Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Edition: The Remains of the Day
The Remains of the Day was published in 1989 and won the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction. The novel is Ishiguro's third novel.

The story is told from the first-person point of view of Stevens, the butler at Darlington Hall, as he embarks upon a four-day excursion into the English countryside in July of 1956. His new employer, an American by the name of Farraday, has suggested that Stevens take a vacation; Stevens, whose "professionalism" defines nearly his entire personality. Stevens tells the reader that he decides to take the trip only after an old housekeeper during the great days at Darlington Hall before the war, formerly Miss Kenton and now Mrs. Benn, had written to him with a tinge of nostalgia and news that her marriage wasn't so great. Stevens goes into great detail about how a faulty "staff plan" after Farraday's paring down of the staff was the culprit for some minor errors which he had committed lately. Stevens has in mind that Miss Kenton might return to Darlington and solve these minor problems.

The time during which Stevens writes his story is confined to immediately before, during, and immediately after his trip, but the story itself follows no particular chronology and seems to spontaneously pour out of Stevens's head as a set of flashbacks and philosophical musings. One of his first anecdotes he offers is an account of Farraday gently teasing him about visiting a lady friend; this anecdote launches him into a longer musing on the requirements of "banter" which his new employer requires, and which he can't seem to get a hang of. On the road to Salisbury in Farraday's Ford, Stevens is told by an old man to take a view of England atop a hill, and he does so, thinking on how "great" the landscape of "Great Britain" really was. This catapults him into reflecting on what makes a "great" butler, and he answers that a great butler must have "dignity." To describe dignity, which he defines as an "ability to inhabit [a] profeesional role and inhabit it to the utmost," Stevens gives a few examples from his own father's career: one time, when his father was a butler in India, shot a tiger under a dining room table without disturbing the occupants of the drawing room; another time, his father compelled a couple of drunk men he was driving to settle down just by force of his own silence; and yet another time, his father maintained his composure while serving the haughty general who had given bad orders resulting in the death of Stevens's older brother.

On the morning of the second day (Stevens is still in Salisbury), Stevens re-reads Miss Kenton's letter and has a long flashback to their mutual arrival at Darlington Hall in 1922. Miss Kenton had been pointing out that Stevens's father had been making more and more errors. Stevens has rude responses to Miss Kenton and basically won't believe her. Soon however, his father's decline simply can't be ignored; following a fall, Stevens tells his father curtly (and "professionally," Stevens thinks) that his duties will be abridged. He ignores the old man's protests. Here, the reflection ends and Stevens doubles back to talking about his approach to Salisbury, and how he had nearly run over a chicken. Abruptly, he returns again to talk about his father, thinking it important to justify his treatment of his father as the reader might think him harsh. To give further examples that his behavior was simply professional (and, ostensibly, "dignified"), Stevens narrates the events of the conference of 1923 at Darlington Hall. Stevens regards this moment as a proud one of his career because he thought that it illustrated his own coming-of-age as a butler. It was an "unofficial" conference at Lord Darlington's which would essentially bring about the relaxing of terms against Germany in the Versailles Treaty (the "official" conference, Stevens tells us, is merely a front for what has already happened in private settings such as Darlington's home). As the reader knows, this relaxation of terms was the appeasement policy that would largely enable Hitler's ascendancy. Stevens, though, seems negligently unconcerned about this, simply using the occasion to talk about his own equanimity even though his father dies during this event. Stevens callously ignores his father's deathbed question as to whether he's been a good father to him or not and delusionally imagines that his father would want him to continue his duties. During the conference, the foreign diplomats that Darlington has assembled seek to convince M. Dupont, a French gentleman of interest, of the need for relaxed terms because it is the "gentlemanly" thing to do after war. M. Dupont comes around, and the only dissident is Mr. Lewis, the American. After Stevens's father died, Darlington remarks that it seems as if Stevens has been crying, but Stevens, of course, shrugs this off.

In the afternoon of this same day, Stevens reaches Mortimer's Pond in Dorset. He continues reflecting on the question of what makes a "great" butler, and launches into a nostalgic consideration of his own generation of butlers, whom he imagines as being part of the hub of a wheel: the metaphor is that important decisions which change the course of history are made from the hubs (great houses like Darlington) and the fanning out of the spokes represents the widespread effects of such decisions. Thus, the butlers at these great houses were at the center of historical change. Stevens returns to an incident on his journey, in which he notices a strange noise coming from his car. He manages to find someone to help at a garage. Strangely, Stevens finds himself lying to the man at the garage about his association with Lord Darlington, and we find out that this is something that he has lied about before. The reader becomes increasingly aware of Stevens's hidden desires to distance himself from the name. On reaching Taunton, Somerset, Stevens recalls an episode which substantiates Darlington's loss of his good name after the war. It seems that Darlington had received hospitality from the Nazis during his pre-war trips to Germany, and had also received to his own home members of the "blackshirts." Stevens is quick to defend Darlington, however, saying that he cut off associations with the Nazis and the blackshirts as soon as he realized what they represented.

On the evening of the third day, Stevens has reached Moscombe, a small village near Tavistock, and he doubles back to answer charges of anti-semitism leveled against Darlington. Apparently, Darlington had dismissed two of their Jewish housemaids at one point--this became a point of contention between Stevens and Miss Kenton. Miss Kenton felt it to be wrong and nearly resigned on principle while Stevens maintained that such decisions by "great men" did not concern them. The hiring of a new pretty housemaid named Lisa becomes an occasion for Miss Kenton making fun of Stevens for having a "curious aversion to pretty girls being on the staff," suggesting his repressed sexuality. Stevens, of course, denies this. It seems increasingly clear, however, that Miss Kenton and Stevens has a much more intimate relationship than Stevens would admit. Stevens then reveals that he had been so deep in thought that he has gotten lost, resulting in his running out of Petrol. He had found lodging with a nice couple, the Taylors, at Moscombe. After this bit of information, Stevens offers another recollection which has preoccupied him of late: the time that Miss Kenton discovered him reading a sentimental romance novel. His excuse at the time had been that such novels were helpful in perfecting his gentlemanly English, though he does admit getting some "incidental enjoyment" out of reading them. He thought that this incident may have led to a change in his relationship with Miss Kenton; things seem increasingly strained between the two of them when he refrains from comforting her when her aunt died. Going back to his stay at the Taylor's, Stevens tells of how the various members of the small village came to know about his arrival and many of them imagine him to be a "gentleman," voicing to him their opinions on political involvement and wishing to gain his attention. Stevens doesn't let on that he is just a butler, but says that he has encountered the likes of Mr. Eden and Lord Halifax. The question as to whether those who are not "great men" should have strong opinions and a say in politics comes up, and Stevens is uncomfortable. He ends this section with an extended excuse about how butlers can only be good butlers if they don't question the decisions of their employers. Thus, Stevens concludes, "it is quite illogical that I should feel any regret or shame on my own account."

On the afternoon of the fourth day, Stevens has reached Little Compton, where he will meet with Miss Kenton. While sitting at his hotel before their meeting, Stevens reflects on an episode in which Mr. Cardinal, a journalist and the godson of Lord Darlington, berated Stevens for refusing to see that Darlington was a pawn for Hitler. During this visit, Miss Kenton also revealed to Stevens that she was getting married and leaving Darlington Hall. In these fraught moments, Stevens chooses to maintain his "sense of duty," showing little to no evidence of a moral struggle or of emotion. The account closes with Stevens's retrospective account of his meeting with Miss Kenton, in which she had revealed to him that she and her husband were in fact fine and that she had reconciled with him. She hints at the life that Stevens and she could have had together, and Stevens even admits that his heart was breaking as he heard this. He bids her to be happy, however, and takes his leave. In the final scene, Stevens is before the pier in the evening. There, he meets another butler and in his reflections to this other butler, begins to realize some of his own errors. Sadly, he reflects on how Lord Darlington at lest "chose a certain path in life," though "it proved to be a misguided one," but that he himself "cannot even claim that." As Stevens begins to think that there is no dignity in that, his companion tells him to stop, and to enjoy the evening, the remains of the day. In the end, it seems that Stevens reaches a more humanistic understanding as he looks out on the groups of people "bantering" in the evening, thinking how perhaps "in bantering likes the key to human warmth."

Like Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, Ishiguro's first person narrator's story emerges out of a disjointed account which temporally jumps around in such a way that the account is as much a story as a psychological portrait of a disturbed individual. The account primarily oscillates between the past and the present; the overall structure is that something in the present catapults the narrator into either some recollection from his time as a butler under Darlington or some extended philosophical reflection on his career or the changing times more broadly.

At the heart of this story is the psychological portrait of a person who does progress, who gradually comes to realize his own inhumanity: in the reflective oscillation between past and present which his time off from work enables, he does get closer and closer to admitting the mistakes of his past. The scenes that he revisits from his past are ones that clearly bother him, even as he re-justifies them with the same rationales that he had used at the time. In doing so, he gradually realizes their emptiness, culminating in his admitting to himself his love for Miss Kenton (in describing his heart-break) and affirming the importance of "human warmth" at the end of the day.

What makes Ishiguro's novel greater than just a psychological portrait of a man who learns that he has sacrificed his own humanity to the abstraction of "professional duty" is its contextualization within the social changes from the pre-war to the post-war period. Stevens's being unaware of human suffering through his idealization of Darlington's English gentlemanliness and his own professional dignity is shot through by the unawareness of the whole world as it stood by while Hitler came to power. Since Stevens's realization of his own mistake sneaks up on him and isn't anything climactic, Ishiguro seems to remind us that the attitudes that comprise appeasement have a much deeper root than "political policy," it seems to be an attitude which pervasively extended its influence from high to low society. That someone like Stevens, a butler, could accept as part of inhabiting his "profession" that he was incapable of making moral distinctions and that such decisions should be left to the more capable elites indicates that appeasement was written into the entire structure of English society. Stevens's attitude and revisions of his own past at the end of the novel also doesn't seem to owe much to his own moral merit, but changes in English society after the war. As he looks out on the pier, he meets a butler enjoying his retirement and groups of people enjoying the evening after work. This "new" kind of professional, unlike the old professional who "inhabits" his role all the time, takes of the "role" that s/he inhabits at the end of the day, and has time for "human warmth," even if it is only at the end of the day. In acknowledging this change from new to old professionalism, Stevens again sort of goes with the flow.

Finally, what could Ishiguro's revisitation of such pre-war to post-war changes have to do with the moment of The Remains of the Day's publication? The fall of the Berlin Wall comes to mind, naturally, as the most salient association with 1989. The fall of the wall was a symbolic end to post-war Germany, and the hailing of a new era of democracy and freedom, and so Ishiguro's meditations might be a kind of elegy and reminder of what has come before. Certainly, obvious lessons might be drawn--don't be a drone and accept blind ideologies, maintain your individual moral compass so that this new democracy might last--but I don't think it's quite so simple that, since Stevens's coming to realize his own humanity isn't really his triumph as an individual but simply his being carried on by the "times." Still, though perhaps we're all slaves to the "times," Ishiguro's novel does engage readers in a meta-critical exercise  which reflects on what it might look like to be one particular slave to the times, in hopes, perhaps, to lessen the extend of our own blindness to our times.

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