Kazuo Ishiguro, author of The Remains of the Day, as just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, so this is a fitting moment to take a look at that novel in a new light.
The novel is a masterpiece on many levels and one of them is the way in which it is framed. The invented Darlington Hall, home of a deluded lord, is the centre of fascist visits to Britain in the 1930s, the hub, within the novel, of world politics - here, Nazi politicians and sympathisers find a home as Lord Darlington toys with the idea of brokering a lasting diplomatic peace prior to the hostilities of the Second World War breaking out. But this event is then enclosed in two further shells: one is the perspective of history, which determines for us that the appeasement arguments will fail and that Darlington is playing with disaster; the other is the perspective of the butler telling the story, who looks back at these events in the structure of the novel. Through both these frames, we see the events of that time in the light of removed truth; the tragicomic monologue of Stevens, an idealistic but self-deceived English butler in his sixties, is told almost in the form of a diary, recollecting events in a mannered style which, unbeknownst to him, communicates as ironic to the reader because the reader is aware of the war which followed and of Stevens’ failings as the story goes on.
Stevens ponders such concepts as ‘greatness,’ ‘dignity,’ ‘service’ and ‘loyalty,’ but as readers we can see the lack of depth and understanding behind what he writes. The greatness that Stevens endeavours to embody, we gradually perceive, is what has destroyed his life and even perhaps his soul.
Told from 1956, when the Suez crisis woke the world up to Britain’s demise as an imperial power, Stevens sets out on a journey to try to recover into domestic service a former housekeeper, for whom, we incrementally discover, he possesses repressed feelings:
We call this land of ours Great Britain, and there may be those who believe this a somewhat immodest practice. Yet I would venture that the landscape of our country alone would justify the use of this lofty adjective.... 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. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it. In comparison, the sorts of sights offered in such places as Africa and America, though undoubtedly very exciting, would, I am sure, strike the objective viewer as inferior on account of their unseemly demonstrativeness.
Innocent though this may seem, as we come to know Stevens we see that this is a metaphorical description of himself: he ‘knows his own beauty, his own greatness’, and has spent his whole existence seeking to avoid ‘unseemly demonstrativeness’. It is that quest to appear dignified at all times which has made him into the small and impotent figure that he is:
This whole question is very akin to the question that has caused much debate in our profession over the years: what is a 'great' butler?
Stevens’ answer is one ‘possessed of a dignity in keeping with his position.’ Such dignity ‘has to do crucially with a butler's ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits.’
This is the central dramatic tension in the novel: will Stevens ever ‘abandon the professional being he inhabits’, either in his words, restrained throughout the novel, or his actions, even when confronted with Miss Kenton, the housekeeper for whom he harbours a secret emotional affection.
A great butler, according to Stevens ‘will not be shaken out by external events, however surprising, alarming, or vexing . . . 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.’ Stevens uses this blatant racist view as part of this monolithic justification of a self-image which then, we progressively see, fails him, just as appeasement failed the world.
Real emotion, real events, real decisions, are masked behind decorum. Stevens’ father dies of a stroke during a social dinner at Darlington Hall - Stevens carries on almost as though nothing had happened, as he says:
Please don't think me unduly improper in not ascending to see my father in his deceased condition just at this moment. You see, I know my father would have wished me to carry on just now.
Far from perceiving the tragedy of such behaviour, Stevens has it well-justified:
For all its sad associations, whenever I recall that evening today, I find I do so with a large sense of triumph.
The fact that we retain a sympathy for Stevens despite his self-deception and pomposity illustrates that Ishiguro has captured in his butler a universal human truth: we all justify ourselves, we all to some extent ‘design’ ourselves according to a set of maxims which we then try to make stick in the face of real events. Ishiguro’s cleverness is in revealing that in a depiction of a human individual and in the portrayal of world events which magnify that human weakness on a global scale.
When faced with the repellent nature of anti-Semitism as it rears its head during the 1930s, Stevens argues himself into a moral corner:
It is, in practice, simply not possible to adopt such a critical attitude towards an employer and at the same time provide good service.... This employer embodies all that I find noble and admirable. I will hereafter devote myself to serving him. This is loyalty intelligently bestowed.
It is not until the very end of the novel, when the butler sits contemplating all this by the seashore in the ‘remains of the day’ that there is an opportunity for some light of truth to reach him:
I trusted. I trusted in his lordship's wisdom.... I can't even say I made my own mistakes. Really -- one has to ask oneself -- what dignity is there in that?
His self-justification has fully entrapped him: he has lost himself and placed the responsibility for his entire existence into the hands of others. In a peculiar way, as we get to the end of the novel, its narrator fades into night and becomes a phantom of his own creation.