The Remains of the Day
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|Publisher||Faber and Faber|
|Media type||Print (hardback)|
|Preceded by||An Artist of the Floating World|
|Followed by||The Unconsoled|
The Remains of the Day is a 1989 novel by the Nobel Prize-winning British author Kazuo Ishiguro. The protagonist, Stevens, is a butler with a long record of service at Darlington Hall, a stately home near Oxford, England. In 1956, he takes a road trip to visit a former colleague, and reminisces about events at Darlington Hall in the 1920s and 1930s.
The novel tells, in first-person narration, the story of Stevens, an English butler who has dedicated his life to the loyal service of Lord Darlington (who is recently deceased, and whom Stevens describes in increasing detail in flashbacks). The novel begins in 1956, with Stevens receiving a letter from a former colleague, the housekeeper Miss Kenton, describing her married life, which Stevens believes hints at an unhappy marriage. Furthermore, Darlington Hall is short-staffed and could greatly use a skilled housekeeper like Miss Kenton. Stevens starts to consider paying Miss Kenton a visit. His new employer, a wealthy American named Mr Farraday, encourages Stevens to borrow his car to take a well-earned vacation—a "motoring trip". Stevens accepts, and sets out for Cornwall, where Miss Kenton (now Mrs Benn) lives.
During his journey, Stevens reflects on his unshakable loyalty to Lord Darlington, who had hosted lavish meetings between German sympathizers and English aristocrats in an effort to influence international affairs in the years leading up to the Second World War; on the meaning of the term "dignity" and what constitutes a great butler; and on his relationship with his late father, another "no-nonsense" man who dedicated his life to service. Ultimately, Stevens is forced to ponder Lord Darlington's character and reputation, as well as the true nature of his relationship with Miss Kenton. As the book progresses, evidence mounts of Miss Kenton's and Stevens' past mutual attraction and affection.
While they worked together during the 1930s, Stevens and Miss Kenton failed to admit their true feelings toward each other. Their conversations as recollected by Stevens show a professional friendship which at times came close to blossoming into romance, but this was evidently a line that neither dared cross. Stevens in particular never yielded, even when Miss Kenton tried to draw closer to him.
When they finally meet again, Mrs Benn, having been married now for more than twenty years, admits to wondering if she made a mistake in marrying, but says she has come to love her husband and is looking forward to the birth of their first grandchild. Stevens later muses over lost opportunities, both with Miss Kenton and regarding his decades of selfless service to Lord Darlington, who may not have been worthy of his unquestioning fealty. Stevens even expresses some of these sentiments in casual conversation with a friendly stranger of a similar age and background whom he happens upon near the end of his travels. This man suggests that it is better to enjoy the present time in one’s life than to dwell on the past, as "the evening" is, after all, the best part of the day. At the end of the novel, Stevens appears to have taken this to heart as he focuses on the titular "remains of the day", referring to his future service with Mr Farraday and what is left of his own life.
- Mr Stevens, the narrator, an English butler who serves at Darlington Hall; a devoted man with high standards who is particularly concerned with dignity (exemplified by the fact that the reader never learns his first name)
- Miss Kenton, the housekeeper at Darlington Hall, later married as Mrs Benn; an extremely capable and dignified servant who helps Mr Stevens manage Darlington Hall. As time passes, she and Mr Stevens develop a long-lasting bond
- Lord Darlington, the owner of Darlington Hall; a conference he holds between high-ranking diplomats is ultimately a failed effort toward appeasement talks between English and German powers; this causes his political and social decline
- William Stevens (Mr Stevens senior), the 75-year-old father of Mr Stevens, serving as under-butler; Stevens senior suffers a severe stroke during the conference at Darlington Hall; his son was divided between serving and helping him
- Senator Lewis, an American senator who criticises Lord Darlington as being an "amateur" in politics
- Young Mr Cardinal, the son of one of Lord Darlington's closest friends and a journalist, he is killed in Belgium during the Second World War
- M. Dupont, a high-ranking French politician who attends Lord Darlington's conference
On his motoring trip, Stevens briefly comes into contact with several other characters. They are mirrors to Stevens and show the reader different facets of his character; they are also all kind and try to help him. Two in particular, Dr. Carlisle and Harry Smith, highlight themes in the book.
The most important aspect of Stevens' life is his dignity as an English butler. To Stevens, what defines a "great butler" is a constant attitude of refined dignity, especially under stressful situations. As such, Stevens constantly maintains an inward and outward sense of dignity to preserve his identity, and dedicated himself wholly to the service of Lord Darlington. This philosophy of dignity, however, greatly affects Stevens' life—largely with respect to social constraints, loyalty and politics, and love and relationships. In preserving his dignity at the expense of emotion, Stevens in a way loses his sense of humanity with respect to his personal self. Stevens' primary struggle within the novel is how his dignity relates to his own experiences, as well as the role his dignity plays in the past, present, and future.
Banter is an underlying theme in the novel. In the prologue, Stevens notes that his new American employer, Mr Farraday, takes a more casual attitude with his servants than Lord Darlington did, and seems to expect to banter with Stevens. Determined to please his employer, Stevens takes this new duty very seriously. He sets out to practise and study the art of banter, including listening to a radio programme called Twice a Week or More for its witticisms. He attempts to banter with people he meets during his vacation, but his remarks fall flat. He agonises over this, yet fails to realise that it is his delivery that is lacking. The true significance of banter becomes apparent at the end of the novel, when Stevens has met the retired butler who strikes up a conversation with him and tells him to enjoy his old age. Stevens then listens to the chatter of the people around him, in a positive frame of mind, and realises that banter is "the key to human warmth".
The novel does not present Stevens' situation as simply a personal one. It seems clear that Stevens' position as butler, and servant, has gradually made it impossible for him to live a fulfilling emotional life. When his father dies, Stevens is too occupied with worrying about whether his services are being carried out correctly to mourn (something that he later reflects on with great pride). Nor can Stevens bring himself to express feelings about personal matters, as to do so would compromise his dignity. Social rules at the time were a major constraint. As the book reveals, servants who wished to marry and have children would have immediately found themselves without a job, as married life is seen as incompatible with service, which requires total devotion. A truly "great butler" does not abandon his profession, and, as such, Stevens feels that such choices are foolish in regard to the life of a butler.
Loyalty and politics
Stevens is shown as totally loyal to Lord Darlington, whose friendly approach towards Germany results in close contacts with the Nazi Party and right-wing British extremist organisations, such as the Blackshirts of Sir Oswald Mosley. Due to this, Lord Darlington asks Stevens to fire two Jewish staff members, though Darlington later regrets this. Stevens is quite incapable of believing his master to be wrong in his political attitudes, as Lord Darlington's upbringing and heritage carry a certain type of dignity that is above and beyond Stevens' own.
Love and relationships
Stevens is arguably aware on some level of Miss Kenton's feelings for him, but he is unable to reciprocate. Miss Kenton's actions often leave Stevens bemused and puzzled, but his recollections of past interactions between the two reveal to the reader certain lost possibilities of their relationship. However, Stevens is never able to acknowledge the complex feelings he possesses for Miss Kenton, insisting only that they shared an "excellent professional relationship". It is not only the constraints of his social situation, but also his own stunted emotional life, that hold him back. During their time at Darlington Hall, Stevens chose to maintain a sense of distance born from his personal understanding of dignity, as opposed to searching and discovering the feelings that existed between himself and Miss Kenton. It is only within their final encounter that Stevens tragically becomes aware of his life's lost potential when thinking about Miss Kenton in a romantic light.
Memory and perspective
As with his other works, Ishiguro uses the structural devices of memory and perspective within this novel. Past events are presented from the viewpoint of the main protagonist, the ageing Stevens; elements of the past are presented as fragments, apparently subconsciously censored by Stevens to present (explicitly) a description of past occurrences as he would have the reader understand them and (implicitly) to relay the fact that the information supplied is subjective. Sometimes the narrator acknowledges the inaccuracy of his recollections and this raises the question of his reliability as a narrator.
Allusions to real events
The theme of the decline of the British aristocracy can be linked to the 1911 Parliament Act, which reduced their power, and to inheritance tax increases imposed after the First World War, which forced the break-up of many estates that had been passed down for generations. The pro-German stance of Lord Darlington has parallels in the warm relations with Germany favoured by some British aristocrats in the early 1930s, such as Lord Londonderry and Oswald Mosley.
The Remains of the Day is one of the most highly regarded post-war British novels. In 1989, the novel won the Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the English-speaking world. It ranks 146th in a composite list, compiled by Brian Kunde of Stanford University, of the best twentieth-century English-language fiction.
In 2006, The Observer asked 150 literary writers and critics to vote for the best British, Irish or Commonwealth novel from 1980 to 2005; The Remains of the Day placed joint-eighth. In 2007, The Remains of the Day was included in a Guardian list of "Books you can't live without" and also in a 2009 "1000 novels everyone must read" list. The Economist has described the novel as Ishiguro's "most famous book".
- The novel was adapted into a film of the same name in 1993. Directed by James Ivory and produced by Ismail Merchant, Mike Nichols and John Calley (i.e., Merchant Ivory Productions), the film starred Anthony Hopkins as Stevens, Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton. The supporting cast included Christopher Reeve as Congressman Lewis, James Fox as Lord Darlington, Hugh Grant as Reginald Cardinal and Peter Vaughan as Mr Stevens, Sr. The film adaptation was nominated for eight Academy Awards.
- A radio play adaptation in two-hour-long episodes starring Ian McDiarmid was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 8 and 15 August 2003.
- A musical adaptation of the novel by Alex Loveless was staged in 2010 in London's Union Theatre, and received positive reviews.
- "NYTimes". archive.nytimes.com. Retrieved 12 April 2018.
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- Brian Kunde (24 June 2005). "The Best English-Language Fiction of the Twentieth Century: A Composite List and Ranking". Stanford University. Retrieved 29 June 2010.
- Robert McCrum (8 October 2006). "What's the best novel in the past 25 years?". The Observer. London. Retrieved 29 June 2010.
- "Books you can't live without: the top 100". The Guardian. London. 1 March 2007. Retrieved 29 June 2010.
- "1000 Novels Everyone Must Read: The Definitive List". The Guardian. London. 23 January 2009.
- "Kazuo Ishiguro, a Nobel laureate for these muddled times". The Economist. 5 October 2017.
"100 'most inspiring' novels revealed by BBC Arts". BBC News. 5 November 2019.
The reveal kickstarts the BBC's year-long celebration of literature.
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- "Biography for Ian McDiarmid". Internet Movie Database. Archived from the original on 10 January 2008. Retrieved 29 June 2010.
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- Book guide (PDF), UK: Faber, archived from the original (PDF) on 27 March 2010
- The Remains of the Day – The Musical (official website)
- Tamaya, Meera, Ishiguro's Remains of the Day: The Empire Strikes Back (presentation slides), ScribD
- Comparison with Milton's Sonnet XIX, ES: Universidad de Rioja