Kazuo Ishiguro's 1989 Booker Prize winner The Remains of the Day sees the impeccable head butler of the English country house Darlington Hall, Mr James Stevens, embarking upon a trip into the surrounding countryside and its villages after being persuaded to take some time off by his new employer, an American by the name of Mr Farraday. Being postwar fifties England, the house is viewed by Mr Farraday as more of a quaint relic than anything and Stevens also seems to be viewed somewhat in the same light, a "genuine English butler" from the grand old days of lords and gentlemen.

Stevens decides to take the opportunity to visit an ex-employee of Darlington Hall, Miss Kenton (now Mrs Benn) who worked with Stevens as head housekeeper under the original Lord Darlington during the thirties. This was in response to a letter she had sent to him, the exact contents of which the reader never sees, but which apparently told of the breakup of her marriage and the subsequent despair she had felt at the onward march of time and her fond memories of working at Darlington Hall. Stevens realises that Mrs Benn returning to work at her former post would solve many of the staff problems currently being experienced in Darlington Hall, and resolves to pay her a visit as part of his trip into the country.

As Stevens travels from village to village he recalls his own fond memories of service under Lord Darlington, memories which slowly paint a sad, all too obvious picture to the reader but to which Stevens himself seems oblivious, not due to any lack of intelligence on his part but rather because, being the very essence of English repression, he simply won't let himself. We begin to see that service to his employer Lord Darlington was Stevens' whole life, and that it was rendered unquestionably and with utmost loyalty. In his view, it was not the place of the servants to question, or even form an opinion of, their employers' decisions; their only task was to support them totally and provide the best possible service with the least possible intrusion.

Thus we see Stevens throughout his service during the prewar thirties making arrangements for Lord Darlington's various meetings of important figures as, acting out of his sense of honour and good old english sportsmanship, Darlington tries to help their former foe Germany in its sadly reduced post World War 1 state, often commenting that the Treaty of Versailles is "too harsh" and that the defeat of an enemy should be the end of the matter. Over the years, Darlington unwittingly becomes a pawn for the steadily rising Nazi party as his sympathies blind him to the fact he is being manipulated, sympathies which one cannot help thinking are perhaps motivated a little by sentiment after we hear of the tragic fate of a German friend of his due to the dire economic state of the country.

This aspect, however, takes somewhat of a back seat to a more personal realisation for Stevens. As he recalls events in the house we see him gradually drawing to Miss Kenton and she to him, only in his case as the stiff, proper butler he rationalises the small steps he allows himself to take as being in the interests of the house; for example he maintains that their evening cocoa meetings are purely to discuss matters on a professional basis. Over the years, Stevens continues seemingly oblivious to her signals, although we see a small glimmer from time to time betraying the fact that he is slowly falling in love with her, but to her constant frustration he is just too "English" to admit it, even to himself, until the heartbreaking moment Miss Kenton announces she is going to marry and all Stevens can do is offer his congratulations.

Thus it is that when Stevens receives her letter he reads a little too much between the lines, concluding that the former Miss Kenton wishes to return to work at the house. Convinced that this is the only reason he would like to see her again they arrange a meeting, and not long afterward the book comes to its inevitable yet tragic finale.

The whole story is incredibly understated, set in the countryside of England with a typically calm, stiff-upper-lipped Englishman as its main character, yet whether it is the frustration at Stevens' stiffness or the sadness at his secret, silent heartbreak, an amazing amount of feeling comes out of the pages. It is almost heart-wrenching to see him finally question his years of service for the first time, leading him to the terrible realisation that perhaps he may have wasted his life. In turns amusing, serious, and almost profound, it is a gentle tale of lost love and missed chances, an ultimately moving account of one man's long overdue reflection on the way he has spent his life.

In 1993 a Merchant-Ivory production was released starring Anthony Hopkins as Stevens and Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton, to mostly favourable reviews. It did a very good job of portraying Stevens' introspective memories to the screen and captured the understated loss of the book well and, although a few details were changed and a whole extra scene was tacked onto the end, it remains admirably faithful, even word for word at times. Although, as is the case with most screen adaptations it could never truly be as good as the book, still I would definitely recommend both film and book to anyone unfamiliar with the story.

The Imagined National Identity in The Remains of the Day

In Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Stevens, the narrator, examines his career as a butler and the conflict between two English identities.   In the old English identity that Stevens is used to, decorum and propriety reign, whereas the new identity has a more relaxed atmosphere.  The disparity between the two identities destabilizes the concept of a unified, timeless, and imagined English identity.  In Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Anderson states that “All communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined” (6).  Stevens imagines English national identity, especially with respect to the topics of dignity, professionalism, and personal feelings.  During Stevens’ career as a butler, he attempts to become truly dignified, thus exhibiting the English ideal of the time.  However, since he has not spent much time out of Darlington Hall, Stevens paints an image of England through books such as The Wonder of England and the activities inside Darlington Hall.  This is shown when he says to Mr. Farraday, “It has been my privilege to see the best of England over the years, sir, within these very walls” (Ishiguro 4).  As a result, he misperceives the English identity and the ideal of dignity, thereby damaging his life and causing a deep sense of regret.

Stevens strives to attain the ideal of dignity.  Stevens’ impression of the English distinction and dignity necessary for a butler is formed from his perception of the imagined community.  This community of butlers is imagined because “it is conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship” (Chicago).  By extension, Stevens feels that comradeship with the English people also, as he says that “butlers only truly exist in England” (Ishiguro 43).  For the professional standard, Stevens looks to great butlers, including his father, and to the Hayes Society, who demand that applicants have a sense of dignity.  Through these influences and his discussions with his peers, Stevens creates his perception of dignity and duty; however, this perception damages his own life.    After telling the stories of how great butlers held their composure in stressful situations, he defines dignity as “a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits” (42).  Stevens also states that by serving a morally great employer, he has helped humanity.  However, Stevens takes this concept too far, suppressing his personal feelings in all situations.  Even when his father dies, Stevens does not see him until after his job is done; furthermore, he claims that on that night, he displayed a “dignity worthy of someone like Mr. Marshall” (114).  Therefore, by striving for a misguided, imagined view of dignity, Stevens loses part of himself.

The novel presents a conflict between an old English identity and the newer identity that Stevens observes after the purchase of Darlington Hall by Mr. Farraday.  During his trip, Stevens contemplates and scrutinizes the old identity of England.  With the era of the old manor houses disappearing, he finds himself in a new time with a new national identity.  One component of this new identity that Stevens does not fare well with is bantering.  He comments that “bantering on my employer’s part has characterized our relationship…I must confess, I remain rather unsure as to how I should respond,” (Ishiguro 14) demonstrating his hesitation to joking with his employer, an unacceptable action in his imagined view.  Additionally, he resents the change in the country and fears the future.  This fear results from Stevens becoming cognizant of the unstable English identity, a fluid entity changing with the times.  This watershed in perceived identity troubles Stevens, as the community that he has imagined is no longer maintained.  Also, this causes him to feel outdated, especially after the manservant who assists Stevens tells him that “there can’t be many like [Stevens] left” (119). 

Furthermore, Stevens focuses on the antiquity of the English nation as opposed to the modernity and progress that is present.  Even when Mr. Cardinal tells Stevens that “his lordship is being made a fool of,” (222) he adheres to his beliefs that Lord Darlington is a noble man and refuses to believe that things have changed.  In adhering to his imagined English identity of dignity and professionalism, a paradox is created, setting the “objective modernity of [the nation] in the eye of the historian vs. [its] subjective antiquity in the eye of nationalists” (Chicago).  His imagined view of Englishness is undermined by the advent of a more efficient, democratic England, creating a paradox that causes Stevens to fear the future.

Since the influences on Stevens’ portrayal of national identity consist largely of stories about dignified butlers, he never lives outside of his profession.  However, this removes part of his humanity, as he does not love or become close to others.  A specific example of this is his lost opportunity with Ms. Kenton, exemplified at the end when “his heart is breaking” (Ishiguro 239) with regret and loss.  He does not get close to Ms. Kenton despite the attraction between them.  Additionally, Stevens is an unreliable narrator since he is instilled with old English values, ones that dictate his professionalism at all times.  Due to this belief, he does not show his true feelings in his narration.  For example, he does not feel “any regret or shame on [his] own account” (201) for his blind loyalty to Lord Darlington’s erroneous decisions, as he believes it is not appropriate for a butler to question his employer.  Furthermore, it is not until the end that he admits that he has lost individuality and interpersonal intimacy as a result of his values.  He isolates himself from others in order to attain professional dignity.  Stevens imagines England, for he sees the nation through a small peephole, Darlington Hall.  This image of the nation is built through stories of dignified men, the Hayes Society values, and the portrayal of the English countryside through books.  Stevens carries the imagined community’s values to an extreme, causing him to lose what he has strived for- dignity.  His misguided perception of the dynamics of England, and his role in it, harms him, infusing regret for a life lost because of an incorrectly imagined community.


Works Cited

 Anderson, Benedict.  Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalismRev. and extended ed.  New York: Verso, 1991. 

 Ishiguro, Kazuo.  The Remains of the Day.  New York: Vintage, 1990.

University of Chicago.  “Imagined Communities (summary).”  Sociology of Culture.  1   Oct 2004.               <http://ssr1.uchicago.edu//PRELIMS/Culture/cumisc1.html#ANDERSON>


Node your homework. For Hanah.

In many ways, this film is perfect: It is impeccably cast, gorgeously shot, with a spot-on original score.

It is also a brave and interesting film, for a number of reasons - above all because it takes cowardice as its theme, and explores it deeply with an unflinching eye. We see an awful lot of films about bravery, heroism, people risking everything for the sake of others or to Do The Right Thing; the flipside is seldom explored, and it doesn't make comfortable viewing.

Our protagonists here are thoroughly decent people, getting on with what they feel sort of obliged to be doing, but never quite having the courage to do what they really should do. With hindsight, it seems perfectly obvious that it was a grievous mistake to encourage Nazi Germany to re-arm and become a major player in Europe, however ungentlemanly it was to cripple the country at the end of World War One; Lord Darlington's refusal to face up to what was happening smacks of moral cowardice. From outside, too, it seems clear that Hopkins and Thompson are foolish not to just admit they're in love. In spite of this, and in spite of the fact that it seems more and more likely that the characters in question know what they should really do, every one of them is altogether sympathetic. The film is not here to judge; only to probe the devastation that can follow when people allow fear (and a misplaced sense of duty) to hold them back from doing what they should.

I started out by saying that in many ways this film is perfect. There is no mistaking that it faultlessly achieves what it set out to do; this is serious art, executed with great style, with the two main leads giving devastating performances. Precisely because it tackles its themes so expertly, so convincingly, it is also a rather upsetting and profoundly frustrating film. It makes us care very much about these people, and we keep desperately wanting them to make things go right... but life just isn't always like that, you know?

I first posted this on IMDb, and experimentally on Knol.

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