You would think a novel about stuffy old butlers and housekeeper of “great” houses in England would be written by the likes of Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters in the 1800’s, but The Remains of the Day, which is primarily about a butler’s life and memories, is written by Japanese-born British author, Kazuo Ishiguro, in 1989. On top of that, The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro’s 3rd published novel, also won the Man Booker Prize for that year.
The Remains of the Day is told from the perspective of Mr. Stevens, the elderly, distinguished, professional Butler of Darlington Manor. Formerly the residence of a Lord Darlington, the Manor became the property of a Mr. Farraday, an American businessman, who bought it upon Lord Darlington’s death.
The novel starts out with Mr. Stevens saying that he is going to take up the suggestion of his employer to take a short “motoring” vacation while Mr. Farraday was away in America for 5 weeks. Upon being offered Mr. Farraday’s Ford, and free gas, Stevens takes the opportunity not only to see the British countryside, but also to visit an old acquaintance and former Darlington Manor housekeeper, Miss Kenton.
The 6-day journey gives Stevens ample free time and the rare opportunity to look back on his life and reminisce about his career as the butler of Darlington Manor, the important people he has met and served, the World affairs he has had the privilege to be a part of, and of course, about his employer, the honorable Lord Darlington, whom he had served for 3 decades to the best of his abilities and with utmost loyalty and, what he hoped was, dignity. He also uses this time to think about his professional relationship with Miss Kenton, and his inevitable meeting with her. With the present staff shortage at Darlington Manor, and also from the clues in Miss Kenton’s letter of her unhappiness, Stevens intends to offer Miss Kenton her former position of housekeeper at Darlington Manor.
In his reminiscing, Stevens paints a picture of the life and career of an old-fashioned British butler, dedicated to carrying out his duties to near perfection, with pride, loyalty, and dignity. And though always modest and humble, it is obvious that Stevens prides himself in his excellent abilities and considers himself to be among the best of the best.
Stevens, even as a narrator, embodies his profession. He narrates various past events in his life, both tragic, and ordinary, with the same controlled, proper, almost stiff, manner, always careful to control his emotions. Even in the end, when he came to question the character and actions of his former employer and thus to question his own life and whether or not he was right in serving and dedicating his life to Darlington Manor, Stevens still maintains his dignity and professionalism.
This novel is quite surprising in many ways. Though being narrated by a stuffy old butler, The Remains of the Day is actually very funny. On more than one occasion, I found Stevens’ predicament and reactions to those predicaments hilarious, if not amusing. Stevens’ stories about his duties as a butler and his glory days are interesting in that it gives readers a rare glimpse of what happens “behind the scenes” in the mansions of British Lords and Ladies. Also interesting, and equally frustrating, is his depiction of his interpersonal relationships with people such as his employers, both past and present, his father, and Miss Kenton, though I suspect that he was careful to hide most of his true feelings and opinions in his narration, for fear of being improper and unprofessional.
But what really surprised me about his novel was how sad it is. Like its humor, the sadness in this novel is very subtle and will creep up on unsuspecting readers, hitting them full on toward the end of the novel. In the spirit of Stevens’ narrative style, allow me to say – and why would I be afraid to admit it – that I cried at the end of this novel. In the end, I felt sad for Stevens – for his regrets, what-ifs and lost opportunities. And though, to me, it ended on a positive note, with Stevens deciding to make the most of his remaining days, I felt melancholy for a long time afterwards.
I first tried to read The Remains of the Day sometime last year, but quit after reading a few pages of the prologue. I picked it up again last week on a whim (mostly because it was the shortest book I could find), and succeeded in finishing, and actually enjoying it. Again, I admit – and why should I be embarrassed by it – that it was my fondness of Downton Abbey that got me through this novel. Despite the movie version starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson as Stevens and Miss Kenton, while I was reading it, I was actually imagining Stevens as Mr. Carson, and Miss Kenton as Mrs. Hughes.
The Remains of the Day (1989) – Kazuo Ishiguro
Vintage; 245 pages
Personal rating: 4/5