[the spoiler-averse may wish to look away]
“We all this land of ours Great Britain…I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint.” So muses Stevens, erstwhile butler to Lord Darlington, as he embarks upon a brief sabbatical at the behest of his new employer, a sabbatical in which he reflects on the actions, and indeed, inaction, of his past, and sets out to make sense of a series of unknowns that plague his conscience. There are parallels, believes Stevens, between the proud stoicism of is native land and of his profession, with both exhibiting, at their finest, a sense of dignity. A true butler should comport his or herself with utter dignity, offering “no clue as to his desires or intentions.”
Stevens lives and breathes his role as one of Britain’s finest: as his new employer, an ebullient American, puts it, he’s a “genuine old-fashioned English butler, not just some waiter pretending to be one.” And yet, Stevens needs to be pressed to confirm this, having remained tight-lipped about his previous employment for reasons, we are told, out of fear of impropriety: speaking of one’s past employment is not the done thing, he says, using his new employer’s unfamiliarity with the way things are done as leverage. Though his statement may initially be taken at face value, we soon begin to see that Stevens is perhaps not the paragon of virtue he presents himself as.
For one so taken up with conduct and comportment and properness, Stevens is rather less one for veracity than we might expect. In fact, not only does he have a capacity for self-deception–an extraordinary one, as it turns out–but of deceiving others as well. His transgressions at first seem minor, but soon grow into something large and ghastly. And yet Stevens paints everything with a veneer of dignity, having us look through the lens of measured professionalism he applies to his life.
He offers excuses and justifications for the most minor of misdemeanours, a sleight of hand that would have us believe that such a mild-mannered man could not, surely, be capable of any wrongdoing, or of succumbing to any of the weaknesses of the human spirit.
Take, for example, his preference for calling the former Darlington Hall housekeeper by her maiden name of Miss Kenton, though she has been married for some years now. The fact that her recent letters may indicate that her marriage is in trouble provides further justification for this “impropriety”, he argues, although as Stevens continues to reflect on his time at Darlington Hall, we see hints of the scarcely acknowledged romance that has haunted him since.
And yet, he argues with cool emotionlessness that there is nothing of note here: Stevens’ visits to Miss Kenton’s parlour after hours, are entirely above board in that they are strictly work related. No matter that Miss Kenton hints at one point that marriage may be an option: “It occurs to me that you must be a well-contented man. Here you after, after all, at the top of your profession, every aspect of your domain well under control. I really cannot imagine what more you might wish for in life.”
A stringently emotionally repressed man, Stevens purports to conduct his entire life within the boundaries allowed by his position, noting that even when off-duty, a butler still remains a butler–and it is within this professional cocoon that he is able to safely live his life without having to take any sort of personal responsibility. He rejects Miss Kenton’s gift of a floral arrangement out of the fear of blurring the boundaries of his work and personal life; his habit of reading romance novels is, he says, purely for the purposes of improving his verbal skills. He responds to the news of his father’s death with the words, “I see…”, then upon being asked whether he wishes to view the body, defers to his workload, adding, “I’m very right busy just now. In a little while, perhaps.”
Stevens would have us think that he does not exist beyond his status as a butler, with even his clothing marked by his professional life: ”I am in the possession of a number of splendid suits, kindly passed on to me over the years by Lord Darlington himself, and by various guests who have stayed in the house and had reason to be pleased with the standard of service here.” These suits, he muses are “rather too old-fashioned these days”, highlighting just how much his life has been delimited by his work. And yet, when he travels out to the countryside on his holiday, he allows others to labour under the mistaken assumption that he is a man of importance himself–it is only when he is directly asked about his title that he admits to being a butler.
These deceptions form a web of quiet concealments and duplicity, although Stevens continues to assert that he has always conducted himself with nothing less than the utter dignity he sees as so integral to his role. And indeed, one supposes that this is true enough, save for the fact that by evoking this conception of dignity and of the master as one whose will cannot be questioned, Stevens is able to extricate himself from any moral culpability.
And since, as it turns out, Lord Darlington is a Nazi sympathiser, this continued reliance on impartial, disinterested dignity is perhaps the greatest, most horrific self-deception of all. When two Jewish staff members are dismissed, Stevens believes that his “duty in this instance [is] quite clear.” He adds, that although a difficult task, it is one that demands “to be carried out with dignity”. Indeed, when asked directly about his opinions about his employer, he is utterly circumspect, retreating into ignorance and self-deception and speaking of his loyalty. After all, he notes, those who allow “strong feelings” to affect their work will inevitably see “their careers come to nothing as a direct consequence.”
And yet, although he is all too aware of his employer’s chilling ideological position, he argues that his “fate [is] ultimately in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world.” Indeed, he says, “How can one possibly be held to blame in any sense because, say, the passage of time has shown that Lord Darlington’s efforts were misguided, even foolish?” With his culpability resting solely with another to whom he has given his loyalty, be believes that “it is quite illogical that I should feel any regret or shame on my own account.”
The Remains of the Day is a quiet, mannered novel that juxtaposes dignity with atrocity and loyalty with culpability–a theme that can of course be extrapolated more widely to wartime horrors and crimes. Stevens’ endless deception and indeed self-deception renders him unreliable as a narrator, resulting in an ambiguous, challenging read where the full truth will always remain unknown. But then, that is part of Stevens’ loyalty, is it not?
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Other books by Kazuo Ishiguro: