Are we truly human if we look back into our pasts and are not filled with regret?
In ‘The remains of the day’ Kazuo Ishiguro explores the interplay of the emotions of regret of missed chances, of longing for something beyond reach, resignation and then acceptance of one’s station in life.
Stevens, the protagonist, is an emotionally repressed butler employed in one of the great English houses for an unspecified period between the two world wars at a time when butlers were the epitome of ‘having arrived’ and the best butlers were courted by distinguished families.
Derived from the French ’bouteiller’, butler refers to a head servant whose responsibilities include supervising the house staff, guarding and maintaining the silverware (when silverware was actually made of silver) and the pantry. While Downton Abbey (set during the same period as ‘The remains of the day’) popularized and romanticized the role of a butler through the stoic and grumpy Mr Carson , P.G.Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster brought a certain irreverence to the role of a valet-butler declaring ‘He (Jeeves) can buttle with the best of them’.
But it is only ‘The remains of the day’ that paints a vivid picture of the inner turmoil of a conflicted individual who is caught between the duties to his employer, self imposed high standards of being a great butler and his unprofessed love for the housekeeper. It is a moving portrait of a man who is a perfectionist and so fixated on the ideas of dignity, prestige, standards and ‘greatness’ that he ignores and rejects the very obvious (to the reader) advances from Ms. Kenton. Ms Kenton is the contrapunto to Mr Stevens. She is expressive and vulnerable while he is uptight, impassive. I wondered at times what it was she saw in such a repressed, uptight, single minded person as Stevens. Or is it because he is emotionally unreachable and detached that he becomes the object of her affections!?
“All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really- one has to ask oneself- what dignity is there in that?”
The book begins in the present and the story unfolds in 6 days with flashbacks to different time periods. In the present, Stevens is very preoccupied with drawing up a staff plan. Ishiguro drives home the point as no less than 4-5 pages on Stevens thinking of the ‘staff plan’. “I spent many hours working on the staff plan, and at least as many hours again thinking about it as I went about other duties or as I lay awake after retiring. I probed it for oversight, tested it through from all angles”.
As he’s ruminating over- yes, you guessed it!- the staff plan; Stevens is gently goaded into a vacation by his employer which coincides with a letter from Ms Kenton, the former housekeeper who is now married with a grown up daughter. As Stevens drives through the countryside in the general direction of Ms Kentons home, each day brings a new memory, and with it, regrets.
However, on the first day of his journey, the idea of ‘greatness’ is still very much on his mind as he looks at the English countryside. “The English landscape at its finest..possesses a quality that the landscapes of other nations inevitably fail to possess…probably best summed up by the term ‘greatness’.” He attributes the greatness to a lack of drama or spectacle and then meanders into analysing a ‘great’ butler.
The narrative plods maddeningly at some places. Intentionally, as we are meant to get a glimpse into the inner world of the exacting Stevens. His personality seems devoted only to a single purpose, which is to be a ‘great’ butler. In the pursuit of that goal he seems to have filed away the rough edges, the quirks that make each of us truly unique.
It is a book which hints at ideas, rather than shows or even tells. The reader gets a whiff of social class divisions when Mr Cardinal muses to Stevens “But we could still have chaps like you taking messages back and forth, bringing tea, that sort of thing. Otherwise, how would we ever get anything done?
The verbal sparring between Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton is amusing yet sad because the reader can sense the motives driving Ms Kentons’ irritation and annoyance with Mr Stevens. She tries to break through his emotional armor but does not succeed.
The relationship between Stevens and Lord Darlington is equally nuanced. Lord Darlington can be summed up as a well intentioned man who makes poor choices and is subsequently known as a nazi sympathiser and dies in disgrace. Stevens does not waver in his professional or personal loyalty towards his ‘master’ through this entire ordeal but the reader can sense the toll that this takes on the former.
Nothing much happens in the 258 pages. Everything happens in the 258 pages. Don’t read this book if you suffer from mental health issues. It’s the sort of a book that traps you in a melancholic mood which would lead you to question all past choices. Don’t read this just before bed- it will put you to sleep. (Ask me how I know!)
Read it when you’re passing time waiting for a friend at a cafe or at a bookstore. Or when your to-do list is done for the day and your mind is free from the what nexts. Read this especially if you’re at a similar stage in life as Stevens. When each day begins to blend into one another and then suddenly, a whole life goes by. Nothing and everything co-exist, just like our own lives. At the end, we might look back and wonder ‘ Is this all there is?’
Why read it at all?
The author, Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel prize for literature in 2017. It has also received the 1989 Booker prize for fiction.