Remains of the Day

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Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day gives an eloquent treatment of the issue of how a stoic English butler’s unemotional reaction to the emotional world around him is damaging and painful, and how he resolves to make the best of the “remains of the day”—the remainder of his life. Ishiguro explores some of the differences between the old English Victorian culture—that of the stiff upper lip, no show of emotion, and repression of personal opinion—and the no-holds-barred American culture of free expression of opinion and emotion. The American culture’s spread into England is hastened with the two world wars, and it ends Stevens’ old way of work, if not the job itself. Although Remains of the Day concentrates on a particular culture, and an obsolescent one at that, Ishiguro makes many insightful observations on human behavior in general. I will explore a few of these observations here, and attempt to show that Ishiguro’s work possesses meaning far beyond an examination of one emotionally-repressed servant. Ishiguro illustrates Stevens, and all of the old English butlers, as characters who basically amount to machines, unable to think for themselves. They see loyalty to the master as the only thing that matters in the world. Every time Stevens ends his lines with “sir,” he is repressing his true identity. Ishiguro makes the reader wonder how on earth a person could get to be like this, for the sole reward of having the best silver in the house or the best-starched suits. The old service culture of butlers in England was destined to change dramatically after the two world wars; by the time Stevens decides to change his lifestyle the old ways are already gone forever. Stevens even relates the subdued nature of English scenery to the proper way of dignified behavior, in his observation that the English countryside is more dignified than the showy American landscape, in its “lack of obvious drama or spectacle” (28). Obviously, most regular people in England did not act like the butlers. The behavior of the old butlers represents stereotypes which persist today in our conception of the people of England. After all, “butlers only…exist in England” (43). Indeed, Farraday judges the worth of Stevens, and Darlington Hall, according to stereotypical ideals of genuine Englishness. In a moment of panic, Farraday demands of Stevens, “this is a genuine grand old English house, isn’t it?…And you’re a genuine old-fashioned English butler, not just some waiter pretending to be one. You’re the real thing, aren’t you?” (124). The instance in which Stevens is called to the dining room to give his opinion on world affairs is particularly sad: the lordship and his guests want to have an amusing little discussion, but all Stevens can manage to say is, “I’m sorry, sir, but I am unable to assist in this matter” (196). Behind each minor task of Stevens, Ishiguro raises deep questions about human beings’ relationships to their employers, and the repression of emotions which frequently occur. When Stevens learns that Lord Darlington’s reputation was totally wrecked after it was revealed that that he had sued a newspaper for libelous accusations about his alliance with Nazis, Stevens realizes that all his years spent trying to be dignified for Darlington were wasted. Darlington’s ruin makes a joke of Stevens’ years and years of personal service and devotion. Ishiguro may be attempting to make a point about all people’s attitudes toward their employers: do not spend your whole life trying to please one boss because you may find in the end that it was not worth it. Ishiguro draws a comparison between the intense loyalty of a butler to his lord and the loyalty of the German people to Hitler. Though Stevens insists on...
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