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The Remains of the Day book

Seeing Ourselves in “The Remains of the Day”

June 22, 2023


Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day traverses what initially reads as familiar ground: an older protagonist reaches a crossroads that provides an opportunity for self-reflection, and he comes to the realization that he’s spent too much of his life’s energy on his profession, to the neglect of personal relationships and authentic communion. Most often, this storyline concludes with a renewed appreciation of the gift of life and the motivation to make the most of the time that remains. We, the audience, come away inspired to live our lives with more intention, to cherish the relationships we have and perhaps even mend those in need of reconciliation before it’s too late. 

In Ishiguro’s 1989 Booker Prize-winning noveladapted to film just four years later, starring Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Christopher Reeve, and Hugh Grant—he poses the question differently: What if the protagonist doesn’t take the hint? What is the audience to take away if the opportunity for reflection is wasted? What if we find we aren’t willing to do the hard work of seeing ourselves as we really are?

Mr. Stevens, the protagonist and narrator of The Remains of the Day, has spent over thirty years working as a butler, mostly for an English gentleman named Lord Darlington. When the novel opens, Stevens is about to embark on a rare and deserved holiday—a motor ride through the English countryside. He proceeds to record his literal and figurative journey in a series of journal entries scribed over the course of six days. The divisions in the narrative are marked by the times when he writes: mornings, afternoons, and evenings. Days one through four reveal increasingly more of Stevens’ values and convictions, but these meet a forty-eight-hour pause between the afternoon of day four and the evening of day six. The reader witnesses nothing of day five. It would be easy to miss this gap, except that day five is arguably the most important moment in the novel. 

To understand where Stevens lands at day five, we need to appreciate what transpires in the first four days of his excursion. The trip is undertaken, in part, to reunite with Miss Kenton, a former employee and colleague, whose letter suggests she’s having trouble in her marriage and whom Stevens believes might be interested in a return to Darlington Hall. As he recalls the years the two spent working alongside one another, Stevens elaborates on his humble pride in having served at a house of some stature and to have done so with a detached professionalism he terms “dignity.” He always put the job first—even when his father was dying, even when there was the chance for love and a family of his own right in front of him. He shows the reader that any sacrifice he made was worth the loss because he served a higher good; he indicates that he may even have had an indirect role in certain international affairs. 

How much of our own sense of worth is based on what we do rather than who we are?

The man can be convincing, but eventually he struggles to convince himself that he worked for a deserving cause, that his indifference is to be applauded, that there is something estimable in the manner in which he conducted himself throughout his adult life. Readers will come to see through Stevens’ posturing at different rates, the measure being how comfortable the reader is with looking at him or herself in the proverbial mirror. How much of our own sense of worth is based on what we do rather than who we are? To what extent have we chosen to be vulnerable in relationships that offer love, risky as that can be? How willing are we to admit our failings and offer them up?

Eventually Stevens’ reckoning with himself, marked by a reunion with Miss Kenton, the woman he might have loved, is imminent. Matters between the two never went beyond professional limits, Stevens is careful to prove, and yet the prospect of seeing her again leads him to reconsider the ways in which he remembers certain episodes within the house. He falls into a lengthy recollection of the turning point, in which he realizes Lord Darlington is not the man Stevens thought he was; his employer has been used as a pawn by the Nazis, and the consequences will be damning. The same night, Miss Kenton accepts another man’s proposal of marriage. 

Now we start to see Stevens’ wheels turning. Has he recalled the night his father died because he regrets handling the matter the way he did? Can he admit, if only to himself, that he might have been in a position to influence post-war matters between European nations for the better had he not simply stood by, undervaluing his own voice? Is it not only possible but probable that Miss Kenton was crying for him the night he stood outside her door, unable to justify interrupting a sensitive moment?

Imagine the pain of realizing you refused every opportunity for personal connection, of acknowledging that you never looked far enough ahead to see where you would end up later in life. The reader can sense the scales threatening to fall. But on the page, Stevens remains too proud, too blind, too hardened of heart to be able to see what this revelation could mean about what’s been or what could be. The film adaptation makes no attempt to fill the gap. Certain cinematic choices suggest a reading of Stevens similar to the one presented here, yet there is never mention of day five, a day presumably passed in isolation and with major misgivings. 

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By virtue of the form of The Remains of the Day, that being a series of journal entries, the reader cannot see anything in real time; one does not record a conversation as it transpires. But Ishiguro’s authorial choice reveals a deeper insight about Stevens: he cannot live in the present moment. He is either looking ahead, planning the next event, anticipating his lord’s next move, or he is looking back, recalling and reliving. He does not have the capacity to be vulnerable, and so he does not have the strength to admit his misjudgment, much less the pain it caused. 

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes that the present is “the moment at which time touches eternity.” Stevens will have none of that. What is there for him in eternity? The realm in which he has chosen to serve is small, enclosed, insular. He deceives himself into believing he has control here, and when that deception proves false, it is more than he can bear. 

And so we do not see day five. By day six, Stevens has met and reminisced with Miss Kenton. He has learned that her marriage has not always been happy, but that she chose the action of love before she experienced the emotion, and that sacrifice, that trust in something greater than herself, has been worthwhile. She’s expecting a grandchild, a sign that her life has borne fruit and made the kind of lasting impact Stevens can only imagine. She does not want to return to Darlington Hall as Stevens had hoped. 

Any of his exchange with Miss Kenton might have been relayed on the evening of day four, anytime on day five, or in the morning or afternoon of day six. Whether he pushed the challenging work aside or spent the intervening day on his knees begging for mercy, we don’t know. Perhaps there is some hope for Stevens in it taking so long for him to have the wherewithal to put even the words recorded on day six to the page. But then, Stevens’ narrative concludes with a renewed interest only in serving his employer, in improving his skill with something as banal as “banter,” no less.

We must remember that Stevens is fictional, and while we have come to care about him, the question, in the end, isn’t really about him. The question is how we respond, in real time, to missed opportunities, failed relationships, underdevelopment of ourselves as human beings who are meant to live in communion with others. Stevens has refused his second chance, his opportunity to serve more than man. Will we do the same with what remains of our days?