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.

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