The Remains of the Day is the third novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and was a winner of the Man Booker Prize. It was the first of Ishiguro’s novels that has no relation to Japan. It is set entirely in England and told from a first person perspective, the narrator being an English butler named Stevens.
The book takes us into post-war England where Stevens finds himself in a world that does not seem to need him. The days of large house parties are gone and with it the household full of servants. Even his old employer, Lord Darlington, has died and Stevens now works for an American, who seems to have a completely different idea of the expected decorum of servants.
Stevens recounts anecdotes of past times during a trip to see Miss Kenton, a former employee at Darlington hall. These reminisces portray Stevens as cold and single-minded but he sees this lack of emotions as professionalism and correct behavior. The extent to which Stevens takes his obsession with duty is shown when we realize that Stevens will not spend time with his dying father because he instead tends to daily chores and that Stevens will not give his opinion on anything which would offend his employer, regardless of the clearness of morality.
The faith Stevens has in Lord Darlington also is obvious from these reminisces. In Stevens view Lord Darlington ‘helped further the cause of humanity”. Only when the story fully unfolds do we realize that Lord Darlington is anti-Semitic, sympathetic to the Germans and Hitler and a believer in appeasement. Stevens believes that the criticisms of Lord Darlington are unwarranted and malicious, even in hindsight, and refuses to see any wrong in his ideas.
As in all of Ishiguro’s novels, memory plays a key role. The recollections of the past are given by Stevens himself and so he edits them, possibly without intending to. The realization that Stevens is an unreliable narrator becomes apparent. This causes the reader to have blind faith in Stevens statements and so attempt to find the real story hidden in Stevens anecdotes.
The emotional blankness of Stevens becomes clearest when he recollects on his relationship with Miss Kenton. The complex feelings he has for Miss Kenton remain a mystery to him and he is never able to realize that they had anything other than ‘an excellent professional relationship’. Stevens is never able to realize any feelings while they worked together due to his skewed understanding of the dignity. It is only in the finale of the book that Stevens begins to realize what could have been.
The book has many characters, all of whom impact, but the portrait of Stevens is what makes the book excellent. The passage of time gives us realization that Stevens is less sure about his life than he used to be, doubts are setting in. The way Ishiguro subtly changes the tone of Stevens as well as the nostalgia in his memories allows into the mind of a conflicted man. Stevens has the values and morals of a past era and they are clashing with life in the current era.
The Remains of the Day is outstanding because of its realism. The portrayal of life in a country house between the wars and the gradual elimination of the grandeur of such houses after the war is accurate enough to draw the reader into this world. The depictions of the characters and of their defining values and emotions which must be set a time of social constraints are deep and complex. This novel draws you into an intricately created world. It is a book that you will want to read more than once.