DISCLAIMER: This essay may need to be read with a basic understanding of the plot of the two novel's discussed. The first is Ian McEwan's 'Atonement' and the second is Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker Prize Winner, 'The Remains of the Day'.

THE DANGERS OF THE IMAGINATION: Unreliable narrators in The Remains of the Day and Atonement. An examination of the books’ conclusions as they inform our reading of the novels as a whole.

‘It is a kind of symbolist novel about storytelling, about the imagination, the dangers of the imagination, the guilt of the imagination, the guilt of transforming life into art.’ Tom Paulin talking about ‘Atonement’

Both of these novels conclude with a recognition of truth and reality. They examine the difference between romantic possibility and probability. In doing so, they show the possible futility of life, as human desires and fantasies overtake reality, sometimes to such an extent that our lives become irredeemable. They examine the human condition, our ability to misinterpret, misunderstand and misread ourselves and others. They examine life itself, circumstances, dramatic events that distort our very existence and re-shape our very being. But both novels conclude, that while no ideal is impossible, the mere search for an ideal is not enough, and can never be. They are both about what is not said, and how life is more often lived through the imagination, rather than reality.

Both novels are about the imaginary, as both narrators live through other people. The dangers of the imagination are illustrated as Stevens narrates the story of a created self and Miss Kenton – he begins to fantasise about a possible romantic end, but does little physically to make this fantasy a reality. Briony, meanwhile, lives through Robbie and Cecilia, who, in her latter years, she turns into her ‘Arabella and Medical Prince’.

At Atonement’s end we are forced to question Briony’s reliability, as we discover what was imagined. McEwan achieves this by using a device: having told the entire novel in the third person, the final section is written in the first – as Briony confides in us. It becomes apparent that at least aspects of Robbie and Cecilia’s relationship have been fabricated:

‘Who would want to believe that they never met again, never fulfilled their love? Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism?’ p371
Briony repeatedly asks ‘who would want to believe’ the truth, highlighting the guilt she feels at tearing Robbie and Cecilia’s lives apart – and thus underlining her need for atonement. She dismisses ‘realism’, as bleak and crude, as if it always results in unhappy endings, rather than the romantic ideals that fascinate her. The reality of the situation is stark in comparison with her own imaginings – Robbie died of septicaemia while Cecilia was ‘killed in September of the same year by the bomb that destroyed Balham Underground station.’ Such a horrific revelation makes us question the events of the entire novel – and Briony’s interpretation of them. We wonder whether we are meant to trust the words of the concluding section more, or less – emphasising one of the novel’s main themes – how can we trust art when it can be so far removed from reality?

The novelist goes onto talk of her ‘last version’, as she ‘walks away’ from the lovers. Her repeated attempts at perfection, coupled with the image of her leaving her work suggest an omnipotent God, moulding his creation. This is something that Briony is apparently aware of:

‘How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?’ p371

However, she also speaks with conviction, even arrogance, about her work, which she believes will not only right her wrong of all those years ago, but also allow some part of Robbie and Cecilia to become transcendent. Therefore we might question whether Briony has really travelled that far at all from her former, ‘busy, priggish, conceited’ self when, at the age of eighty, she still feels a need to twist the lives of Robbie and her sister to fit the quixotic tradition of her childhood story ‘The Trials of Arabella’. This is illustrated by the following quotation, in which she is clearly still concerned with the romantic idea of the handsome ‘prince’ of fairy tales:

‘As long as there is a single copy, a solitary typescript of my final draft, then my spontaneous, fortuitous sister and her medical prince survive to love.’ p371
Stevens, meanwhile, also appears to learn something about himself in the concluding section of The Remains of the Day. He says, perhaps somewhat bitterly, that he gave all he had to give to Lord Darlington. There is a final realisation that he has wasted his life:
‘”I gave him the very best I had to give, and now – well – I find I do not have a great deal more left to give.”’ p255

This quotation follows on from his heart-breaking encounter with Miss Kenton. Therefore, it is interesting to note that the crisis in his personal life precipitates a professional crisis. In both instances his hopes and dreams, be it a life with Miss Kenton, or the image of himself as the perfect butler – serving and achieving through duty, have failed to meet with the reality. He also says, rather ambiguously, that at least Lord Darlington made his own mistakes. This refers to both Stevens’ blind, unquestioning obedience to Lord Darlington, but also to the fact that he only allowed himself to fulfil his role, not his humanity. In constantly seeking ways of pleasing Lord Darlington, and trying to maintain the ‘dignity’ in keeping with a perfect butler, Stevens anaesthetised himself to all kinds of human emotions and passions, and only now does he realise it:

‘He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?’ pp255-6

Stevens’ fixation with the words ‘chose’ and ‘trust’ has a particular resonance, as he clearly blames his role for his own inability to take action. This could be seen as a form of transference, the personal crisis in Stevens’ life is so big that he must blame someone else, in this case Lord Darlington. The novel is cyclical, Stevens ends where he began – contemplating his bantering skills, vainly clutching to the belief that it is ‘the key to human warmth.’ It is sad, therefore, that Stevens, having travelled all this way, in a spiritual as well as a physical sense, turns his back on the truths he has learnt. His life is empty of the love for which he hoped, so Stevens’ focus returns to his work:

‘I will begin practising with renewed effort. I should hope, then, that by the time of my employer’s return, I shall be in a position to pleasantly surprise him.’ p258
The above quotation highlights Stevens’ vicarious nature. The last word in the novel is ‘him’, as Stevens' focus turns once again to living a life through his employer. Like the novelist, Stevens has a desire to live through others, perhaps to absolve himself of responsibility and to protect himself from personal hurt, a desire made that much greater by Miss Kenton’s rejection. This all relates to the dangers of the imagination, our ability to misinterpret and misunderstand. Stevens deludes himself about his achievements in life – he is proud of the dignity, which he holds, ignoring his total failure to pursue love and real happiness. Briony, meanwhile, shows us how easy it is to confuse the actions of others, and to convince ourselves of what we want to believe. Both novels set up an ideal of love but have anti-romantic conclusions.

It is also necessary to analyse the characters’ fictionalising of events earlier in the book. It is the young Briony Tallis who first shows us how easy it is to convince oneself of what we want to believe. As a result of her overactive imagination, she turns a perfectly innocent confrontation by the fountain into some blackmail saga.

‘At his insistence she was removing her clothes, and at such speed … What strange power did he have over her? Blackmail? Threats?’ p38
In fact, it is Cecilia who decides to remove her clothes, proving a point to the infuriating Robbie. At this moment, their passions find an outlet in mutual contempt,
‘… well, she would show him then. She kicked off her sandals, unbuttoned her blouse and removed it, unfastened her skirt and stepped out of it and went to the basin wall.’ p30

McEwan crafts this section superbly, showing the same event from four differing perspectives. He shows the event itself; Briony’s misinterpretation of it; and, finally, Robbie and Cecilia both going over it again in their own minds. All three characters imagine the event as they wish to see it. Briony turns it into the start of some melodramatic thriller,

‘The scene by the fountain, its air of ugly threat, and at the end, when both had gone their separate ways, the luminous absence shimmering above the wetness on the gravel.’ p113
Robbie reads his own passion into it – his own hope that Cecilia’s actions were purely for his benefit,
‘To strip off like that – yes, her endearing attempt to seem eccentric.’ p80
Cecilia, meanwhile, attempts to disguise her feelings for Robbie. Rather than analyse herself or try to understand him, she prefers to attack him, for what she sees as his condescending behaviour. The reader is amused by her lack of self-awareness as her admission to, ‘having passed many hours deliberately not thinking about Robbie Turner,’ merely demonstrates her pent up passion for him.

For Stevens other people are more real than himself – as he imagines the lives of past butlers and attempts to continue the tradition; while the young Briony grasps the fact that all of our minds are separate, leading to confusion and misunderstanding.

‘She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive. It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people … it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you.’ p40
It is, therefore, ironic that, having grasped such a fact, Briony continues to manipulate the events around her to fit her own storyline and agenda. Even the age old Briony can be accused of twisting life to fit her art. Once again, we find a need to question her motivation for changing the reality that was Robbie and Cecilia. Again, the line between fact and fiction becomes blurred.
‘I like to think that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end.’ p372
She talks of taking a stand ‘against oblivion and despair,’ again highlighting her dislike for reality, as opposed to her penchant for the omnipotence she can only find in her imagination, which allows her to ‘unite’ and ‘let’ her lovers live.

Like Briony, Stevens is equally guilty of interpreting for his own ends; imagining the best, at the expense of reality. Miss Kenton’s letter is, to him, some kind of signal, a call for him. Miss Kenton’s letter sparks off a chain of memories, hopes and desires – all of which are proven to be incorrect when the couple actually meets. The fact is that Stevens’ fantasy is much more desirable than the reality. He may even be aware that he is deluding himself, but it’s a pleasant lie,

‘… indeed, that the notion of a trip to the West Country took an ever-increasing hold on my thoughts – is no doubt substantially attributable to – and why should I hide it? – the arrival of Miss Kenton’s letter, her first in almost seven years if one discounts Christmas cards.’ p5
The extent of his obsession with Miss Kenton is obvious by his exact memory of all correspondence with her. He doesn’t say that Miss Kenton’s letter was her first ‘for a while’; instead he remembers it as exactly seven years, ‘discounting Christmas cards.’ Stevens, however, believes that he is being realistic, claiming, ‘I am not so foolish as to be unprepared for disappointment.’ Only to go onto to ‘persuade’ himself that all is well,
‘ … I am only too aware that I never received a reply from Miss Kenton confirming she would be happy about a meeting. However, knowing Miss Kenton as I do, I am inclined to think that a lack of any letter can be taken as agreement … ’ p216
This is a most human frailty; we are all guilty of deceiving ourselves into what we want to believe. Stevens imagines a world with Miss Kenton, and yet appears to sit back and expect her to make the bold speeches and grand gestures. Briony wishes to atone for her mistake, which ruined the lives of her sister and Robbie, whilst claiming to have become more self-aware. Yet, she too is guilty of twisting the reality to make herself feel better. Both are, in a sense, writers, narrating a fantasy world – which they would both rather inhabit than the reality.

This results in a certain amount of guilt. Briony’s fantasy world results in a real life crime, which she must try and atone for the rest of her life. Also, as Tom Paulin states, she feels guilt at transforming life into art. Similarly, Stevens’ inaction results in guilt and a feeling of self-betrayal. He has failed himself as a man, and has not responded to one of his most basic human desires. Yet, neither character actually resolves this innate self-conflict. Like all humans, they convince themselves that the mere awareness of the failure is enough, and then proceed to do nothing about it. Briony says obscurely,

‘There was a crime. But there were also lovers.’ p370
However, unlike Stevens, she does at least show a little awareness of the crimes she has committed and the fact that she has ‘not travelled so very far after all.’ She readily admits that she won’t be so self-serving as to let Robbie and Cecilia forgive her. Like Stevens, however, Briony’s life is cyclical. She began writing a play about ‘The Trials of Arabella’ and ends Atonement having completed a novel in which her sister is Arabella, and Robbie is her prince. While she claims that the happy ending is for our benefit, so that at least part of Robbie and Cecilia remains transcendent, one can’t help remaining unconvinced. By allowing their love to continue, Briony may have achieved atonement, but she has also repeated her crime – of playing God with people’s lives.

Stevens, meanwhile, is guilty of wasting his life – his inaction means he has nothing to look forward to. The ‘emptiness’ of which he spoke with Miss Kenton is his destiny. He feels guilt at betraying himself, and this is only shown when he asks what dignity there is in not making one’s own mistakes. The sense of despair must become even more profound when his companion on the pier tells him how much he has to look forward,

‘”The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it. That’s how I look at it. Ask anybody, they’ll all tell you. The evening’s the best part of the day.” … perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day.’ p256
Yet, the reader knows that Stevens has nothing to look forward to in the ‘remains of (his) day’, and sadly that is largely due to his own inaction. By the time he meets Miss Kenton it is too late. He had his chance, at Darlington Hall, and failed to grasp it. Although he is aware of his mistake, he still fails to act upon it – preferring to return to the comfort of the life he knows so well. This is his final act of self-betrayal – as he chooses to repeat his previous pattern of behaviour.

In conclusion, both novels are about the imagined – the worlds that exist solely in our heads. Neither novel criticises this, but they readily point out the dangers of obsessing about a life so far removed from reality and full of imaginary outcomes. Stevens fantasises about a world of him and Miss Kenton – yet the reality is that he fails to do anything about it. Whether this is out of fear of rejection or fear of something actually happening, we do not know. Either way, the fantasy could be regarded as more palatable than the reality. Briony, meanwhile, blurs the lines between fact and fiction – with tragic consequences. However, even as an old woman she still appears to prefer the greater control that exists in her own head than in the outside world. Likewise, Stevens goes back to the role, rather than the self. The delusion and fictionalising of the characters is mirrored by the context. The Remains of the Day shows the delusion of the appeasers, illustrated by the actions of Lord Darlington. While in Atonement, McEwan examines the reality of the Dunkirk retreat, which British history has mythologized as a ‘victory’ that embodies the British spirit.

Both novels are about a vicarious existence, and in Briony’s case one that she transforms into art. She and Stevens are so fearful of the harsh reality that they prefer the greater control and safety that they find within the limits of their own imaginations. However, both novels conclude that living outside reality can be disabling and crippling. It is an existence laden with guilt – the guilt of self-betrayal above all else. It might be safe and comfortable, but a world devoid of real feelings and a human touch is no reality at all.


Ian McEwan at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, transcript from http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/generalfiction/story/0,6000,627239,00.html The Salon Interview: Ian McEwan by Dwight Garner, www.salon.com/books/int/1998/03/cov_si_31int.html The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber and Faber 1989 Atonement by Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape 2001 The Oxford Companion to English Literature from Oxford University Press 2000 Tom Paulin talking on Newsnight Review on 21st September 2001 Written in 2002.

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