Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day, published in 1989, is Kazuo Ishiguro’s third novel. Born in Nagasaki, Japan in 1954, Ishiguro lived in Great Britain from age five and is a British citizen. And there can be no question that he is a British novelist.

This novel won him the Booker Prize. In an interview at the time of his award, Ishguro explained that he wanted to explore two themes, how ordinary people relate to people of influence and the effects of sublimating one’s own feelings for an ill-conceived ideal. His vehicle for this is a series of brooding ruminations by a British butler who has dedicated his best years in service to a wealthy Brit who was a naive Nazi sympathizer in the years leading up to World War 2.

Mr. Stevens, the butler, records his recollections of life as head of staff at Lord Darlington’s Oxfordshire estate. By this time, Lord Darlington has passed on, and Stevens serves a new resident at the country manor. He takes an unprecedented driving holiday, ostensibly to visit the west country of Cornwall with an offer to Miss Kenton to return to service at Darlington Hall—after years of absence and an apparently disappointing marriage.

In truth, Stevens has feelings for Miss Kenton. And he seems to be finally coming to terms with these feelings and taking some bold action consistent with them. But how will things turn out? And is it too late?

Stevens entertains a high-minded conception of his former responsibilities as butler in an important household where great affairs of state were once decided. Ishiguro’s talent is revealed in his ability to expose the self-deception in the butler’s assessment of his vocation. Readers, who depend on what Stevens permits himself to say, have a better grasp of his self-induced misery than the man himself.

This is contemporary literary fiction set in a period of radical transition in British context. Ishiguro paints a compelling picture of the period and of attitudes that prevailed—attitudes about political responsibility, democracy versus plutocracy, the nature of vocation, the proper limits of loyalty, the modulation of desire in relation to duty, the recovery of purpose following disillusionment.

Most interesting to me is the way Ishiguro introduces, without resolving, difficulties posed by representative government. Ultimately, I think, Stevens holds an untenable view about the scope of his own responsibility. He feels he must defer to others who understand matters better than himself. But of course he must decide who deserves such deference.

Stevens is often funny, though he lacks a sense of humor. He is, in fact, too serious for his own good. And yet, he has genuinely endearing qualities. He is both naive and innocent on the one hand, and stern and morally obtuse on the other. We like him for who he is underneath his reserved manner. And it is because of this fondness that we are irritated by his emotional inertia.

The story has been fairly adequately re-presented in the 1993 film of the same title, starring two great British actors, Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. The book concludes better than the film, and makes better sense of the title. But Hopkins and Thompson are brilliant in their depictions of the Stevens and Kenton characters. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards.

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

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