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.
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