The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

8 Dec
I finished The Remains of the Day last night past my bedtime (I know, I’m living on the edge). I got that chest ache thing – you know when you read something that’s so beautiful and sad that when it’s over, you get a little achy feeling? But don’t go thinking it’s a book about huge tragedies. It’s more about the little compromises we make, the small occasions when you let yourself down a little bit, when you take the safe road when you should have trusted yourself. It’s an intrinsically human experience, when your ideals and your reality don’t match up. I’m glad I didn’t read this when I was younger, because I don’t know if both the sadness and the hopefulness would have resonated with me as deeply.

Narrated by Mr. Stevens, the quintessential perfect English butler, we are introduced to the ins and outs of running a great English estate post-World War II. It’s a changing of the guard, really; the old ways of service are fading out, and the gentrified English lord is slowly being replaced by those in “business” or even Americans, as is the case with Mr. Stevens. Still, he plugs on, and lives mostly on the remembered glories of the peak of his career, when he served Lord Darlington. The crack in this veneer occurs when he receives a letter from a Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper at Darlington Hall, who left her post twenty years ago to marry. The reader is told all facts from the viewpoint of Mr. Stevens, and as Mr. Stevens hatches a plan to drive cross-country to offer Miss Kenton a job, we begin to see that Mr. Stevens isn’t always reliable; he lies to himself, and others at times, and he buries his memories and feelings so that they bubble up unexpectedly. His resentment, shame, and bitterness peek through ever so slowly, and it’s fascinating to watch the true events of Mr. Stevens life begin to be revealed.

Though he means well and tries to live his life with the “dignity” he believes defines a great butler, Mr. Stevens is not always sunshine and light. He’s a bit of prig sometimes, really. Demonstrativeness is to be avoided, the American habit of banter is difficult and labor-intensive, and under no circumstances must a butler drop his professional persona (the only acceptable time to do this is when he is alone). Must be a fun guy, right? Not that it’s his fault – he simply doesn’t have the tools to bust out of his butler façade and show the person underneath. He is so completely disconnected from himself, so lacking in self-awareness, that he cannot see when he hurts others or when he himself is hurt. His myopia forces him to make mistake after mistake, and he reminisces over his career, slowly uncovering his mistakes on his car trip across country to see the long-absent Miss Kenton.

At the end of his career, at the “remains of his day”, Mr. Stevens must face what he is left with. Did he give up so much personally for the greater good, as he hopes? Did he fulfill his calling by serving a truly great man? Ishiguro has Mr. Stevens drop hints of what really happened throughout the book, slowly building a psychological portrait of a repressed man, the perfect example of servitude, and I was both sad and happy for him by the end of the book.

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4 Responses to “The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro”

  1. Anonymous December 11, 2011 at 9:13 pm #

    Did you see the movie? This was one of those rare times when the movie is as good, or maybe even a little better, than the book. I give all credit to Anthony Hopkins. What a fantastic pefformance he gave as Mr. Stevens. He portrayed Mr. Stevens in all his superior, priggish, yet ultimately heartbreakingly sad man that time passed by, yet he also protrayed ulitmate terrifying evil in Silence of the Lambs.

    If you haven’t already seen this film, add it to your list. You won’t be disappointed.

    • Amanda December 12, 2011 at 8:07 am #

      I haven’t yet, but it’s on my list! I love me some Emma Thompson too, and I think she’s in it as well?

  2. K. Bacon December 20, 2011 at 8:04 am #

    I am in awe that you used the word myopia. Kudos! I saw this movie in about 4th grade, not a good fit for me. You have kindled an interest to try the book!

    • Amanda December 20, 2011 at 8:18 am #

      Bah, I bet you use “myopia” every day, seeing how you’re a teacher and all. I just got Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go too – I’ll tell you how that goes. It sounds very different from Remains.

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