As the Wolf by Wolf book, the action of this lovely story takes place in 1956 and also involves story of travelling across country – this time in a Ford and not on a motorcycle. The similarities stop here as this beautiful tale jumps between past and present in each chapter, depicting the life of a butler successfully played by Anthony Hopkins in the movie with the same name.
If someone were to ask you what the book is about in one word, I think I will say “dignity”. It’s all about the love of doing your job right, about being the best person you can be. It’s about professionalism and about never letting your personal life interfere with your work. It’s about delivering service of the highest quality.
“What do you think dignity’s all about?’
The directness of the inquiry did, I admit, take me rather by surprise. ‘It’s rather a hard thing to explain in a few words, sir,’ I said. ‘But I suspect it comes down to not removing one’s clothing in public.”
Throughout the book, the butler shows his pride in what he does from appointing staff that he hopes will not run off with each other – to maintaining the house in perfect running order – be it during a formal party or during normal opening days. He is proud of his English heritage and he shows it whenever he speaks of his profession. You can’t have dignity if you’re a slave,” the butler is informed in a Devon cottage, but for Stevens, dignity has always meant the subjugation of the self to the job, and of his destiny to his master’s. What then is our true relationship to power? Are we its servants or its possessors? It is the rare achievement of Ishiguro’s novel to pose big questions – what is Englishness? What is greatness? What is dignity? – with a delicacy and humour that do not obscure the tough-mindedness beneath
“It is sometimes said that butlers only truly exist in England. Other countries, whatever title is actually used, have only manservants. I tend to believe this is true. Continentals are unable to be butlers because they are as a breed incapable of the emotional restraint which only the English race are capable of. Continentals – and by and large the Celts, as you will no doubt agree – are as a rule unable to control themselves in moments of a strong emotion, and are thus unable to maintain a professional demeanour other than in the least challenging of situations. If I may return to my earlier metaphor – you will excuse my putting it so coarsely – they are like a man who will, at the slightest provocation, tear off his suit and his shirt and run about screaming. In a word, “dignity” is beyond such persons. We English have an important advantage over foreigners in this respect and it is for this reason that when you think of a great butler, he is bound, almost by definition, to be an Englishman.”
Stevens’s greatest defeat is the consequence of his most profound conviction – that his master is working for the good of humanity, and that his own glory lies in serving him. But Lord Darlington is, and is finally disgraced as, a Nazi collaborator and dupe. Stevens, a cut-price St Peter, denies him at least twice, but feels forever tainted by his master’s fall. Darlington, like Stevens, is destroyed by a personal code of ethics. His disapproval of the ungentlemanly harshness towards the Germans of the Treaty of Versailles is what propels him towards his collaborationist doom. Ideals, Ishiguro shows us, can corrupt as thoroughly as cynicism.
Ishiguro confesses that most of the novel was made up as there were no notes left by servants about their own lives. Were they truly wasted?
“I was surprised to find,” he says, “how little there was about servants written by servants, given that a sizable proportion of people in this country were employed in service right up until the Second World War. It was amazing that so few of them had thought their lives worth recording. So most of the stuff in The Remains of the Day … was made up.”
Nothing much happens. The high point of Mr Stevens’s little outing is his visit to Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper at Darlington Hall, the great house to which Stevens is still attached as “part of the package”, even though ownership has passed from Lord Darlington to a jovial American named Farraday who has a disconcerting tendency to banter. Stevens hopes to persuade Miss Kenton to return to the hall. His hopes come to nothing. He makes his way home. Tiny events; but why, then, is the ageing manservant to be found, near the end of his holiday, weeping before a complete stranger on the pier at Weymouth? Why, when the stranger tells him that he ought to put his feet up and enjoy the evening of his life, is it so hard for Stevens to accept such sensible, if banal, advice? What has blighted the remains of his day?