties will prove to be the main inhibitor of his loss of clarity and hindsight in dealing with real-life problems outside of the management of the household, allowing the events of his journey to begin to fill the gaps left by his prior experiences at Darlington Hall. Professionalism reaches new heights for Stevens upon his father’s death and the dismissal of the Jewish staff by Lord Darlington. Stevens’s desire to keep the affairs of the household in order forces him to miss what could have been his final, heartfelt conversation with a distant father. Nonetheless, Stevens pushes forward with his duties, only to lose the remaining time he has with his father. Similarly, the dismissal of the Jewish staff by Lord Darlington places Stevens in a predicament; however, he proceeds with relieving the girls anyway to continue living up to his professional manner. Resolution of the incident would come with Lord Darlington’s regrets about releasing the girls and Stevens conveying to Miss Kenton his disdain for following that particular order. The reminiscences of Stevens prove to be valuable in that we are given a glimpse into his early days and we also see minor changes occurring before we reach any major developments in the novel. However, Stevens’s inability to realize the preciousness of time and life proves to be his downfall, and does not come to light until his meeting with Miss Kenton. The mixture of professionalism and dignity is the backbone of Stevens’s values and allows him to institute change in keeping with his core values. The climax of the journey comes with Stevens’s meeting with Miss Kenton in Weymouth, which ultimately brings about a true change in his character as a result of his journey. From the beginning of his reunion with Miss Kenton, Stevens possesses a desire to make the most out of the situation and to be more cordial than in years past. Stevens reaches new heights in his social skills by prompting a question about possible abuse, though Miss Kenton responds with a no. However, the conversation continues and Miss Kenton reveals to the reader how she feels about leaving Darlington Hall and the years since by responding in the following manner:And you get to thinking about a different life, a better life you might have had. For instance, I get to thinking about a life I may have had with you, Mr. Stevens… After all, there’s not turning back the clock now. One can’t be forever dwelling on what might have been. One should realize one has as good as most, perhaps better, and be grateful (239).Miss Kenton’s exchange with Stevens opens up his mind to the possibilities that have been laid before him many years past, leaving him only with pressing forth with the future, and the “remains of the day.” Stevens’s journey reaches its peak with the visit with Miss Kenton, and for the first time in the novel, the true feelings that both characters have are brought to life in words. The exchange with Miss Kenton represents the first time in Stevens’s life where he has some closure to a relationship or situation. From the death of his father to the incidents at Darlington Hall, Stevens has been left with his thoughts about dignity and professionalism, never the needed time to take advantage of final opportunities. Darlington Hall represents Stevens’s life at the end of the novel, an empty shell with bygone memories and forgotten grandeur. As such, Stevens is able to reclaim his final days for himself as he passes into a new mindset after his journey. While sitting on the pier, Stevens tells the reader what advice he has taken from a bystander and says, “Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of the remains of the day” (244). Coming into the final chapter of his life, Stevens is given the task of making the best of the remains of the day and after his emotional outpourings with Miss Kenton, Stevens is left with his final task of his life. All in all, Stevens’s quest into the countryside is his passageway to an alternate future.Reaching his final destination, Darlington Hall, Stevens is given his mission to make the best of the “remains of the day,” and I feel that the author gives the reader the impression that Stevens is a changed man. As such, the journey in The Remains of the Day is a passage through time by which Stevens examines his life and ultimately decides to change before it is too late. Dignity and professionalism can be maintained at a cost considerably less than dedicating one’s entire life to work. The “foggy mist” that clouds Stevens’s judgment during his early years at Darlington Hall clears up at the end of the novel, allowing a dedicated butler to soak in the pleasantries of life. As Stevens points out, at least Lord Darlington had the luxury of making his own mistakes, proving to be the exact opposite for him as shown throughout his journey. In the end, Stevens’s journey forces him to divulge his true feelings to Miss Kenton, culminating in a deep examination of his service to Lord Darlington, ultimately allowing him to realize his faults in dealing with both Miss Kenton and Lord Darlington.Works Cited:Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
Personality, Class, and Culture in The Remains of the Day
“A profound and heart-rending study of personality, class and culture” To what extent do you agree with this assessment of the novel?Throughout “The Remains of the Day”, Mr Stevens, the protagonist, not only explores the world outside of his beloved Darlington Hall but also takes a journey into his own past, allowing the reader to examine his personality alongside explanations of both class and culture . The complexity of Stevens’ mind is gradually exposed to the reader, who is open to interpret his personality as either profoundly depressed or infinitely frustrated. The intricacy and unclear nature of his feelings are typical of the post-modernist style, leaving the reader to decide whether the novel is indeed a “heart-rending study of personality, class and culture.” This assessment offers the reader a partial insight into the characteristics of the novel; arguably, however, there are many aspects of the text that are not profound or heart-rending. The relationship between Mr Stevens and the reader is of primary importance in the study of Stevens’ personality. The amount of information he freely remembers in contrast to what remains merely as “fragmented” allows the reader to observe the repression that is intrinsic to his personality. Stevens’ narrative is often unreliable due to the restraint he shows in recollecting some memories, “often disguising more than it lays bear ”. In post-modernist literature, unreliable narration is used as a device to put pressure on the reader to decide his or her version of what is true, often reflecting the confusing complexity of modern life. Because Stevens is an intradiegetic narrator, his narrative voice could be considered unreliable as he is telling the story as he sees it, while also existing within it. While illustrating both his knowledge and his blindness, this method of narration raises the question as to whether the reader is ever shown his true personality. One example of the unreliability of Stevens’ narration because of emotional repression is the occasion of Miss Kenton hearing of her aunt’s death. The lexical choice of words such as “confused” and “fragment ” in this passage could lead the reader to believe Stevens has truly forgotten the episode. However, he also comments that the incident remains “vivid through the years”. These conflicting views link to Newton’s observation that Stevens “glides through his memories, alternately looking and looking away.” In concealing his memories he is also hiding his personality from the reader or possibly showing that he becomes overwhelmed by some emotional experiences. Stevens represses this particular memory, possibly as a reaction to his unprofessional conduct of not offering his condolences, or perhaps due to the regret he feels for not comforting Miss Kenton at the time. The contrasting references to this memory illustrate the process of concealment and revelation of knowledge that makes the narrative so complex. He comments upon the “strange feeling” that overcomes him, leading the reader to believe he may be experiencing emotion or stifling regret. This occasion, like others in the novel, can be interpreted as heart-rending, for the reader feels sympathy for an ageing butler who lacks the ability to express himself outside his professional boundaries. Stevens also represses his feelings of sorrow when his father dies, choosing to treat the reader as he would an employer or guest and not bothering them with his personal grief. The stifling of some memories and emotions coincides with what Adam Parkes describes as Stevens’ “fear of losing control ”. One such example is of Stevens’ repressed sexual love: “Might it be that our Mr Stevens fears distractions? Can it be that our Mr Stevens is flesh and blood after all and cannot fully trust himself?” It is clear this suggestion, especially coming from Miss Kenton, has an effect on Stevens as he refers to her comment as “chatter”. This use of metalanguage conveys to the reader that Stevens is uncomfortable with such unprofessional talk, as he fears it will detract from his job. He also excuses himself, commenting that their cocoa evenings maintain a “professional character”, signifying that he fears the reader thinking of him as unprofessional in much the same way he wants to uphold an appearance to his employer. However, this leads the reader further to believe that he in fact cannot “fully trust himself”, because by excusing himself to the reader and concealing his emotions, he is further deceiving himself in an attempt to uphold the “dignity” that he constantly strives towards. Another incident similar to this is where Stevens defends his “incidental enjoyment” of romance novels, offering rhetorical questions to the reader such as “what shame is there in it?” By defending himself in this manner the reader experiences a profound study of Stevens’ personality, as his humanity is exposed underneath his professional exterior. To conceal his fear Stevens utilises a unique narrative style, which is precise and formal, disguising any feeling hidden underneath his words in order to uphold his professional facade. This “butlerspeak”, David Lodge argues, “has no literary merit whatsoever. ” However, the style offers refined and elevated vocabulary which firstly highlights the measured nature of Stevens’ personality and alongside this conveys to the reader that Stevens is a complex character whose narrative needs examining to determine its true meaning, a motif typical of post-modernism. In addition, every constrained sentence evokes Stevens’ strangled personality as he reveals very little about himself. The narrative is, as Petry comments, Stevens’ recollection of the “non-formation” of his own identity; this is an observation on how throughout the novel the reader is shut out of Stevens’ background, since there is no mention of his mother, his childhood, or his friends, nor does he seem to have a Christian name. It could be argued that Stevens’ job has formed his identity; he has shut everything else out classing it as a distraction and has let his personality become formed by his occupation. Obedience is intrinsic to his character, as subtly illustrated through his obedience to a travel volume at the beginning of his journey: “I did not fail to visit the fine cathedral, much praised by Mrs Symons in her volume.” He cannot make choices himself as he is so accustomed to following orders; he only visits Salisbury Cathedral because it is suggested in her book. Ishiguro describes himself as “stuck on the margins” as he is neither Japanese nor English. This is similar to Stevens, as although he is devoted to his job, he does not belong to the aristocratic society of Darlington Hall nor to the society outside which he visits on his journey. Without his job, Stevens would be nothing. This personality trait is further comparable to Christopher Banks in When We Were Orphans, who does not fit in at school and talks at length about gaining acceptance in social clubs by becoming “well-connected” to the “various higher walks of life ”. Banks’ personality is similar to Stevens’ in other ways – he is predominantly driving towards a deluded goal, not to serve like Mr Stevens but to “solve” his unresolved past. Duty and love are also conflicting issues for Banks in parallel to Stevens; however, unlike Stevens he achieves a late epiphany of unconditional love that does not have to be earned through “duty” or “dignity”. Although the awareness comes too late to free him from a lingering “emptiness”, the reader can at least feel sympathy to him eventually, whereas Stevens frustrates the reader with his blind loyalty to professionalism. Ishiguro himself refers to the narrative of “The Remains of the Day” as being “not random” but being “controlled by the things that [Stevens] doesn’t say”; it is this restraint that acts to lead many readings against the profound and heart-rending ideal that emerges primarily at the end of the novel. It can be argued that for the reader to feel emotionally compelled she must feel that Stevens does in fact feel regret, and at times this means reading further into the character’s personality than he narrates. For example, the readers knows that Stevens feels crushed when Miss Kenton mentions that she will not return to Darlington Hall; he has made reference to his hopes of her return throughout the novel. Of course, he never told Miss Kenton of his feelings and so does not convey his true sense of loss. Only to himself does Stevens reveal that his “heart was breaking,” which is an astoundingly powerful revelation from a character that has shown little or no emotion throughout the novel. While he manages to conceal his “degree of sorrow”, Stevens realises how much better his life could have been with Miss Kenton. This is a profoundly sorrowful and heart-rending climax to their relationship. A further complexity in the narrative adds to this effect, as Stevens fails to talk about what would constitute “Day Five”. The reader is left to imagine Stevens wandering around utterly alone, his chance of intimacy gone. It is not clear, in the end, the extent to which Stevens realises he has deceived himself. This ambiguous conclusion is a key motif in postmodernist literature. Stevens appears to show regret with statements such as “I suppose I was something of a disappointment,” which could refer to several things – his father’s expectations of professionalism, his own ideal of dignity, or his involvement with Lord Darlington and his effect on historical events. This would suggest that Stevens finally realizes his error in judgment and feels sadness in his inability to alter the past, and so the reader can finally feel sympathy for Stevens.Alternatively, readers may feel frustrated at a man who has been consumed by his occupation and who blindly denied opportunities to live a life of happiness with Miss Kenton. Even at the end of the novel Stevens asks, “What can we gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?” The question is particularly exasperating because the reader knows that Stevens could have taken agency over his life and achieved what he wished but chose not to. He ponders his situation and decides he must strive to improve his “bantering skills,” ignoring the pain he feels after losing Miss Kenton. The reader is given an insight into the emotions Stevens can experience but is then left at a loss as Stevens resolves that bantering, which he considers a professional task, is the “key to human warmth”. The irony is almost comic at this stage in the novel, as the reader has just seen Stevens turn his back on the very “human warmth” he is now talking about. From this perspective, the end of the novel is neither profound nor heart-rending, just frustrating. The question of whether the book’s portrayal of “class and culture” are “profound and heart-rending” is somewhat easier to answer. Stevens allows himself to be “colonised” by Lord Darlington, putting the needs of the “coloniser” ahead of his own on numerous occasions and becoming confused about his own station. Stevens takes on the opinions of Lord Darlington and his gentleman visitors, including the traditional English hierarchy that places Stevens in a lower class. Stevens believes he has no choice but to inhabit the role of butler, which can be seen as heart-rending because this certainty is what prevents him from a life with Miss Kenton. His commitment to his post in a changing era is also heart-rending. As the nature of domestic service changed in England, men in positions like Stevens became rare. Stevens, who embodies gracious decorum, represents the “remains” of an outmoded, professional “gentleman butler” who cannot exist in the more modern world of proficient handymen. Furthermore, the fact that Giffen and Co. is closing signifies more than the fact that the practice of polishing silver is becoming obsolete: it is symbolic of Stevens’ profession itself. This analysis highlights Stevens as somewhat of a pathetic character who takes pride in his “unrivalled” silver, whereas in fact it is his skewed concept of dignity that shields him from the changing culture. M.Tamaya comments, “as England has to accommodate itself to the rise of America as an imperial power, Stevens, after having served Lord Darlington for 35 years, has to adjust himself to an American master ”; this is true throughout the novel. Stevens’ discussion of “bantering” demonstrates his entrenchment in old-fashioned values and judgements. Stevens is afraid of offending Mr Farraday when bantering with him because he does not know any better; he is consumed by the thought that he is inferior to Mr Farraday since he is a servant and Mr Farraday is his master. Although the strict hierarchy that used to characterise the ordering of English manor houses has faded away in favour of more democratic views, Stevens has not adapted to a climate in which he might joke with his employer as an equal and Ishiguro achieves a profound study into class and culture effectively through this example. In conclusion, Mr Stevens has become fixed within the ideal of what his profession once was. His inability to adapt is a result of his isolated life within Darlington Hall, knowing of nothing but his masters’ needs and a constant struggle toward dignity. This professional demeanor has led to Stevens attempting to conceal all personal feeling. His emotional repression can lead the reader to become frustrated, because instead of reciprocating the feelings Miss Kenton has for him, he buries his personality deeper into his professional work. However, the reader is also shown a profound and heart-rending study of personality, class and culture, particularly by Stevens’ claim that his heart his breaking and the sympathy that this induces, his inability to adapt to change after becoming colonised by Lord Darlington, and his powerlessness to change his past after realising his efforts as a butler have been wasted. Thus, the original assessment of the novel is correct.
Freud, Stevens, and the Critics: Psychoanalysis and the Human Condition in The Remains of the Day
What is the outcome of letting one’s duty subconsciously interfere with one’s life? Some may say duty is a part of one’s life; others consider it inappropriate to combine the two. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro follows the life of a butler named James Stevens. Stevens puts his entire effort into being the perfect butler as well as putting his duty before himself and others in his life. Putting duty before life and happiness can hinder decisions and relationships within one’s life. If we as humans have been conditioned into thinking that duty comes before happiness, then we will lose our sense of purpose and drive. Stevens’ insecurities and low self esteem lead him to believe his dull life as a butler will be the only successful thing he is capable of. He subconsciously yet willingly puts aside his own happiness, love life, and personal life just to serve his employer to the best of his ability. This causes him to suppress his own emotions and becoming more like a robot every day. We as readers see how this dilemma can lead to a loss in compassion and human emotions, filling us with regrets and disappointments that haunt us for the rest of our lives. Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis help pinpoint Stevens’ characteristics and why he acts the way he does, becoming a problem for himself and those around him.
Stevens’ ultimate goal in life is to become the perfect butler and to perform his duty to the best of his ability. In doing so, he allows his duty to make the decisions that come about in his life. Literary critic Colin Wells observes Stevens’ behavior as he “believes that a butler’s greatness rests on “dignity,” which Stevens argues ‘has crucially to do with a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits’” (Wells). Mr. Farraday, Stevens’ current employer, is keen on bantering or so Steven thinks. In order to please Mr. Farraday, Stevens works on his bantering skills and attempts to joke with him, but Mr. Farraday does not understand, leaving Stevens awkward and out of place. Stevens does not include bantering as a characteristic in his profession, but in order to please his employer he makes an attempt at it anyway. By letting his duty of pleasing his employer come before making the decision of not bantering, he goes against his own wishes of keeping his professional composure.
This is dramatic irony however, because we as readers realize Stevens is incapable of bantering but Stevens does not realize this himself. Stevens, feeling addled, feeling out of place, feeling lost, debated constantly whether or not he should make a witty statement “which would still be safely inoffensive in the event of [his] having misjudged the situation” (prologue; 16). Bantering, according to some, is all about being witty and offensive. It is unlikely that bantering comes without offensiveness, but in order to remain in his place while still pleasing his employer, Stevens continues to attempt bantering with his employer. Stevens is skeptical about bantering because it is his duty to remain professional and dignified. However, we see where Stevens does not have a true sense of self. He is able to alter his habits and preferences in order to please those around him. Psychoanalysis claims that we as humans “learn behavior from our parents or the adult figures in our lives to help us build our identity” (Bolton). It is apparent to us as readers that Stevens’ does not have a set identity. He takes on the identity that is necessary in order to perform his job to the best of his ability even though we as readers know that if Stevens would just be himself, he would be more relaxed and not feel the need to do certain things such as bantering.
Along with bantering in order to please his employer, Stevens takes a trip that Mr. Farraday has organized for Stevens. Mr. Farraday is leaving Darlington Hall for a while and suggests to Stevens that he should take a road trip anywhere he wants to go. Being a butler, Stevens is not used to leaving Darlington Hall let alone venturing out on his own. This is huge for Stevens. He has never had to leave and never has had the desire to leave because he does not know what else he would do if he were not performing his role as a butler. He is confined to the walls of Darlington Hall and that is where he feels safe and secure at. Venturing out would mean having to step away from his comfort zone and Stevens would do anything to remain in his comfort zone. This is dramatic irony because we as readers know that being kept confined in a house for years and years is not the way one should live his or her life, but Stevens believes it is the only way to live and is happy doing it when in reality, no one should be happy living that way. However, Stevens feel it is his duty to take this trip in order to please Mr. Farraday and even convinces himself by saying, “[He] can see no genuine reason why [he] should not undertake this trip” (prologue; 20 ). Stevens is not certain about the trip, but refusing to take it would be refusing his duty and Stevens could not bear to do that. Even though he is uncomfortable with the trip and being outside of Darlington Hall, he puts his duty before himself and chooses to go ahead with the trip. It is unfortunate to see how Stevens has to be told to take a vacation and can only classify it as a part of his duty, knowing that he would never take one himself. It is human nature to crave an escape from our mundane lives and jobs; however, Stevens does not register this desire. In fact, he feels that it would be a waste of his time to go on a trip for a few days seeing as how it would throw him off from his duties, and he would be constantly worried about if things were getting done or not. Stevens represents what it is like to stay in one place and to never experience the world for what it is. Stevens will never have life experiences such as buying a house, having a wife and kids, or paying bills and by not having these experiences, he is further losing his sense of emotion and humanity and becoming an introverted slave to his job as a butler.
Stevens not only puts his duty before himself and his decisions, but also before his relationships with the close ones in his life. One day long ago, Stevens was serving his previous master, Lord Darlington, and his guests while they were engaged in a conference. At the time, Stevens’ father was upstairs on his death bed after suffering from a stroke. Instead of staying with his father in his last moments, Stevens chose to return to his duty downstairs. Literary critic Sara Constantakis writes “[t]he introduction of William Stevens into the serving staff at Darlington Hall is significant to the story of the protagonist, James Stevens, because it shows the son what he can expect his future to hold” (Constantakis, Parent-child relationships). According to Freud and his theories on psychoanalysis, it is apparent that Stevens struggles with conscious and unconscious decisions and has a hard time separating between the two. Dr. Joseph Bolton, an expert on psychoanalysis says “the “conscious mind,” has first to be deceived in order that the poor unfortunate conscious mind may be disturbed by thoughts too wicked…” (Bolton). On one hand, he is consciously aware of his father’s death, but is still subconsciously concerned with returning downstairs to serve his employer. Assuming his father would want him to continue on shows us that Stevens’ father was the same way that Stevens is now, another theory of psychoanalysis. The idea that we subconsciously turn out like our parents do, and pick up on the traits and behaviors that make their way into our own exactly describes Stevens and the way he behaves. By choosing his duty over his father, Stevens shows how important his duty is to him. This situation also contains dramatic irony because we understand Stevens’ duty is not as important as his father, but Stevens does not see it this way. This irony shows how Stevens lets his duty interfere with personal relationships as he ends up missing out on the chance to see his father before he dies. Stevens tries to justify his reason for returning downstairs by saying, “[He] know[s] [his] father would have wished [him] to carry on just now” (106; Day 2). Whether his father would have wished him to or not, Stevens should have stayed by his father’s side instead of returning downstairs to his duty. Letting his duty interfere with his personal life begins to take its toll on Stevens as he soon finds himself in hard situations in which he must continue to make difficult decisions.
Miss Kenton, one of Stevens’ close friends, his only friend for the matter, who is a housekeeper in Darlington Hall, is another example of the times when he puts duty before relationships. Miss Kenton is one of the few people who would approach Stevens, question him, challenge him, stand up to him. Stevens is not used to someone challenging his authority; therefore, it appears that Miss Kenton annoys him, but he cannot help his attraction for her in the long run. Miss Kenton becomes upset one day because Stevens fired some of her maids that she did not want to be fired, but he believed it was the right thing to do even though he agreed with Miss Kenton. When she figures out that he did not want them to go as well, she hounds Stevens for an answer as to why he let them go. Stevens does not answer however, because it is his duty to keep his composure. Soon after, Miss Kenton leaves Darlington Hall to get married, it is obvious she wishes Stevens to “chase after her”, (243; Day 6 Evening). We as readers know that, “[s]he is also realistic, and when she realizes that Stevens will never open up to her, she accepts a marriage proposal and leaves Darlington Hall” (Thomason). When Stevens has the opportunity to choose between his job and his personal life, he will always choose his job. Stevens is a slave to his job because subconsciously he knows that he is incapable of doing anything outside of it. It is more than an income, it’s a lifestyle. Without it, he would be lost and not know of his place in the world. According to Freud and Parker, “a human’s cognition is determined by irrational drives that are rooted in the subconscious” (Parker). Meaning, Stevens’ sense of duty is always at the back of his mind and always holds him hostage to the desires that he does have outside of his obligations. With this mindset though, he eventually loses Miss Kenton and even though it hurts him to see Miss Kenton leave, to show any sign of this would be going against his act of duty. Stevens is unwilling to accept that she has left and is married and still refers to her as Miss Kenton and not by her married name. By losing her, he convinces himself that he does not need a romantic relationship because it will distract him from his job further disconnecting him from his emotions and feelings. One part of Stevens’ occupation, according to himself as a butler, is to show no feelings, no opinions, no emotions. This is dramatic irony though, because Stevens says he cannot give his opinion, but all through the book he gives his honest opinion and we realize this, but Stevens’ believes he is not giving any opinions away. By letting this duty take over his emotions, he pushes the ones around him away and he becomes less in touch with his human side as he succumbs to his subconscious. Freud however, states that there should be an equal balance between the conscious and the subconscious, and neither should take over the other. This obviously becomes a problem for Stevens.
Stevens’ duty will always be a problem if he continues to let it come before his decisions and relationships. In the end, when he swears he will change it is a true question of if he really will. He still subconsciously carries the mindset that his duty is above all and he has kept this mentality for many, many years. By never allowing himself away from his duty, he is never allowing himself a chance to do something that makes him happy. The dramatic irony in this is Stevens is unaware that he is truly unhappy because of his duty, but it is obvious to the readers. By not making these realizations, he hurts himself even more, but continues to let his duty come before his relationships and decisions, hurting him even more in the end.
Wells, Colin. “The Remains of the Day.” World Literature and Its Times: Profiles of Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influenced Them, by Joyce Moss, vol. 4: British and Irish Literature and Its Times: The Victorian Era to the Present (1837-), Gale, 2001, pp. 415-423. Gale Virtual Reference Library, go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.uta.edu/ps/i.do?p=GVRL&sw=w&u=txshracd2597&v=2.1&it =r&id=GALE%7CCX2875600052&asid=156b2c331b50a235edc5e612e3dd56f7 .
“The Remains of the Day.” Novels for Students, edited by Sara Constantakis, vol. 39, Gale, 2012, pp. 302-325. Gale Virtual Reference Library, go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.uta.edu/ps/i.do?p=GVRL&sw=w&u=txshracd2597&v=2.1&it =r&id=GALE%7CCX1518200025&asid=e36eef2d58527b8bf67e54dc77a5bd9e.
“The Remains of the Day.” Novels for Students, edited by Elizabeth Thomason, vol. 13, Gale, 2002, pp. 212-236. Gale Virtual Reference Library, go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.uta.edu/ps/i.do?p=GVRL&sw=w&u=txshracd2597&v=2.1&it =r&id=GALE%7CCX2592600021&asid=d2f58f4665f81ca060b2428569604e39.
Bolton, J. S. (1926). Psycho-analysis. The English Review, 1908-1937, , 556-566. Retrieved from https://login.ezproxy.uta.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.uta.edu/docview/2433974?accountid=7117 I
shiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. New York: Vintage International, 1989.
Parker, Robert Dale. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. New York, Oxford University Press, 2015.