The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro is a beautiful but sad story which tells of the passing of the era of the English upper class in the time between World War One and Two.
The story is told in the first person by an elderly butler, Stevens, who has lived his entire adult life serving others in grand houses, most recently Darlington Hall. Stevens’ life of service has been at the detriment of his own personal life, although Stevens feels that his work has allowed great men to live great lives, with his employers serving humanity through their involvement in politics.
In the beginning of the book, Stevens is working at Darlington Hall for the rich American, Mr Farraday, who bought the property after Lord Darlington died, when he is encouraged to make a trip in his employer’s car to visit Miss Kenton, who used to be the housekeeper at Darlington Hall. During his travels, Stevens reflects on his life and of the importance of his career.
Steven’s ideal of the perfect butler is one who is dignified at all times. He holds other qualities in high esteem, particularly good moral values, but it is Stevens’ regard for dignity which carries the whole story.
In the beginning of the story, Stevens is anxious because Mr Farraday seems to want to banter with him, which leaves Stevens at a loss. He studies and practices bantering, but never quite manages to successfully amuse his employer, and he worries that this inability makes him deficient in his duties. Stevens’ humour and Mr Farraday’s are too different for them to understand each other perfectly.
During Lord Darlington’s time, Darlington Hall was filled with important political people of the time, from England, Germany and other parts of Europe. The reader recognises that Lord Darlington was probably not a great man at all, that in fact he lacked strength of character, was prone to flattery and made some racist decisions which impacted the Jewish staff members of his household terribly.
An important social event earlier in Stevens’ career at Darlington Hall was particularly tragic. Stevens tells the story of continuing to serve Lord Darlington’s guests, smiling and laughing at the guest’s jokes, and facilitating their comparatively trivial needs while his own father was upstairs dying. Stevens sees this night as the most triumphant of his career, as he never let his mask slip or provided less than the best possible service.
Another tragedy of both Steven’s life and that of Miss Kenton’s, the housekeeper, is that they grew to love one another, and could have married, had children and made a life together, except that Stevens never allowed this to happen. I was unsure if Stevens was aware of Miss Kenton’s feelings towards himself or not until the end of the book when they met again after many years apart, but either way, Stevens’ inability to allow himself to feel his emotions makes him one of the saddest fictional characters I have ever read about, although, if he wasn’t so self effacing, he would probably argue that these qualities made him a ‘great’ butler.
The language and dialogue in The Remains of the Day is beautiful and this would be an excellent book to read aloud. When I read parts of the story aloud to myself, I put on the snobbiest English-butler accent that my Australian drawl could manage, and enjoyed myself thoroughly.
The Remains of the Day left me feeling as if I should chuck in my job and live my life while I can.
The question is though, can I afford to learn what not to do from Stevens, and throw in my job to do what I want all day? (Read, eat chocolate, roller-skate, travel, laugh more, etc). If I do, will my family, (who, it could be argued, are my most important job), suffer? Yes, probably they would. Should I try harder to even up my work/life balance? (Yes, I know ‘work/life balance’ is an ‘it’ phrase, but it does describe the issue). Yes, probably I should. I work long hours and sometimes that is to my family’s detriment. Could I throw in my job? No, we have to eat. Plus, I like my work and take pride in it, although luckily for my family, not as much as Stevens does.
At the end of his story, Stevens realises what he has given up when he meets with Miss Kenton, and this is bittersweet.
I could not be gladder to have read The Remains of the Day, which must be one of the best books I’ve read this year. I’m planning on watching the movie and reading more books by this author soon. Hopefully when I am an old lady on my deathbed, I don’t look back on my life and wish then that I had taken a lesson from Stevens.