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Remains in your thoughts
Jun 11, 2002 12:18 PM 15349 Views
(Updated Jun 11, 2002 04:07 PM)



Remain of the Day tells the story of Stevens, who is the head butler at Darlington Hall. Nay, not just the story of his life, but also the story of what constitutes a great butler, his personal travails, what constitutes a perfect butler and examines the meaning of Dignity, which defines a Gentleman’s gentleman. Also entwined in this, is the story of the British supporters of Nazi Germany. These were from the aristocratic class, which identified strongly with the German aristocracy.

The novel starts with the main protagonist, Stevens, taking a break and going for a trip to the sea. Darlington Hall has a new owner, an “American Gentleman”. As he motors his way across England, the novel motors its way across Stevens’ past [sorry for the awful analogy…couldn’t help it :-)] Along his trip, Ishiguro delves in Stevens’ memories of Darlington Hall. At his peak, Lord Darlington was the most influential man in wartime Britain, and Darlington Hall was the epicentre of discussions and get togethers by influential people in Britain.

As Stevens reminisces about the glory days of Darlington Hall, he recalls the discussions he used to have with the visiting butlers of Lord Darlington’s guest about what constitutes a great butler. Stevens is a Butlers Butler. His motto in life, nay, his sole raison‘d’ être is to serve his master. Stevens believes in this dictum so much that he allows it to blind him to all other aspects of his life

Stevens believes that he is making his trip as part of his duties to hire better staff at Darlington Hall, which has fallen to bad times after the exit of Lord Darlington. He is primarily making the trip to hire Miss Kenton, who used to be the housekeeper in Lord Darlington’s days. However, Ishiguro has used flashbacks of instances and Steven’s admissions to make the point that this is not a professional visit, as Stevens would like to think, but a highly personal one. Stevens has always loved Miss Kenton, but never said anything to her. Not because he lacked the courage, but because doing so would hamper the smooth running of the house and thus, compromise his beliefs of the perfect Butler. Here, Stevens comes across as a tragic hero, sacrificing everything for the sake of duty, for the sake of living up to the ideals of being a perfect butler.

There is a particularly emotive passage where Stevens’s father; who was also a butler and now lived at Darlington Hall as an Under Butler, is dying. Stevens knows this, but cannot be with his father at his last moment as Lord Darlington is hosting an International party, with “Many of Europe’s luminaries, royal family members and aristocrats attending”. He prefers to personally supervise the drinks, the dinner, the after dinner port and cigar sessions in order to ensure Lord Darlington’s “peace conference “is a complete success. Stevens knows his father is dying, yet he cannot leave the dinner unsupervised. Stevens says, “the dinner and the after dinner port and cigar session passed in absolute blur for me. All I could remember was my father bounding me on his knees when I was a kid. I knew he is dying even as I am serving the ladies and the gentlemen. But I cannot go up to him at his last moment. He would not approve of this sort of behaviour. It does not behove a butler”.

Stevens’ love for Miss Kenton remains unrequited and he denies having any feelings for Miss Kenton right till the end. The unbelievable emotional poise and dignity that Stevens displays, makes his declaration of sorrow at the end that much powerful and left me with a lump in my throat. When Stevens says, “My heart was breaking” when Miss Kenton leaves Darlington Hall to get married, it comes across so potently because the language in the preceding pages is very mild and gentle. Stevens is a person given to major understatements, and it is this very fact that makes us fell so sad for him. Ishiguro conveys Stevens' love for Miss Kenton through subtle means such as Stevens' re-reading the letter that she writes. Miss Kenton tells him that her husband has died and she wishes to return to service at Darlington Hall. He reads the letter, and keeps reminiscing about the “perfect way Miss Kenton carried out her duties”. Even in his reminiscences, Stevens talks about her work and not about her :-)

There are some beautifully written paragraphs about what constitutes a perfect butler, and Stevens discourses and discussions with the visiting butlers. When Darlington Hall has a new owner, Stevens tries hard to blend in with the tastes and preferences of his new owner, Mr. Farraday. Mr. Farraday believes in making jokes and banter, but Stevens, who is a butler of the old school, finds it impossible to break this habit. He considers it sacrilegious to even talk to his Master, and the thought of actually joking, is impossible. This is where the Novel enters comic territory, and Ishiguro has handled it beautifully. The humour is very very subtle and executed brilliantly. The passages where Stevens tries hard to make jokes and to laugh are a treat to read.

This is an excellent and a very complex book, and I use the word excellent for lack of a better word. It has to be one of the best books I have ever read. As you read this novel, you feel so sad and sorry for Stevens. You empathise with his struggles. He has tried to be the perfect butler throughout his life, and at the end, you question whether it has been worth it? Should Stevens have married Miss Kenton and be a butler; not a great butler, but a normal butler. Should he have been at his father’s bedside at his final moments? You laugh with Stevens at his vain and useless attempts to be humorous and to participate in the banter with his master. You feel the shame of Lord Darlington when his own countrymen decry him for making peace overtures with Nazi Germany. Above all, Stevens’s ghost lived with you after the last page has been read.

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Remains Of The Day, The - Kazuo Ishiguro