Too Busy Serving

Photo: Colombia Pictures

In English High Society in the early 20th century, traditions and appearances were of extreme importance. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, The Remains of the Day, the value that is placed on these ideals is very evident — displayed by a well-run aristocratic household. The book and the 1993 film adaption of the same name seek to display a contrasting view of upstairs and downstairs life in aristocratic England. Ishiguro used this setting as a metaphor for the political culture in modern times. He uses the character of a butler in high society to display the passiveness that society often has in leaving political and moral decisions up to others to make for us — even if we don’t always agree with the result.

Mr. Stevens is a loyal butler in Lord Darlington’s household. Throughout Ishiguro’s work, Stevens quietly but successfully battles keeping any appearance of his emotions in check. This may seem like a difficult battle, but it is one that is preferable to Stevens, compared to having any deeply held opinion on political matters, or experiencing any deep emotions with the prospect of love or loss appears in his life. Instead, Stevens dedicates himself to the maintenance of household, and indirectly contributes to the furtherance of Lord Darlington’s political agenda. Seemingly menial household tasks such as polishing the silver and brass is seen as a duty to the nation. During a political meeting, the staff saw these duties as a way of showing the foreign dignitaries that order and tradition are still in force. For Stevens, these duties were a way of detaching himself from reality.

In the film version, it is evident that Mr. Stevens is very intrigued by an American dignitary who dares to have an opinion contrary to Lord Darlington. The filmmakers show Steven’s internal conflict during this scene:

Years later, when the dignitary asks Stevens what was said at the dinner, Stevens falsely states that he was too preoccupied with his duties.

“I’m sorry, sir, I was too busy serving to listen to the speeches.”

Mr. Steven’s father passes away in the middle of that dinner, and he is too busy with Lord Darlington’s affairs to do much more than acknowledge the occurrence. Instead, he carries on with his work serving the house — even amidst apparent sympathizing with Nazi Germany. Mr. Stevens is loyal, nearly to a fault, and that loyalty can sometimes be misplaced. This party at the finale of the conference is the height of Mr. Stevens’ internal conflict with his dedication to Lord Darlington, his country among straining political times, and his father, who is left alone on his deathbed.

Ishiguro paints a vivid picture of the current political culture in Western society. Is the general population too preoccupied to “listen to the speeches”? With several million Americans choosing not to vote, it seems that citizens are not in a rush to make their voices heard. As in Ishiguro’s metaphor, many are content to allow those with higher rank in society to make the difficult decisions.

In The Remains of the Day, the political issues were heated and heavy — a budding world war, genocide, dissolution of democracy — but from the perspective of the onlookers, these events were just part of politics. One acquaintance of Lord Darlington regarded the racial laws in Germany as a “sanitary measure.”

“Here we call them prisons, over there they call them concentration camps. What’s the difference?” — Sir. Geoffrey

Mr. Stevens is forced to fire two young Jewish maids because of their race and does so with little resistance, though he is internally in opposition to the decision. The decision is rationalized by the idea that Mr. Darlington understands things of a higher nature than what the staff can comprehend. Mrs. Kenton struggles with her ideals as well. The idea of leaving her employment based on the dismissal of the Jewish girls proves to be impractical, so she leaves, despite her disgust with the act. This small conflict echos the larger scale of events which were occurring at that time.

Through the current political perspectives, the contemporary issues of today may also be rationalized as they were in Ishiguro’s novel. The Syrian refugee crisis is explained as just an immigration issue. A pipeline re-routed from a white neighborhood through a Native American settlement is seen as just logistics. But the underlying theme, even today, is a desire to let others make the tough decisions. The population at large wants to remain loyal to a nation that makes the tough decisions — even if those decisions are simply rationalized malice.

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