This is a reread from when I first read it years ago – 1990s? I remember it as being a really good book with thematic as well as character subtleties. This is the first of Ishiguro’s works I read and I went on to read almost all of his novels plus a few short stories. Ishiguro recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature and I believe it was largely on the basis of this book although all the books I’ve read are quite good.
The story is told in first person by Stevens, the impeccable butler, the “butler’s butler,” who in 1956 works for the American Mr Farraday at Darlington Hall somewhere in the south of England, near Salisbury.
Farraday has recently cut the staff of Darlington Hall quite a lot and (1) Stevens is overworked. Farraday wants to go to America and invites Stevens to take a short vacation while he’s gone. Stevens figures he’ll take a trip which includes a visit to Miss Kenton who was a prior Darlington Hall housekeeper to see if she would like to return.
The Remains of the Day
by Kazuo Ishiguro
1989 / 246 pages
read by Simon Prebble 8h 13m
rating: 10 / 20th cent US
(read and listened)
Stevens is a very stiff and proper man of middle age who takes great pride on his “dignity” and in doing things the right way. He has problems with his employer’s less formal ways as well as the general differences between the most proper of Englishmen and a relaxed American.
Times are different from what they were in his father’s day when his peers served the “great gentlemen” of the day. That was part of being a “great” butler, but it wasn’t everything.
So Stevens leaves on his little road trip but his mind goes back to 1922 when both Stevens’ and his aging father as well as Miss Kenton were newly placed at Darlington Hall. This was also when Lord Darlington owned the Hall. Stevens has a rather elevated view of his own father and Miss Kenton brings her own issues. In a very poignant scene, Father is found to be aging beyond his duties – (I was reminded of when I retired.)
Private international “conferences” are held at Darlington Hall starting with the treatment of the Germans in the Treaty of Versailles and continuing almost throughout the war. Darlington is not happy with the punishment of the Germans. France wants it hard. Darlington becomes more and more sympathetic to the Germans.
The “action” mostly consists of Stevens going about his duties of various sorts, interspersed with his relationship with Miss Kenton. The completely dedicated Stevens is committed to handling everything like a professional, He is seriously repressed – to the point of being a somewhat unreliable narrator.
The tale goes on alternating between Stevens’ road trip and his memories of life at Darlington Hall under the direction of Lord Darlington who has some powerful but disreputable associations. Other employees come and go, Miss Kenton tries to get close to Stevens and then her aunt, her only living relative, dies. And in 1956 he goes from one town to the next, on his way to meet Miss Kenton who is now married and has written him a letter in response to his.
I can’t even begin to address the themes of the book except that dignity and loyalty and love are huge – but it’s the fact they challenge “duty” and “dignity” which is important – and what, exactly, is “dignity?”
Loads of resources online –