The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
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.
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.
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