In the beginning of The Remains of the Day, why might we think that Stevens is quite unsympathetic? Is it true or does he just appear to be so? Does Ishiguro want us to learn something by...

In the beginning of The Remains of the Day, why might we think that Stevens is quite unsympathetic? Is it true or does he just appear to be so?

Does Ishiguro want us to learn something by creating this character? Can we learn something by being more understanding instead of just not liking somebody? 

Expert Answers
Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the initial impressions the reader has of Stevens is that he is different.

It does not take long to see that Stevens is different in the way he approaches his life.  He is reserved in the novel's opening.  In comparison to the current owner of Darlington Hall, Mr. Farraday, Stevens is serious.  It is evident that Stevens' capacity as a butler is all consuming.  This is seen in his claim of serving Darlington Hall in his need to re-establish connection with Miss Kenton. As he sets out on his journey, Stevens's first reflections center on  what it means to be a good butler.  His professionalism is a critical part to his identity and the reader comes to know this early on in the narrative.  He is consumed with his job, along with what it entails.

In some regards, Stevens could come across as unsympathetic because of a lack of affect.  Stevens does not embrace the primacy of emotional connection.  He does not view life though an inner dimension.  This makes it very difficult to connect with him, something that Miss Kenton knows all too well.  Stevens believes that one's duty defines the human being.  He saw this with his father and his brother, men whose professional responsibilities established their places in the world.  Such an emphasis on obligation makes it difficult to sympathetically identify with Stevens.  

Where Stevens generates sympathy is in his myopia.  As the narrative progresses, Stevens comes to understand that a reliance on one's professional role in life tends to block out emotional frames of reference. For example, Stevens reflects on the crucial conference held at Darlington Hall as a success.  Yet, it is clear that the conference helped to advance the policies of Nazism, something that could hardly be seen as a triumph.  This limited view of the world is a significant part of Stevens's character: 

How can one possibly be held to blame in any sense because, say, the passage of time has shown that Lord Darlington’s efforts were misguided, even foolish? Throughout the years I served him, it was he and he alone who weighed up evidence and judged it best to proceed in the way he did, while I simply confined myself, quite properly, to affairs within my own professional realm.

As the novel advances, Stevens is to be pitied because of his view of the world.  He recognizes that the emphasis on professionalism might have cost him dearly as a human being.  This is something Stevens approaches, but not something he is ready to admit early on in the narrative. It is difficult to sympathize with someone who is unable to understand emotions as a part of their identity.

In some regards, Stevens is like the English countryside in that he views emotion as something that does not need to be "shouted."  This mutes him in terms of his initial identification with the reader. However, Ishiguro is deliberate in Stevens's characterization.  He wants the reader to understand all of the dimensions that define Stevens, something that Stevens himself is not fully aware.  The need to see the world without blinders is a pressing one for Stevens.  It is why he makes the voyage to Miss Kenton.  As he leaves her, Stevens recognizes that he has lived his life in a closed way.  To ensure this lesson is affirmed to the reader, Ishiguro creates a central character with whom we might not immediately identify.  However, as we see the narrative progress, we learn more and are forced to reevaluate our initial positions. This is a trait Stevens never really acquires until it is too late.  Ishiguro is suggesting that we avoid Stevens' fate in our approach to the novel's main character and in our lives. 

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The Remains of the Day

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