Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is a novel about an aging butler, Stevens, who has spent his whole life trying to be the best butler he can be, to the point where he almost seems incapable of emotion. He pushes away those closest to him (Miss Kenton and his father) because he values his professionalism above all else. What makes The Remains of the Day such an enjoyable read is the way in which Ishiguro shows the reader the conflict between Stevens’s actions, thoughts, and emotions. Often Stevens is only aware of the first two, being too professional to let his emotions even intrude on his thoughts. Ishiguro also structures the novel in such a way that the reader gradually comes to know what Stevens has been aware of from the beginning of the story. The Remains of the Day does a masterful job of drawing the reader in by keeping them at a distance early on, and gradually bringing them closer to the narrator in ways the character is unaware of.
The butler Stevens is a fantastic example of an unreliable narrator. He is perfectly earnest when addressing the reader, but his actions and emotions are often at odds with what he says and thinks. This opposition provides many great opportunities for humor, which Ishiguro uses well, but this is also where the true heart of the story shines. We can see from the way Stevens conducts himself in the first few pages that he is a professional of the highest caliber. But it is not until midway through the novel that the reader is able to see the toll that maintaining this level of professionalism has on Stevens, and it isn’t clear that Stevens realizes the price he has paid for being a butler of the highest class until the end of the novel. The real glimpse of conflict between Stevens’s thoughts and his emotions occurs when his father falls ill during an international conference of the greatest importance to Lord Darlington. Stevens is informed by one of the cooks that his father has suffered a stroke, but Stevens is required downstairs to attend to the conference guests. It is clear that Stevens loves his father (from any number of Stevens’s actions earlier, ranging from getting his father the position at Darlington Hall to the obvious embarrassment when forced to scale back his father’s responsibilities), but he has defined himself as a distinguished servant, and that is where he feels he is most needed. However, even Stevens’s professional exterior cannot hold back the emotion that he feels at this moment. Both Mr. Cardinal and Lord Darlington ask Stevens if he is all right in quick succession, and though he replies that he is fine his tears say otherwise.
“’Stevens, are you all right?’
‘Yes, sir. Perfectly.’
‘You look as though you’re crying,’” (105).
By making other characters notice what Stevens himself cannot, Ishiguro is able to show the reader all sides of Stevens in a tragic, realistic manner. Up until that moment Stevens had been little more than an interesting character to me, one who I wasn’t invested in. Ishiguro utilizes the unreliability of Stevens perfectly to give him a human side while still allowing Stevens himself to be proud and professional.
It is not until page 136 of The Remains of the Day that it becomes clear why Stevens regards Lord Darlington in the way he does. The best word I would use to describe it is pity. The reader gets a sense of this subtle tone of pity throughout the novel (more so in the later parts), but its source is not apparent until page 136. This is when Stevens reveals to the reader that Lord Darlington had contacts with the Nazi party and often dined with Herr Ribbentrop, one of Hitler’s most useful pawns in England at the time. Even in the present time of the novel Stevens defends the actions of his former employer, saying: “The fact is, the most established, respected ladies and gentlemen in England were availing themselves of the hospitality of the German leaders…” (137). This is a surprising bit of information, but the reader doesn’t know the full effect of Stevens’s pity for Lord Darlington until near the end of the novel, when Stevens is awaiting the turning on of the pier lights. Stevens has had his meeting with Miss Kenton (the only scene in the book where Stevens actually admits to having feelings for Miss Kenton, saying: “…at that moment, my heart was breaking…” (239), which was, for me, one of the most touching parts of the book), and he tells a stranger of his time at Darlington Hall. Here, finally, we get to see Stevens acknowledge how he actually feels about being in Lord Darlington’s employ: “I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom…I can’t even say I made my own mistakes,” (243). That is a powerful revelation. Stevens has spent the entire length of the novel defending and pitying his former employer, and now it is clear why. If Ishiguro had begun the novel by telling the reader that Lord Darlington had been used as a pawn by the Nazis, and that Stevens consequently regretted his lifetime of service there would be no emotional impact in that knowledge. But, by revealing this information slowly over the course of the novel, the reader forms a bond with Stevens. We feel his pain when his father dies, even if he doesn’t acknowledge it at the time. We feel loss when he discovers that Miss Kenton had considered starting a life with him, when it was so clear to us the entire time. Stevens has missed out on these things because of his singular pursuit of dignity in his profession, and by slowly informing the reader of all the details Ishiguro fills The Remains of the Day with heart.
Stevens is an endearing and worthwhile character in part because of his unreliability as a narrator, and not in spite of it. By pitting Stevens’s thoughts against his actions Ishiguro demonstrates the inner conflict inside us all.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. Toronto: Faber and Faber, 1990.