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.
Imagined communities: reflections on the origin
and spread of nationalism.
Rev. 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.
Node your homework
. For Hanah.