The Remains of the Day
Just One Sip — Summary
“What can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and I, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services.”
In Remains of the Day, we follow our narrator Stevens as he embarks on a roadtrip across the London countryside in one of his first (if not actually his very first) vacations. Along the way, he reflects upon his years of servitude as a butler to Lord Darlington as well as other pivotal moments in his life that have led him to become the character he is today. By journeying with him through his present travels and his past memories, we gain more insight into his morals and what he defines as “dignified”, and by the end of the book, we too are left wondering if we have truly lived life to the fullest as Stevens may or may not have lived.
Why I Chose This Book: Janelle
Given that most of our books from this year have been contemporary pieces (e.g. left-leaning or self-help books), I thought it would be a nice change to read something older and in a genre we haven’t discussed much yet. (Props to Ophelia for offering lots of initial suggestions to choose from!) This book stood out to me because of its almost deceptively simple plot line, and that — in combination with the fact that the author won a Nobel Prize in Literature last year — made it all the more intriguing of a book to pick off of the Amazon / Goodreads shelf and add to our book club’s collection.
Discussion Themes & Questions
How does having an unreliable narrator affect our perception and takeaways from the novel?
- What is the significance of Stevens’ lack of emotion all throughout the book?
- How does this relate to compartmentalizing your own emotions while at work?
What does it mean to be dignified?
- Is having dignity a human right?
- How is dignity conditional upon rank or social status?
What does it mean to reflect on your life versus actually living your life?
How does regret play a part in Stevens’ life (and our own lives) as a motivator?
Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day” is a standout book from 2018’s reading list for me.
Suprisingly, my initial impression of the book was one of distaste. The narrator’s dry, almost emotionless writing style suggested that the book would not deliver emotional conflict or catharsis, and I found myself already weary of reading within the opening chapters. Learning that the entire plot would follow Stevens’s seemingly mundane road trip only further discouraged me. Having completed the book, I’m enthused to write that my initial impressions could not have been more incorrect.
The beauty of this book is in its subtlety. Ishiguro does a masterful job of blending in brief moments of emotional revelation, where-in the reader further unfolds the true complexity of Stevens’s character. My negative impression of the book first shifted upon realizing the discrepancies between what details Stevens would write — and what inadverdent details would be revealed in other characters’ dialogue. Not only would Stevens omit certain details of his own feelings/reactions, perhaps with the intention of maintaining a dignified appearance, but his lack of emotional intelligence would also mischaracterize the emotions and reactions of others. Reading this novel was a true exercise in parsing the words of an unreliable narrator!
Without spoiling too much, it is the last few pages of “The Remains of the Day” that for me deliver absolute, almost unexpected catharsis. I found myself confounded and at last, fully capable of empathizing with Stevens in subtle, emotional devastation. Inspired to reflect forward, I had a vision of myself years in the future, looking back as if I were Stevens in those final moments.
I have not read a book as profoundly impactful as “The Remains of the Day” in a long time. I highly recommend it.
“Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.”
While reading the first few chapters of the book, I was taken aback by how formal Stevens’ narration style is. He is extremely focused on the correctness of the small details of the events around him, and I was often left wondering what value these seemingly insignificant descriptions were adding to the story. However, the writing style fits in perfectly with who he is — a butler so focused on demonstrating “dignity” that he chooses to remain professional and emotionally restrained in any setting and in response to any event. I was shocked at how far Stevens would go in his commitment to his profession; he continued to work and serve guests while his father passed away in a room close by. In their last interaction, Stevens’ father shows some signs of regret in living his life this way as well, and perhaps even some regret in raising his son to be so similar to him:
“I hope I’ve been a good father to you.”
“I laughed a little and said: ‘I’m so glad you’re feeling better now.’”
“I’m proud of you. A good son. I hope I’ve been a good father to you. I suppose I haven’t.”
“I’m afraid we’re extremely busy now, but we can talk again in the morning.” My father was still looking at his hands as though he were faintly irritated by them.
Stevens also is self-contradicting as a narrator in these passages because of his attempts to conceal his emotional response. Lord Darlington asks “Stevens, are you all right?… You look as though you’re crying”; the reader never directly sees his grief. Stevens allows his professional dignity to consume his human dignity. After finishing the book, I felt this strange mix of pity and admiration for Stevens; his total dedication to perfecting his craft to become one of the “great” butlers is in some ways inspiring, but ultimately this book served as a reminder to not allow professional obligations create emotional detachment from the meaningful relationships I have.
“You’ve got to enjoy yourself. The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it.”
I came into Remains of the Day skeptical, as I read another one of Ishiguro’s novels (Never Let Me Go) awhile ago and didn’t particularly like it. I finished Remains of the Day pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.
The most striking part of this book was the dichotomy between what was actually happening (i.e. Stevens crying) versus what Stevens was telling us via his narration (i.e. “I laughed and taking out a handkerchief, quickly wiped my face.”). As readers, we had to rely on others in the scene to relay to us his true emotional reaction (i.e. when a dinner guest tells Stevens, “You look as though you’re crying.”) It was difficult for me to empathize with a character who was so out of tune with his own emotional state. I couldn’t assume his narration was factual — which was completely counterintuitive and put more weight on the dialogue. However, Stevens’ lack of self awareness made his emotional reaction at the end of the book even more impactful.
Another common theme in the book is Stevens’ fixation on “dignity” and being a dignified butler. I thought our discussion on dignity was particularly interesting. The first thing that came to mind when I read the word “dignity” was homelessness — a critical issue here in San Francisco. The word “dignity” is often attached to basic human needs — for example, SF based non-profit Lava Mae’s mission is to “rekindle dignity” through providing access to showers. What does dignity mean in this context and how does this form of dignity differ from the dignity that Stevens reflects on in Remains of the Day? Stevens’ version of dignity centers around this idea of loyalty at any cost while Lava Mae’s is instituting a basic human right.
Finally, though Ishiguro grew up in the United Kingdom, I can’t help but wonder how much his Japanese heritage influenced the creation of Stevens. Based on my own experience living in Japan, I can see connections between Japan’s service oriented / perfectionist culture and Stevens’ intense focus on service over self.
Remains of the Day was a gentle reminder that how I spend my hours and days and weeks and months will ultimately be how I spend my entire life — and each minute is such a blessing not to be wasted.
“But then, I suppose, when with the benefit of hindsight one begins to search one’s past for such ‘turning points’, one is apt to start seeing them everywhere.”
Jumping into books without much background on them seems to be a recurring theme for me, as this was also what happened with Remains of the Day. At the beginning, it was a bit difficult for me to get accustomed to the writing style and to become invested in the overall narrative — in fact, I would say the first quarter of the book felt pretty dry to me. However, after we started learning more about Lord Darlington and the many political gatherings that Stevens witnessed, the book became more engaging. At that point, it became more evident to me in terms of how unreliable of a narrator Stevens was — he would often say one thing and then, barely even two pages later, would completely contradict himself. This was initially a bit off-putting as I felt like I didn’t know what to trust or believe from his recollections, but as the book went on, I came to better appreciate this characteristic of his as a signal of his need to constantly rationalize the world around him.
As for key takeaways, the biggest lesson I learned was acknowledging how strong regret (and the fear of regret) is in motivating you to do…anything, really. Right after we learn at the end of the book that Miss Kenton’s daughter is having a child (i.e. she’s now a grandmother), I felt this immense sadness and pity for Stevens — at that moment, you really understand just how much time had truly passed for him between the time when Miss Kenton first joined the housing staff and the moment they are currently sharing. With all that time gone, what has Stevens really done to make his life worthwhile? What’s even more disheartening is that, even though Stevens spent the whole novel reflecting on his past actions and what he might have done differently, he doesn’t actually decide to take action and change himself — even though it seems like there are several moments in his life that he regrets, he instead just goes back to his old ways and concludes that the only change he needs to make is to improve his “bantering” to better serve his new master. I interpreted the notion of “remains of the day” as a message of how Stevens merely exists and doesn’t actually live his life, and the fear of becoming just like him in 10, 20, 30 years from now is what I hope will drive me to continue to find meaningful things to do and meaningful people to be around in my life.
“I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really — one has to ask oneself — what dignity is there in that?”