[The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro, 1989]
It is, rightly, prized as one of the finest and most nuanced novels of post-war Britain, detailing so many elements of classic Englishness with humour and pitch-perfect tone. The 1993 Merchant Ivory film version with the incomparable Anthony Hopkins as Stephens and Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton is also a brilliant work of fine subtleties. (See the US film trailer below.)
It layers themes so essential to histories of Englishness -- even the image of the "perfect butler" being, as the main character ruminates, so entirely bound up with England as to be nearly impossible outside it. It has often been said of the novel that nothing happens, but simultaneously everything does. It is work built on the most insignificant of incidents -- a misunderstood gift of flowers, a misplaced broom, a diplomat's sore feet, an ill father, an inopportune moment to observe that an alcove has been left undusted. On these tiny elements of the everyday, Ishiguro brilliantly overlaps the personal and the social with the political. The insular world of Darlington Hall reflects the angst of the 1930s radiating from the individual outwards.
The theme of the work most commonly commented on, indeed the one emphasized in the film, centers on the protagonist -- butler Stephens and his repressed self. He represents his life as one of duty and ultimately "dignity," a conceit which allows him to cloak all opinion and personal feeling. The book contains long discourses of his views on the subject of dignity and professionalism, quite tellingly resting largely on second-hand anecdotal accounts. His job is merely to serve, negating the self completely and losing it within the banal exactitude of the everyday. He, insofar as a fictional character can be, is usually the object of censure: his blindness to his employer's faults and political machinations, his insensitivity towards the fate of the Jewish refugee girls dismissed from staff, and of course, most importantly, his inability to acknowledge his probable affection for Miss Kenton. But let us leave off the vilification of poor Stephens for a moment -- I do believe that the book ends with him retaining more agency and his highly prized "dignity" than he is usually credited with.
The more intriguing element of the book, historically speaking, is the overlapping of Stephen's personal notion of duty with that of his employer, Lord Darlington. The primary action is set in the 1930s, and Darlington Hall plays venue to backroom negotiations and machinations involving the rise of Nazism and the fate of Europe. Based on the real affinity of many aristocrats towards the far right and Nazi Germany -- the famed "Cliveden Set" of the Astors and Lord Halifax (who almost became Prime Minister in 1940) for example -- Lord Darlington is ultimately a well-meaning but deeply naive man. He imagines himself as a 19th century gentleman diplomat, hosting weekend conferences that he depicts as being of worldwide importance.
As the American delegate to his conference states so devastatingly, Lord Darlington and his kind are "amateurs" in the era of hard-nosed professionals. Holding to the notion of international affairs as a gentlemanly game -- an extension of the playing fields of public school boyhood -- many aristocrats sympathized with the Germans following the harsh conditions dictated by the Treaty of Versailles. As Darlington himself states, using a sporting metaphor, one does not continue to kick one's opponent once he is on the mat. But as his insightful godson (played by Hugh Grant in the film) quickly deduces, he has turned into a mere dupe of Nazi interests and it is the very fact of Darlington's ultimate nobility and honesty that has contributed to this. Darlington and his fellow aristocrats have failed to notice that things have changed, and that the Nazi regime is not to be treated with the gentlemanly diplomacy of yesteryear. His heroic efforts towards peace and cooperation are in fact a charade.
But Lord Darlington, in a sense, is as trapped in his own conception of his duty and gentlemanly "dignity" as the butler Stephens is in his role of the perfect butler. They are both like pieces in the Medieval "Great Chain of Being," fixed and immutable -- perhaps Lord Darlington even more so than Stephens. He lives out the sad remainder of his days, attempting in vain to rehabilitate his reputation and battle the public perception that he was a traitor. In his mind, he was the ultimate dutiful patriot, attempting to preserve peace even as his efforts were doomed to failure. We may end the novel with slightly greater hopes for the middle-aged Stephens. Aspects of his life may hold a sense of regret but not of sadness. His motoring trip through the West Country in the 1950s awakens the realization of how he allowed the sweep of events, both personal and public, to pass him by. But he is not broken by this knowledge. As I read it, he heads back to his duties after a solitary day at the seaside (in the book, not the film) filled with renewed energy for his task of service. He accepts his life for what it is and will continue in the same vein of high standards and resolute dignity, vowing to master the art of light banter that his new American employer so desires. For he is a mere servant but he is a professional, not a gentleman amateur.
Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils