‘The Remains of the Day’ novel review
By Ethan Gibson, Contributor
Is it always noble to live one’s life totally in service to something greater than oneself? Or is it more often the case that such preoccupations—with career, tradition, or propriety—blind individuals to the possibilities of love, happiness, and fulfillment? Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nobel Prize-winning author of Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant, explores these questions with subtle brilliance in his 1989 Booker Prize-winning masterpiece The Remains of the Day.
The Remains of the Day is set in July 1956 and told from the point of view of Stevens, an aging English butler. The home he has worked in for decades, Darlington Hall, has recently been sold to an American. At the suggestion of his new employer, Stevens embarks on a journey by car through the English countryside to visit Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper at Darlington Hall. Ostensibly, his goal is to convince her to return to work at the Hall. His true feelings for Miss Kenton, suppressed for decades, are at the heart of the novel’s powerful sense of loss.
This is, above all, a novel not just of lost love, but of love unrealized and unexplored. Stevens and Miss Kenton are never able to fully express to one another their true selves. In all the years they worked together, their relationship remained fatally cordial and decorous. To Kenton’s frustration, Stevens’ professionalism and sense of duty—inherited from his father—preclude him from the intimacy he cannot even admit he desires. Stevens’ work-life balance hardly recognizes a personal life at all; his dedication to service is so absolute that it eclipses all other concerns. As Miss Kenton and Stevens reconcile, the latter comes to realize (and admit) what his life has amounted to.
As Stevens faces the evening of his life, he is also disappointed with the product of his professional life. The man to whom he dedicated the majority of his career, Lord Darlington, was ultimately a deeply flawed character with misaligned sympathies. In one of the novel’s most poignant scenes, Stevens finds himself deeply questioning the integrity of his association with Lord Darlington. Not only has Stevens lost his opportunity for love—he has also been stripped of the pride he held in his career, which he had placed above all other concerns, and which cost him his relationship with Miss Kenton.
As with all great novels, The Remains of the Day illustrates serious realities of human nature—in this case, through the self-incriminating and subtly devastating voice of the butler Stevens. It is arguably an indictment of the class system that trapped Stevens, but it also has a certain funereal sense to it: One almost feels as though Stevens is the last of a species soon to be extinct—not a dinosaur, but a living relic of a disappearing era. However, Stevens’ situation is hardly unique to the stifling stratification of British society. As Ishiguro has said, we are all butlers in one way or another. We are—like Stevens—dangerously prone to neglecting what truly matters in life, in order to preserve feelings of dignity, propriety, sophistication, or normality. The genius of Ishiguro’s novel is that it illuminates this truth through the beautifully crafted and profoundly sad story of an English butler whose time has all but run out.