Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is a masterfully and quietly executed tragi-comedy about private agonies of an aging, old-fashioned, and workaholic English butler, Mr. Stevens. Stevens, in his later years of his career, undergoes a transformation in his first-ever week-long motoring trip outside the confines of the estate of Lord Darlington to visit a former colleague, a housekeeper named Miss Kenton, who left twenty years earlier to get married. In his journey, Stevens reminisces and ponders on the dogged professionalism and dignity of his and his father’s work, his disgraced former employer, and most importantly, his relationship with Miss Kenton. Through Stevens’ reflections, subtle emotions beneath his proper and polished narration comes to surface and roil. When the story reaches its climax in the quiet surroundings of a Cornish tearoom, where Stevens meets with Kenton after decades of his self-denial and inability to show his feeling, he finally realizes that because of his blind loyalty and pursuit of the work ethics of professionalized servitude, he has let slip through his fingers what truly matters to him in the remains of his day: the love of his life.
Initially, Stevens does not want to embark the road trip to the West Country to “see around his own country” suggested by his new American employer. “It has been my privilege to see the best of England over the years, sir, within these very walls.” (4) Stevens reasons to his employer. However, he changes his mind quickly after receiving Kenton’s letter. But then he takes great pains to explain that her letter has only something to do with “professional matters here at Darlington Hall, and I (Stevens) would underline that it was a preoccupation with these very same professional matters that led me to consider anew my employer’s kindly meant suggestion. But let me explain further.” (5) Such high mannered tactics in self-protection and evasion of true feelings run through most of Stevens’ life. Whenever he reaches a sensitive subject, such as later when he questions whether Kenton is driven away by his refusal to admit his feelings for her, he digresses for pages before he continues, “Indeed, all in all, I cannot see why the option of her returning to the Darlington Hall and seeing out her working years there should not offer a very genuine consolation to a life that has come to be so dominated by a sense of waste.” (48)
However, the thick layers of self-denial, or self-preservation in delusions, start to peel off right at the beginning of Stevens’ once-in-a-life-time trip outside his comfort zone. On day one of the trip, the foreshadow of upcoming change in Stevens’ perception grabs the reader: “But then eventually the surroundings grew unrecognizable and I knew I had gone beyond all previous boundaries… I imagine the experience of unease mixed with exhilaration…” (24) Instead of the grand cathedral or the charming sights of the city, it is the seemingly plain but “marvelous view… of the rolling English countryside” (28) and the friendly local farmers and townspeople that remain with Stevens when he retreats to his room to rest after a day’s journey. As days go on, Stevens recalls how Miss Kenton would bring flowers to his room, a distraction to him at the time; how she would argue with him about his father’s “over-working”; how pleasant and nostalgic he feels about their nightly “work meeting” at her parlor over cocoa; how they argued about the staff issues; and how frustrated she feels towards him: “Why, Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?” (154).
One of the most profound and hilarious moments takes place on day three of the trip, when Stevens recalls how Miss Kenton wants to know what kind of book he is reading. He remembers the moment as if it is frozen in time:
“Then she was standing before me, and suddenly the atmosphere underwent a peculiar change – almost as though the two of us had been suddenly thrust on to some other plane of being together. I am afraid it is not easy to describe clearly what I mean here. All I can say is that everything around us suddenly became very still; it was my impression that Miss Kenton’s manner also underwent a sudden change; there was a strange seriousness in her expression, and it struck me she seemed almost frightened.” (167)
When Kenton finds out the book Stevens is reading is “simply a sentimental love story”, Stevens begins to defend himself that he is reading it because he wants to develop his command of the English language.
Towards the later half of his trip, Stevens begins to sense the lost opportunity caused by his callousness and lack of empathy towards Kenton’s loss of her aunt. He is aware by now that he is “becoming unduly introspective, and in a rather morose sort of way at that.” (179) He realizes that “when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life;” and he regrets not knowing that before, that “such evidently small incidents would render the whole dreams forever irredeemable.” (179) At the end of his trip, he meets up with Kenton and hears her confess that she has thought about a life she may have had with him. Stevens breaks down at this point: “their implications (Kenton’s confessions) were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed – why should I not admit it? – at that moment, my heart was breaking.” (239)
The Remains of the Day tells a cautionary tale about a thwarted love and life. Through the pragmatic and formal voice of the protagonist Mr. Stevens, the reader discovers the psychological under-currents of longing and desperation beneath the character’s straight-laced façade. The subtle, enigmatic shift in Stevens’ transformation is achieved through what is not said throughout the text, which makes the final breaking point all the more powerful.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. Ed. Vintage International. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.