The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, the 2017 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, takes us on a poignant journey of an aging man’s self-discovery. On a superficial level, the novel is about Stevens, the central character, taking a much-needed, six-day vacation in the west country of England in the 1950s. His solitary travels by car spur him to reflect on his 30 plus years as a butler in Darlington Hall.
Written in the first-person point of view, Stevens describes his life as a butler in the home of Lord Darlington in the 1920s. Since Lord Darlington was politically active and influential, he hosted major European political figures in his home. Stevens’ position as the discrete but ever-present butler enabled him to view their interactions, to witness the rise in Nazism and fascism, and to observe the gradual decline in reputation of his former employer. The novel opens with Stevens trying to adjust his “butlering” to accommodate the new owner of Darlington Hall, the American Mr. Faraday. His biggest challenge is learning how to engage in “bantering”—an activity he never had to develop while under the employ of Lord Darlington but one for which his new employer demonstrates an obvious delight.
As Stevens drives through the rolling English countryside, he gradually reveals himself as an unreliable and naïve narrator. His obsession with maintaining the dignified posture he deems essential for a butler blinds him to the nature of his former employer and inhibits his ability to recognize and experience the mutual love he and Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper, feel for each other. He curtails any attempt she makes to reach out to him. He is stiff, formal, suppresses all feeling and shows little remorse even at the death of his own father. In Stevens’ mind, everything in life has to be subordinated to maintaining the dignified, unobtrusive posture required of a butler. And therein lies his downfall.
As his vacation draws to an end, Stevens questions the choices he made in life. He recognizes the missed opportunities to feel and to love, the words that should have been said but left unsaid, the devastating impact of subordinating his personal life to his professional life, the tragic waste of a life dedicated to an employer who proved himself to be less than worthy, and the recognition that he is aging. He sits on a bench by the pier at Weymouth, pouring his heart out to a complete stranger. And he weeps.
The Remains of the Day is a consummate masterpiece, slowly unfolding while revealing the gradual unraveling of Stevens’ identity. Through his central character, Ishiguro explores such issues as self-delusion, denial, repression, distorted self-image, selective memory, false personas, lost opportunities, and regret. With a flawless ear, he captures the voice and diction of each of his characters, especially the restrained, stiff upper lip maintained by Stevens. One can only hope that this endearing, damaged, and tragic figure finally masters the art of bantering.
Just like the unassuming English countryside whose beauty lies in its quiet, restrained charm, this is a novel that will slowly but surely grab you and tug at your heart strings as you sit on the bench with Stevens, contemplating the choices you made in your own life.
A skillfully-crafted novel, compelling, mesmerizing, haunting, and beautifully written. Very highly recommended.