Why is Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day the way he is, and how does he get to be the restrained butler we read about?
The butler at the center of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day is a product of his upbringing and of the culture in which he lived. It is difficult for many American students today to fully comprehend the class consciousness of England for much of its history, but that class consciousness was, and to a lesser extent remains, an integral part of the British character. Stevens' father is the butler to a succession of English aristocrats, and Stevens has followed in his father's footsteps, eventually usurping the older man's authorities and responsibilities due to the latter's declining health. For butlers functioning in such a rigid class system, however, the pride such individuals took in serving their employers cannot be overstated. Their jobs defined them to a great degree, and they considered themselves inseparable from those they served. As Stevens writes early in Ishiguro's novel, he and his ilk enjoyed a view of British society, despite their insular positions, out of proportion to those positions, ". . .placed as we were in houses where the greatest ladies and gentlemen of the land gathered."
As noted, butlers of the caliber of Stevens and his aging but still proud father occupied a special position in British society. ". . .you might think me merely biased if I say that my own father could in many ways be considered to rank with such men, and that is career is the one I have always scrutinized for a definition of 'dignity'." This sentiment exemplifies the notion of the servant attaining the regal bearing of the master, but it does not in itself explain the self-restraint such individuals routinely demonstrated. That self-restraint and discipline is an integral part of serving as a butler in the home of such aristocratic elites. Privy to a world few others observe, and witness at times to the behind-the-scenes machinations of which policies are often made, and, more importantly, witness to the personal trials and tribulations of those they serve, servants are required to conduct themselves with such restraint. Their emotions are kept to themselves; displays of disgust, joy, humor, sadness, or anger in response to comments heard or actions seen are simply not acceptable. Stevens has been raised to understand this, and has mastered the art of it all.