The Remains of the Day: A Belated Tribute

A breathtaking and beautiful novel

This year British author Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ishiguro is one of many authors that I have intended to read but never have, and so the promptings of the Nobel Committee were useful in rectifying at least this one omission.

The first book of Ishiguro’s I read (I now intend to read them all) is perhaps his most famous — The Remains of the Day. The novel, published in 1988, is the basis for a well-regarded film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson (1993). The novel itself won the Booker Prize.

Given its cultural prominence, I suspect many readers will know the basic frame of Remains. In brief: it is 1956 and the English head butler Stevens (Hopkins in the film), who has worked for decades at the formerly grand house Darlington Hall, is taking a well-deserved “motoring trip” through the English countryside. His current employer, the American Mr. Farraday, suggested he take this leave. For almost all of his tenure Stevens worked for the British aristocrat Lord Darlington. Darlington had sought to broker peace between Great Britain and Germany in the period between World War I and World War II. Of course, Hitler was rising to power right at this time. With the benefit of hindsight, Darlington was Hitler’s pawn at best or his willing accomplice at worst. By 1956 Darlington’s reputation is in permanent tatters, and Darlington himself has died. Stevens ponders this legacy while on the road trip. He also ponders his never acknowledged attraction to Miss Kenton (Thompson in the film), who led the housekeepers at Darlington Hall for many years.

Suppressed romance. The unyielding realities of class hierarchy. International political maneuvers in the face of evil. All of these are part of the fabric of Remains of the Day. I suspect many critics over the years have addressed these aspects of the novel fully and capably. Here I would like to focus on two passages that I think likely to have received less renown. These passages show just how versatile and perceptive Ishiguro is as a writer, and why Remains of the Day is (to quote Ann Beattie) “a perfect novel.”

Passage One: “You will perhaps appreciate then my disappointment concerning my witticism yesterday evening.” (Stevens has been trying to learn how to banter with others, believing this the key to successful conversation. In the small town of Taunton, Somerset, one of his jokes had fallen flat). “At first, I had thought it possible its limited success was due to my not having spoken clearly enough. But then the possibility occurred to me, once I had retired, that I might actually have given these people offence…This thought continued to torment me as I tried to sleep, and I had half a mind to make an apology to the landlord this morning. But his mood towards me as he served breakfast seemed perfectly cheerful and in the end I decided to let the matter rest.”

For readers expecting a lot of heart-pounding action or zippy dialogue, the above passage will be thoroughly disappointing. It takes place entirely in Stevens’s head, and in some ways nothing happens. After all, he decides not to apologize and so the landlord can never react to such a statement.

On the other hand, all of us regularly think about what we could have done differently. Or we at least weigh the merits of different choices. To apologize, or not to apologize? Apologizing demonstrates an ability to hold yourself accountable, but may just kick up dust without any benefit. (More light decisions must be made too, of course: Bow tie, or silk tie? Boxers, or briefs?) These tiny, frequent, quotidian decisions comprise most of our days. If this passage is boring, so too is life much of the time. Here Ishiguro captures the mind in action, and demonstrates Stevens’s fundamental decency besides.

Passage Two: Stevens is now in the small village of Moscombe. His car has broken down, and some kindly villagers have given him a free place to stay for the night. This is partly country hospitality, and also out of deference to Stevens, who is driving Farraday’s car on his motoring trip. The villagers believe him to be a great man, surely not a butler. They are surprised to see him in Moscombe. At an impromptu gathering one villager, Harry Smith, observes:

“The way I see it, England’s a democracy, and we in this village have suffered as much as anyone fighting to keep it that way. Now it’s up to us to exercise our rights, every one of us. Some fine young lads from this village gave their lives to give us that privilege, and the way I see it, each one of us here now owes it to them to play our part. We’ve all got strong opinions here, and it’s our responsibility to get them heard. We’re out of the way, all right, a small village, we’re none of us getting younger, and the village is getting smaller. But the way I see it we owe it to the lads we lost from this village.”

Here there is peppy dialogue, for those who would like it. And from it we know immediately how Mr. Smith feels and where he is coming from. Reading this passage would always have been touching and affecting. Reading it in 2017, post-Brexit and post-Trump, it is even more moving than it would have been before. In Remains of the Day, Ishiguro really did write a classic for all times.