The Changing of the Times

THE REMAINS OF THE DAY by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize-winning novel THE REMAINS OF THE DAY is a masterpiece.  This acclaimed novel is a story of personal revelation, a comedy of manners and a philosophical treatise on the concept of dignity expounded in a compact 245 pages.  Released in 1989, the action of the story hearkens back to 1956 where we meet Stevens, an elderly butler whose prime years were spent serving the household of the gentleman Lord Darlington.  At this point, however, Lord Darlington has passed on and Stevens is serving in his capacity as butler of a considerably smaller staff for an American, the congenial Mr. Farraday.  Mr. Farraday offers Stevens use of his Ford for a few days to roam the countryside, and the ensuing journey allows Stevens time to reminsce over the past and contemplate his legacy.

Through the unexpectedly sincere, though always proper, narration of Stevens the story of Darlington Hall and Stevens’ conflicted feelings about its legacy, and hereby his own, are revealed.  Reared primarily by his father to follow in his footsteps as butler of a powerful household Stevens finds himself after much hard work just such a position at Darlington Hall.  His journey to this point and ensuing career are governed by the notion that a great butler must maintain a “dignity in keeping with his position” at all times.  Through several poignant illustrations Stevens ascertains this point to mean that great butlers never deviate from a stance of detached professionalism.  It is this belief that is that the crux of Stevens’ internal conflict: was he right to maintain this notion of “dignity” his whole life?

Throughout his motoring trip across the idyllic English countryside Stevens reveals the history of Lord Darlignton and the changing of the times his lordship represented.  Darlington is typical of the landed nobility prevalent throughout pre-World War II England in that he has never distinguished himself via ambition, intellect or bravado that should support his holding of so much political influence.  Like all political figures of the time he holds his position due to an heirship and for no other reason.  Both histor and Stevens’ story reveal that Hitler utilized the amateurism of these politicians and manipulated them as pawns for his own political benefit.  Stevens is tortured with the thought that he was the man supporting the man who was duped into allowing the tragedies of Nazi Germany to prevail to the extent that they did.

Stevens’ journey eventually leads him to the oft-mentioned residence of Darlington Hall’s former head housekeeper, Miss Kenton.  It becomes increasingly apparent that Stevens and Miss Kenton were greatly attracted to one another during Miss Kenton’s tenure, but never able to consmmate any type of relationship due to “dignity” their positions required.  Miss Kenton was always looser in this regard, and seemingly prepared on numerous occasions to open up personally to Stevens, but each time the latter “triumphs” over his desire to reciprocate and distances himself.  The emptiness he feels about this years later, coupled with his lamentation of the sullied reputation of the Darlington household, leaves Stevens feeling wholly dissatisfied with himself.

However, as the story comes to a close, an amusing discussion on the subject of social bantering gives the narrator a sense of hope about the trajectory the remainder of his life is on.  Stevens is troubled throughout the novel about his inability to engage in casual small talk with his fellow man, the affable Mr. Farraday not exempt.  His dissatisfaction with his failure in this area comes to an apex as he witnesses a group of strangers become fast friends before his eyes.  He vows at this point to open himself up to the human connection simple banter can open one up to and make an earnest effort toe befriend Mr. Farraday when he returns home.  Though this is a seemingly minor goal it contradicts the distanced professionalism Stevens has spent his entire life cultivating.  Now realizing the personal emptiness this definition of dignity has left him with Stevens has hope that he will gain a modicum of what he has missed out on throughout his life at Darlington Hall.

THE REMAINS OF THE DAY is a great book and fully deserving of the prestigious Booker Prize it was endowed with.  I hope to spread the word on this book and the great author who penned it.


One response to “The Changing of the Times

  1. Pingback: ‘When We Were Orphans’ by Kazuo Ishiguro « The Afterword

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