The “Hollow” ‘I’ in Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day”

Malinee Kaewnetr
Nov 1, 2020 · 6 min read
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Photo by Mike Marrah on Unsplash

In the Nobel-prize winning Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day,” the writer narrates the story through the point of view of ‘I,’ Mr. Stevens, the dignified butler of Darlington Hall. He’s the protagonist of the story, yet he’s an unreliable character. You cannot trust his point of view because it doesn’t belong to him. It reflects the satires of many values the author wants to make in British society.

Mr. William Stevens is a kind of butler who dedicates his life to his profession. He considers himself good and professional with what he calls ‘dignity.’ But later in the movie, we see Mr. Stevens betrays his faith and his loyalty many times.

Had the author used the third-person narrative or an omniscient point of view, his criticism wouldn’t hit home. The first-person narrative makes his communication with the readers closer and more intimate. Nothing comes between the character and the readers. Supposedly, the readers know the character better than the author or third-person narrator describes.

However, most ironically, being close and intimate to him doesn’t allow the readers to know him better at all because his character is a hollow husk, empty inside. He is cold, formal, proper and impersonal. He has no idea of his own whatsoever. At this point, Kazuo Ishiguro emphasizes how class and the institution of butler can wreak havoc to our humanity. It dehumanizes Mr. Williams in many ways. The British aristocracy enjoys their convenience at the expense of the humanity of other human beings.

Also, the reader must beware that ‘I’ is a character, not the author. ‘I’ possesses a character of his own, both good and bad, just like a real human being. Here ‘I’ or Mr.Stevens whose first name is William is addressed as Mr. Stevens all the time because he wants to keep his relationship with other characters distant and impersonal.

The novel is heartbreaking, like Nadine Gordimer, another Nobel-prize winner from South Africa commented. It is a tragedy of someone who dedicates his whole life serving others with a false cause.Mr. Stevens thinks his boss has a higher moral stature, but as a matter of fact, Lord Darlington is quite naive and gullible. He lets the Germans use him as their pawn during Nazism.

The story of Mr. Stevens, the good butler of Darlington Hall, is an example of a wasted life and a wasted potential. Most tragic, he seems to be trapped in that hollow role all his life.

At the end of the movie, a stray pigeon flies into Darlington Hall. He is saved by the new owner of the mansion and let him fly into the broad sky with freedom. His flight is contrasted against the background picture of Mr. Stevens closing the French window looking like a prison door behind him.

Of course, Mr. Stevens will be trapped inside Darlington Hall dedicating his life to the service of the British elites all his life.Too bad, he doesn't know any other kinds of life.

His case is a self-imposed imprisonment. There’s nothing sadder than someone who loses the chance to do something for himself, to be himself and to speak for himself. He has no self-identity. He is hollow to the core.

This beautiful novel is narrated in a flash-back style. It starts at the end of the novel when the former owner of Darlington Hall who takes side with the Nazi died. Funny, Mr. Stevens always says the good and professional butler must possess dignity. Later in the novel, we see Mr. Stevens betrays himself when he refuses to acknowledge that he is the butler of the scandalous Lord Darlington.

The novel starts after the disaster is over. Lord Darlington passes away, heart-broken. Mr. Lewis, the American Congressman bought Lord Darlington’s mansion. Mr. Lewis is kind enough to let Mr. Stevens take a vacation as a reward for his hard-working service. Meanwhile, Mr. Stevens receives a letter from Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper, who is now Mrs. Benn reminiscing about her best days at Darlington Hall. In the letter, she seems to complain about her bad marriage and hints she might want to come back to work as a housekeeper at Darlington Hall again.

Mr. Stevens takes this trip to meet Miss Kenton or Mrs. Benn in the hope that he might persuade her to come back to work with him at Darlington Hall again. However, the novel is full of irony. It turns out Mrs. Benn is still in love with her husband and the couple look forward to the arrival of their first grandchild. No. She doesn’t want to go back with Mr. Stevens again. It hurts and disappoints Mr. Stevens deeply. Perhaps this is belatedly the first time he becomes most human in his vulnerability.

Any profession disregarding a filial love cannot be a good one. One of the most elegiac scene of the novel is the dying of Mr. Stevens seniors while Mr. Stevens chooses his butler duty over his father’s death. He’s done his best waiting the table leaving his own father on his deathbed. When he’s through with his duty, it’s over and too late. His father already passes away. His duty as a butler delays him from many ordinary but important things in life such as being with a dying loved one, falling in love.

Mr. Stevens is a ventriloquist. What comes out of his mouth doesn’t belong to him but to the elites he serves. Mr. Stevens’s life is an imitation and a sham. He deceives himself he is doing the right thing. He thinks he serves someone who has a higher moral standard than he. He’s doing his little part he’s proud of. So, the novel is at its most tragic irony when his master’s higher moral standard turns out to be a part of a crime against humanity. And Mr. Stevens unknowingly conspires with him to commit this atrocious crime. He expels two good Jewish maids from Darlington Hall.

What Mr. Stevens does and says is just a regurgitation of the elites’ words and manners. When someone seriously asks him what he thinks about certain important political issues, he goes blank. We cannot take his first-person point of view seriously because what he says doesn’t come from him and doesn't mean a thing. In creating an unreliable character like Mr. Stevens, Kazuo Ishiguro succeeds in making a bitter satire against the ideology of the British elites.

Their ideology and institution dehumanise Mr. Stevens and make him empty inside. He is so good a butler he is deprived of all human emotions. He and Mrs. Benn were in love while they worked together at Darlington Hall. But his duty hardens him against the gentle feeling of love. Mr. Stevens misses the best opportunity of his life. So does Miss Kenton.However, she survives and find another love, though it’s not as passionate as her first love with Mr. Stevens.

In conclusion, the two versions of “The Remains of the Day,” the novel and the movie are equally good. The novel version describes best the unreliability of ‘I’ because we, the readers can delve deep into his psyche. We see the naïveté and the misconception of Mr. Stevens. While the movie version capitalizes on the film language. The beauty of the scenery, the formality of the dialogue and the butler’s rigid manner intensify the author’s satire and hit home his message. I enjoy both versions very much, especially, the superb performance of Anthony Hopkins as Mr. Stevens.

You can’t end this essay without talking about the title of the novel/movie. It is quite appropriate. It can equally mean the rest of Mr. Stevens’s life as a butler or it can mean Mr. Stevens’s life as a left-over of the good old life.

Mr. Stevens’s life is a missed opportunity, a wasted potential. Even his love is an unrequited one. This is an example of an unreliable character who narrates the saddest story ever told.

Curious

Malinee Kaewnetr

Written by

Reader. Writer.Translator. Movie buff. Lifelong learner.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Malinee Kaewnetr

Written by

Reader. Writer.Translator. Movie buff. Lifelong learner.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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