The Remains of the Day
The Remains of the Day is a novel about a butler. Stevens the butler is the narrator of the story: first person narrative. ‘IT SEEMS INCREASINGLY likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days. An expedition, I should say, which I will undertake alone, in the comfort of Mr Farraday’s Ford; an expedition which, as I foresee it, will take me through much of the finest countryside of England to the West Country, and may keep me away from Darlington Hall for as much as five or six days.’ The butler takes his job seriously, and expects the same dedication and diligence from his colleagues: housekeeper Miss Kenton, under-butler and other helpers in the kitchen of the Darlington Hall near Oxford in England. Stevens has the belief that he is doing his job to the highest standards expected from the celebrated class of British Butlers (English Butlers) like his father.
Stevens, a butler past his prime, on a week’s motoring holiday in the West Country. The novel is portrait of a wasted life of Stevens in working as a butler, and attaching too much significance in his job. ‘It should be said that Ishiguro’s butler in his way as complete a fiction as Jeeves. Just as Wodehouse made immortal a world that never existed except in his imagination, so also Ishiguro projects his imagination into a poorly documented zone,’ writes Salman Rushdie in an introduction to the Remains of the Day.
The story unfolds with Stevens starting on a motoring journey in his employer’s Ford, his American employer also foots the bill for the gas, through the English countryside in July 1956. On his journey, he recounts his past and his previous employer Darlington. Mr Darlington made a mistake by hobnobbing with the sympathisers of the Nazi Germany, and the stain of the past haunts Stevens. Jewish servants were dismissed from the Darlington Hall. Lord Darlington was a Nazi collaborator but Stevens denies that he is not but he feels tainted by his master’s stance on Germany during the World War II.
One of the main characters in the novel is Miss Kempton, who served at Darlington Hall as the housekeeper. She was in love with the butler Stevens. The unexpressed love for Miss Kenton in Stevens tires her out. She leaves her job following the butler’s lack of courage in expressing his feelings for her, and she leaves the place with a suitor whom she eventually marries and settles with her husband, becoming Mrs Benn.
Stevens meets his former colleague Miss Kenton, Mrs Benn now, on his journey. They meet after many years for they ‘are old friends after all’. In her last letter Mrs Benn had expressed that ‘the rest of my life stretches out like an emptiness before me’. She denies them when they meet: ‘Oh dear. Well, perhaps there are some days when I feel like that. But they pass quickly enough. Let me assure you, Mr Stevens, my life does not stretch out emptily before me. For one thing, we are looking forward to the grandchild. The first of a few perhaps.’
Miss Kenton asks the butler, ‘And what about you, Mr Stevens? What does the future hold for you back at Darlington Hall?’
‘Well, whatever awaits me, Mrs Benn, I know I’m not awaited by emptiness. If only I were. But oh no, there’s work, work and more work,’ he replies.
During their last conversation, Mrs Benn mentions about her life: ‘But that doesn’t mean to say, of course, there aren’t occasions now and then – extremely desolate occasions – when you think to yourself: “What a terrible mistake I’ve made with my life.” And you get to thinking about a different life, a better life you might have had. For instance, I get to thinking about a life I might have had with you, Mr Stevens. And I suppose that’s when I get angry over some trivial little thing and leave. But each time I do so, I realize before long – my rightful place is with my husband. After all, there’s no turning back the clock now. One can’t be forever dwelling on what might have been. One should realize one has as good as most, perhaps better, and be grateful.’
Stevens finally admits to her: ‘I do not think I responded immediately, for it took a moment or two to fully digest these words of Miss Kenton. Moreover, as you might appreciate, their implications were such as to provoke a degree of sorrow within me. Indeed – why should I not admit it? – at that moment, my heart was breaking. Before long, however, I turned to her and said with a smile: ‘You’re very correct, Mrs Benn. As you say, it is too late to turn back the clock. Indeed, I would not be able to rest if I thought such ideas were the cause of unhappiness for you and your husband. We must each of us, as you point out, be grateful for what we do have. And from what you tell me, Mrs Benn, you have a reason to be contented. In fact I would venture, what with Mr Benn retiring, and with grandchildren on the way, that you and Mr Benn have some extremely happy years before you. You really mustn’t let any more foolish ideas come between yourself and the happiness you deserve.’
The Remains of the Day is also about a wrenching conclusion about the butler’s love life: the Remains of the Day is the life of a man past his prime nothing much to look ahead of the leftover life, but to work as a butler in the Darlington Hall, till his body allows like his father’s did who was also an under butler and dies in the Darlington Hall.
Salman Rusdhie writes in an introduction to the book, 2012: (It should be said that Ishiguro’s butler is in his way as complete a fiction as Jeeves. Just as Wodehouse made immortal a world that never existed except in his imagination, so also Ishiguro projects his imagination into a poorly documented zone.