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.               <>

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