Stevens is preparing to drive Mr. Farraday’s Ford from Darlington Hall (near Oxford) to the West Country to meet with Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper at Darlington. Stevens believes, on the basis of a recent letter from Miss Kenton, that she wants to return to her position at the mansion.
Stevens sets out on his drive, stopping the first night in Salisbury. As he travels, he engages in an introspective analysis of the concept of dignity. Recalling that his father, William Stevens, exemplified dignity, he remembers an event from thirty years earlier—seeing his father pacing the grounds in front of the summerhouse at Darlington Hall, carefully examining the ground.
It is spring, 1922, and Miss Kenton and William Stevens begin their employment at Darlington Hall. William falls while serving guests, months before an unofficial conference is to be held at Darlington. Representatives from Great Britain, the United States, Italy, Germany, and France will be assembling to discuss the punitive nature of the Treaty of Versailles. William’s son reduces his father’s official duties, at Lord Darlington’s behest. As delegates begin arriving, the young Stevens is asked by Darlington to explain the facts of life to his godson, Reginald Cardinal. Cardinal, in turn, informs Stevens that he already has a clear understanding of the issue.
The assembled delegates believe that they must convince the French representative, Monsieur Dupont, that sanctions against Germany should be eased. As Stevens attends to Dupont’s sore-covered feet, Stevens’s father suffers another attack. Stevens overhears Mr. Lewis (the U.S. delegate) tell Dupont that the other delegates seek to manipulate Dupont. Stevens visits his bedridden father, who tells his son that he is proud of him; Stevens, though, is unable to respond with any emotion.
At the final dinner of the conference, Dupont rises to offer a toast, thanking Darlington, agreeing with the aims of the conference, and exposing Lewis’s duplicity. Lewis responds, and dismisses the other delegates as gentlemen amateurs.
Miss Kenton informs Stevens that his father’s health has taken a turn for the worse, but Stevens returns to his duties. Darlington asks Stevens if he has been crying. Stevens continues with his work, changing Dupont’s bandages. Miss Kenton then tells Stevens that his father has died. Again, Stevens returns to his duties.
On his second day of traveling, Stevens recalls an event from earlier in the day. He had informed a local that he is employed at Darlington Hall, but he also denied having worked there when Lord Darlington was alive. Stevens is disturbed by his own deception, recalling that he had done the same thing a few months earlier with a visitor to Darlington Hall. He stays the night at an inn outside Taunton in Somerset. He goes to the bar and talks with some locals, but he soon realizes that he is unskilled in casual conversation.
Stevens remembers several unofficial meetings between a British lord, Halifax, and the German ambassador, Herr...
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Ishiguro’s third novel, The Remains of the Day, which won Great Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize for 1989, undertakes to demonstrate with beautiful clarity how high the human price can be for a person who has dedicated his or her life to a goal that becomes tainted. Set in southern England in the summer of 1956, the novel consists of the diary-like notes composed by Stevens, a British butler whose lifelong goal was to serve Lord Darlington. Now, after the death of the lord, the mansion, complete with its prime servant, has been taken over by an American. Offered his first vacation, Stevens sets out for Cornwall to meet Mrs. Alice Benn, who, as Miss Kenton, had worked with him in the heyday of Darlington Hall.
In the course of Stevens’s travels to his final destination, his personal recollections evoke an imaginary England that is made perfect by reason of an understated greatness that simply exists, refusing pompously to announce itself. The source of Stevens’s pride, contentment, and self-worth has always been that he has served at the “hub” of his great island’s society; his greatest goal was always to be a perfect butler to a perfect lord.
Stevens’s ideal is tested in a variety of ways as he remembers amusing anecdotes and darker experiences. When the reader is first told how William Stevens, the butler’s father, had to serve a general whose incompetence had killed his oldest son, and how he did so with “great” composure, the full price for Stevens’s...
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