The Remains of the Day

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The poignancy of this complex novel, Kazuo Ishiguro’s third, is captured in its title, The Remains of the Day At the end of the sixth day of a motoring tour, in an unaccustomed period of free time, the narrator sits at a pier in Weymouth, waiting for the pier lights to be switched on. Observing the pleasure of the crowd gathered to witness this minor event, Stevens, a devoted butler, reflects that the evening—the remains of the day—may indeed be the most enjoyable part of the day for most people. Ever dutiful, serious- minded, and anxious to do the right thing, Stevens resolves to make the best of what remains of his life—to stop pondering the past and to live with a more positive attitude in the present.

It is a hard-won resolution, for Stevens is an aging man contemplating the unbearable sadness of the remains of a life he suspects was devoted to a flawed master. He is also one of the few remaining professionals of a vanishing breed, whose pride and dignity in turn depend on an English society and a way of life nearly demolished by two world wars.

The novel is framed by Stevens’ attempt to understand and oblige his current employer, Mr. Farraday, a genial American who has taken over Darlington Hall after the death of Lord Darlington. Though Stevens still has a job, it is a significantly different one. Instead of supervising seventeen underlings, Stevens is asked to manage with four and to close off a major portion of the mansion. For Stevens, who compares a butler’s task in a great house to that of a military strategist (requiring detailed planning and ever-ready alertness for emergencies), this reduced staff is not the only challenge to his professional dignity. He also does not understand his new employer, who seems to expect a relationship characterized by what Stevens calls ‘bantering.” Aiming only to please, Stevens gamely sets about learning to banter, as if it were another skill that any competent butler should be able to acquire. He listens to humorous shows on the radio and even attempts a small joke.

It is Mr. Farraday who encourages Stevens to borrow his car to see a bit of England, even offering to pay for the gas. Ever earnest, Stevens persuades himself that this holiday will be justified if he can use it to seek out Miss Kenton, the housekeeper who left twenty years ago to get married, and see if she is available to work again. Armed with tour guides and an agonizingly appropriate set of suitable travel clothes, Stevens sets out to explore the English countryside while fulfilling a professional duty. In the course of the next six days, soothed by the quiet, dignified beauty of the land, he mulls over the turning points in his life, from the heyday of 1923 until the death of Lord Darlington some thirty years later.

Not the least of Ishiguro’s technical brilliance in this novel is that he manages to tell this deceptively simple and potentially boring tale of a stuffy, humorless, unadventurous man with compassionate wit and a deepening sense of mystery and significance. Ishiguro suggests, ever so delicately, the complexities underlying Stevens’ smooth, apparently trivial life mainly by unfolding the story of Lord Darlington’s infamy. As if simultaneously to echo and deny the biblical allusion, Stevens is twice compelled to deny in public that he worked for the nobleman. Yet the narrative voice dwells lovingly and proudly on the occasions when the house was filled with the important personages of English and European society between the wars. Gradually, subtly, the dissonance between Stevens’ pride in working for one of the great houses of England and his unwilling realization that his beloved master was embarrassingly, even criminally, flawed in the eyes of the world becomes apparent.

Lord Darlington, like Stevens himself, suffers the consequences of an outdated sense of chivalry and duty. Appalled by the harsh reparations demanded of the Germans after World War I, he gathers the most influential politicians and diplomats of the day to persuade them to be more lenient. He remarks to Stevens after his first visit to Berlin in 1920, “Disturbing, Stevens. Deeply disturbing. It does us great discredit to treat a defeated foe...

(The entire section is 1725 words.)