The novel's narrator, Stevens, is a perfect English butler who tries to give his narrow existence form and meaning through the self-effacing, almost mystical practice of his profession. In a career that spans the second World War, Stevens is oblivious of the real life that goes on around him -- oblivious, for instance, of the fact that his aristocrat employer is a Nazi sympathizer. Still, there are even larger matters at stake in this heartbreaking, pitch-perfect novel -- namely, Stevens' own ability to allow some bit of life-affirming love into his tightly repressed existence.
Thus does Stevens, a butler on a fine English estate, describe the dignity and restraint he sees as essential elements of the truly great butlers -- a title he will not allow himself to claim, although it is probably deserved. Stevens spent 30 years in service at Darlington Hall, beginning in the 1920s. He did all his master asked of him, with complete decorum and the much-admired restraint. He was assisted by a housekeeper, Miss Kenton, who left after many years to marry and have a family of her own. The novel begins with Stevens taking a rare holiday, a trip across the country to visit Miss Kenton. A recent letter from her led him to believe she would be interested in returning to service at Darlington Hall. The letter resurrected memories and emotions; long suppressed in the interest of dignity and restraint. During Stevens' journey, he relives his years serving Lord Darlington, and his relationship with Miss Kenton.
The story is told entirely in Stevens' voice. Ishiguro has a way of making the situation perfectly plain to the reader, even though much is left unsaid. The reader sees a side of Lord Darlington that Stevens himself was unable to acknowledge. And his feelings for Miss Kenton are crystal clear, even though they never break through his reserved exterior. I nearly cried when he and Miss Kenton parted company the first time, and their reunion was heavily laden with missed opportunity and dashed hopes that once again were quite moving.
I was worried that this book would be spoiled by having seen the film many years ago. And while I couldn't help envisioning Stevens just as he was portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, I still found myself immersed in this book as if experiencing the story for the first time. Wonderful, emotional, reading.
What an absolute treasure of a book. Here is one piece of literature that will make you revaluate your life. Have you ever looked back and wondered "what if" or "was that really the right thing to do" or "did I do the best I could"? This story is one man searching for those answers as he looks back on his life. Mr Stevens, throughout the course of this short novel, comes to terms with his inability to have any sort of relationship outside of the professional kind, his utterly blind faith in a man who was not a great as Stevens believed, and the real definition of "dignity". Dignity is not knowing your place. Is it not serving your employer well. Dignity is knowing you made a mistake and being able to own up to it. It is knowing that no, your life may not have turned out how you wanted it to, but still making the best of it. Stevens, a man unable to allow himself any sort of pleasure without somehow relating it to his job as a butler, realizes that his life is a lonely one and the man he served, once assuring himself that he was helping a great man change the world for the better in the only way he could, was in fact a supporter of the Nazis who was one of the biggest players in allowing Hitler to come into as much power as he eventually did.
This book is astounding and heartbreaking. I honestly don't know what else to say in this review because I feel nothing can really come close to the amount of pure, raw emotion found in these pages. Suppressed it may be, as that is what was required of Stevens to be a good butler, you can feel it flowing through every word like and electric current. The antics between Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton had me laughing. The inability of Mr Stevens and his father to express their love for one another had me crying. This is a book I will reread at least once a year. It is a reminder to everyone that mistakes in life are unavoidable but we should never stop living and if we found that somehow we have, it is never too late to begin again.
The aging butler of Darlington Hall, known only as Mr. Stevens, embarks on a five-day “motoring trip” (12) at the invitation of his new American employer. The leisurely pace lends itself easily to personal reflection, and Stevens becomes lost in a contemplation on the years of service which have comprised his life: his unrelentingly rigid commitment to duty; his deference to the gentry who have employed him; and his commitment to “dignity,” which, by his own definition, amounts to a barricade of professional armour never to be removed in the presence of another.
Stevens recalls the events of Darlington Hall in the years preceding WWII, when Lord Darlington was yet alive. He remained loyal to his Lord, despite overwhelming evidence, which escaped none but him, that Darlington was a Nazi sympathizer. And Stevens reminisces of his long working relationship with Miss Kenton, which, but for the impenetrable fortress of his dignity, might have been something more. Haltingly, he begins to question his misguided loyalties. He says of his relationship with Lord Darlington:
“He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but here, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?” (243)
I came to The Remains of the Day by way of Never Let Me Go, which I read last year and loved. I decided I needed to read more Ishiguro, and having long been aware of the literary and film accolades attached to The Remains of the Day, it seemed a logical place to start. It did not disappoint. In fact, Ishiguro is becoming a favourite author.
The Remains of the Day is beautifully written, its quiet musings unforgettable. Stevens, all moral and dignified, and tragic, is as enduring a character as I’ve come across. A must read!
Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall finds himself, for the first time in a long life of service, able to avail himself of a few days away, and ventures on a journey through the English countryside, and a journey down memory lane. In doing so he relates, not only his experiences of his previous years as butler for Lord Darlington, but his ideals and beliefs, his opinions and, more importantly, his reasons behind virtually his entire life’s actions. Plus the difficulties he now encounters in his present role, working for a foreign employer, an American, in what has become, perhaps, a foreign world to one such as him - with changes in duties, like the need to learn how to banter - offer him the chance to contemplate issues and past actions in an entirely different light. And this journey accentuates his desire to portray the quintessential dignity of the English butler to the detriment of all else in his life, even when on holiday.
This is a poignant tale – it is distressing, at times heart-rending, often upsetting and quite emotional. But most of all it is sad. For as Stevens motors slowly through the countryside and narrates his thoughts, and his encounters, the reader subtly travels through the events of his life, and witnesses his subjugation of any personal emotion, or reaction, in order to carry out, in his mind, his primary purpose of serving a great man. And the ability of the author to paint such a moving portrayal of a character, who is difficult to like, to sympathise with, but causes such heartbreak in his inability to mourn his father’s death or acknowledge any personal relationship with the housekeeper, Ms Kenton, accordingly exemplifies the complexities and inconsistencies of such a man.
Overall I am astonished at the author’s skill to visually render, in my mind, such a vivid, realistic image of a British butler whose attitude, language and paradigm are superbly appropriate to the society of the time. This emotive story merits the perseverance and absorption, perhaps required by the reader, to finish the tale; for without doubt, the past, and what remains in this butler's day and age, is a tale worthy of consideration.
We meet the English butler, Stevens, considering the offer of his present employer, Mr. Faraday to take a holiday. Mr. Faraday even offers to allow him the use of “the Ford”, and to “foot the bill for the gas”. Stevens has spent most of his adult life working in one of the great English houses—that of Lord Darlington. After his lordship passed on, the house was purchased by an American, and the butler was part of the package. The place that was owned by and frequented by “true ladies and gentlemen” of the first decades of the 20th century is now almost shut down and staff is reduced to just four, including the butler.
Stevens has been having some difficulty coming to grips with the change in the house since Lord Darlington’s death. Staff was reduced, and Stevens feels that he is not doing his job as well as he should. He finds himself discomfited and disconcerted by his American employer’s attempts to engage him in “bantering—something he does not know how to do. He sets about trying to teach himself to “banter”.
As he contemplates the offer, Stevens begins to reminisce about his life and work since just after the end of World War I. He ruminates on how one would be considered to be a “great butler”. Although he never asserts that he is such a person, it is apparent that he would like to believe that he would qualify as such. In fact, the reader must agree that he was a “great butler”.
Lord Darlington invited statesmen and politically influential men to what he saw as conferences designed to avert war with Germany. Stevens seemed oblivious to what appeared to be his employer's sympathy for the German position as Hitler laid waste to regions of Eastern Europe. He relinquished all independent thought about the world around him in deference to his employer’s perceived position. It is not just that he properly refused to engage in discussion with his lordship’s political visitors; he genuinely did not think about the important questions of the day. Stevens believed that important decisions about war and peace and democracy should be left to those of Lord Darlington’s class. He strove to run the house to always do well by his employer, and succeeded. In doing so, however, he sacrificed what most people would think were the more important aspects of a full life.
Finally, Stevens’ devotion to his work and effort to be a “great butler” precluded any possibility of any real personal relationship—his dying father is tended by the housekeeper while he maintains his post waiting to wait on the great gentlemen having the great discussions. And he vaguely recognizes feelings he has for that very same housekeeper, but sets them aside as he hurries to fulfill his duties.
A simple story, simply written with profound impact.
There is not a single false note in the entire story, which works as both a character study and an examination of the social mores of faded time and place. It is also one of the most delicately and subtly written books I have ever read. Through his portrayal of Stevens, the author allows the reader to consider the ultimate cost we pay for blindly devoting ourselves to the wrong cause. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that richly deserves the numerous awards it has won.
It takes place in Britain in 1956 as Mr. Stevens, the long-time butler of Darlington Hall, takes a road trip through the English countryside. Darlington Hall has recently been sold to an American who has asked Stevens (we never learn his first name) to work with a reduced staff and Stevens is feeling the strain. He decides to combine his vacation with a visit to Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper, to see if she's interested in returning to her position. During the course of his trip, Mr. Stevens considers "certain recollections from the past."
First and foremost, we learn that Stevens has devoted his life to being a great butler, just as his father was--one who possesses "a dignity in keeping with his position." "Dignity has to do crucially with a butler's ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits." (p. 42) "There is one situation and one situation only in which a butler who cares about his dignity may feel free to unburden himself of his role; that is to say, when he is entirely alone." (p. 169) Of course, he is alone on this trip and over the course of the book he starts to shed his role as a butler and you see cracks forming in his perfectly calm facade.
In The New York Times book review from 1989, Kazuo Ishiguro is quoted as saying that he "was interested in the way people come to face truths about themselves." What was so fascinating, and heartbreaking, to me about this book was how you gradually come to realize how Stevens is deceiving himself. He's developed the ability to restrain his emotions to such a degree that he's lost the ability to experience human warmth. One of the things that now unnerves him is the need to master the art of bantering so he can better serve his American employer, a much less formal man than Lord Darlington. By the end of the book, Stevens has faced some, but not all, of the consequences of the path he's taken in life and now must "try to make the best of what remains of [his] day."
There's no way I can really do this book justice. It's one of the best books I've read--funny, sad, well-written--and I can't believe I owned it for almost 20 years before I actually read it! It's a book I got totally immersed in and plan on re-reading. I would highly recommend it and am giving it 5 stars.
This is a beautifully written wry portrait of an aging butler, a man who has carried himself through his professional life with an unflagging dedication to the dignity of the office, and who has paid the emotional price. Ishiguro's sense of irony is pitch-perfect and elegantly wrought. Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton are richly developed characters, created wholly through Mr. Stevens' imperfect and constrained memory of events and conversations. I found myself chuckling with delight at his deadpan delivery while also feeling tremendous sadness at the emotional cost of his choices. As a "Downton Abbey" fan, I occasionally channeled Mr. Carson's voice for that of Stevens, but Miss Kenton is her own character (Emma Thompson notwithstanding). Wonderful and highly recommended.
I am aware that authors can get irritated by readers who start to talk about the film version in tandem with the book - and I have heard Ishiguro admit that it took him a while to reconcile himself to the oft-heard line 'James Ivory's Remains of the Day' - but I also know that the author admires the film a great deal and sees it not just as complementary but as a separate piece of art in its own right; exactly my sentiment.
What Ishiguro does so well is to convey nuance through voice, and that is precisely Hopkins' strength, one of the reasons he was the ideal choice for Stevens. The book, of course, allows much more scope with its use of interior monologue, often to comment on the action that he describes, and which in the film we see played out as it happens. The book structure has Jenkins in the mid-1950s taking a leisurely drive across south-west England to meet up after many years with former housekeeper Miss Kenton (now married), and during the trip reflecting upon his years at Darlington Hall, his relationship with Miss Kenton and with his employer, Lord Darlington. It is a useful, fluid device that gives the author the flexibility to roam where he wants across the intervening years, to give us hints and glimpses of things that Jenkins has not yet fully revealed.
One thing we learn gradually is that Jenkins' employer is a Nazi sympathiser and anti-semite who has been used as a pawn by Hitler's men to try and keep Britain out of the coming World War. Darlington is not an essentially bad man but (like the butler who acts as his apologist) has a very limited world view, distorted by long-held assumptions of class, privilege and tradition. It makes both men myopic in other ways too. The callous dismissal of two faithful female servants who happen to be Jewish is one result of that affliction. For Jenkins, his inability to properly recognize the love he is being offered by Miss Kenton, or to interpret for himself (never mind articulate for her) his own inner feelings, is ultimately disastrous.
'The Remains of the Day' can be seen as a political parable (the unthinking obedience of the British servant to the ruling classes has its parallel in the response of the 'ordinary' Germans to their political masters), or as an elegy on the British class system; but it is most powerful at the level of individual lives, as a love story whose tragedy is that it never got going, whose principals are left, in the remains of the day, alone in their unspoken desperation.
It seemed quite unlikely that I'd be impressed with Mr. Stevens' accounts of his motoring holiday that took him to see the English countryside, so subtly interwoven with his reminiscences of certain instances and occasions during his days as butler to the great Englishman Lord Darlington. Quite frankly I judged the book as a mere simpleton, and was, to say the least, puzzled as to how it won an award as prestigious as the Man Booker Prize.
That was my opinion upon reading the first page.
I would like to admit now, having finished the book, that I could not have been more wrong. I love Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. In fact, it now counts as a favorite.
You see, it really did all lie on the simplicity of the book - a simplicity in writing and narration that hid a fistful of complications, surfacing one by one in the subtle way that Ishiguro must be known for (this being my first book by him). Stevens' motoring adventures across the countryside was inconspicuous enough to have served as a backdrop for his musings and dipping into his past, brought about by a letter from a former houseworker, Miss Keaton, who worked with him during the glory days of Darlington House - glory days that were now marred with gossip against his former employer Lord Darlington, and the role the Englishman played during Hitler's regime.
I was at first, though, torn between merely adoring Stevens and intensely loving him and being on his side, come what may. He talks extensively and highly of being a butler as a serious profession; of the business of bantering, and how he fails miserably at it; of tradition; and, most importantly, of certain memories recalled during his trip - memories that are both honest and unreliable, supposedly painful but were otherwise remembered not because of the pain felt, but by the great accomplishments achieved as a butler during those times - emotional and powerful memories, diminished into mere memorable butlering trivialities. Stevens tells and retells his stories again and again, with facts and their probable implications altered each time; these being seemingly random memories, when so obviously things are not remembered just because. "There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable." Here was a man who was so out of touch with his country - "restricted as I am by my responsibilities in the house" - and himself. He was a sad man, and even he didn't know that about himself, and I loved him for it.
The Remains of the Day is a story of, among other things, nostalgia, regrets, denial, and a lost love. It is a story of how looking back is a dangerous thing, in a way - we try to remember and see faults, and in seeing those faults we are pained. "After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?"
PS. I would like to thank the previous owner of the copy I read, who spared no marginal space in writing copious notes - it is all thanks to you that I was able to realize a love story was involved, even before it was hinted at. Yes, I am quite appalled I was that daft.
Originally posted here.
Essentially the novel is a paean to a Corinthian age of dignity and loyalty to one's employer that possible never really existed. The story is recounted in the nature of an informal doary by an aging Mr Stevens (we never learn his first name), butler at Darlington Hall, who has been allowed the rare luxury of a holiday in the late summer of 1956.
He spends this unaccustomed leisure time driving around the south of England on his way to visit a former colleague Mrs Benn, who as Miss Kenton had been housekeeper at the hall thirty years previously. In the intervening years the two of them have maintained a correspondence. Stevens's interpretation of the most recent letter from Mrs Benn is that her marriage may be unravelling and that she might shortly be looking for employment. His initial motive in visitng her was to ask her if she would consider resuming her old post at Darlington Hall, which is now owned by Mr. Farraday, a wealthy American, and run with a much smaller staff than had been the case in the heyday of the 1930s.
En route to visiting Mrs Benn Stevens indulges in some poignant memories of the 1920s and 1930s when Lord Darligton had been a minor player in political circles, with a particular agenda for rapprochement with Germany. As more memories rise to the surface, one's view of Lord Darlington falls into a sharper, and less favourable perspective.
During these recollections Stevens also speculates on the role of the butler, and what qualities might distinguish a truly great member of that profession. It transpires that Stevens's own father had been a butler, and that in his latter years had served as Stevens' own Under-Butler at Darlington Hall. The formality of relations between father and son are beautifully captured, with Stevens fils only ever addressing his father in the third person.
One of the most beautiful and haunting books I have read for a long time.
Stevens, the butler of Darlington House, has lived a life of emotional restraint, striving for professional perfection and his definition of dignity, never able to show true feelings, not even to himself. His relationship with the housekeeper, Miss Kenton, is often difficult, and although they share some time together each evening, drinking cocoa and consulting on affairs of the house, these meetings are purely for business purposes. Yet behind their professional shield, they appreciate each other's company.
In 1956 the house is bought by an American who is very different from Lord Darlington. He advises his starchy butler to have a few days off, "take the car, I'll foot the bill for gas". Stevens, who often recalls Miss Kenton, set off to visit her, with the hope that she will return to the now much reduced staff of Darlington House - a subconscious yearning for a return to the old days.
Despite Stevens' utterly formal demeanor, this is a touching story of great sensitivity. As he drives through the English countryside, Stevens' narrative gradually draws a picture of dedication, duty and undivided loyalty for Lord Darlington. However, his meditative journey also uncovers his late employer's prejudice, treasonable activities, and infamous end. Such dishonour could be viewed as reflecting on a dedicated servant. Only late in the story does one realize the significance of an early exchange when Stevens denied having been employed by Lord Darlington.
Linger over the beautiful prose and allow the intricacies of the story to unfold. Savour the flawless skill that only an author of genius can produce. You will forever be affected by Stevens.
I mention this only in passing.
The Remains of the Day is beautifully crafted, it’s a story that rewards scrutiny from several different angles. When first published it was taken as a condemnation of the right, but I think what it’s saying is that political leaders are deeply flawed and their every move needs watching. In fact, the only time the book breaks the fourth wall and the protagonist addresses the reader directly is in the couple of instances where he says that people can’t hope to know enough to lead, or aspire to great things on the world’s stage, and we need to pays our nickels and takes our chances. Ishiguro doesn’t think this at all.
The story is pretty simple- a large country estate, home to one of Britain’s leading families, is sold to an American- it’s the Norman Rockwell Invasion. The house’s butler, Mr. Stevens, gets a letter from the old housekeeper that seems to hint that she’d like to return. Stevens sets out on a motor journey through the southern counties to visit her and, if she’s open to it, offer her a job. The day he sets out is the first day Darlington Hall has been empty since it was built over 200 years ago.
There’s a mystic bit to start- a rustic points Stevens to a beauty spot where he sees the soul of England in the countryside. During the ride, Stevens reflects on his life in service to Lord Darlington, a central figure between the wars.
Remains has been called sad, and it is, or can be, profoundly sad in some passages. But it’s more the sadness of melancholy, leavened with sweetness, rather than the crushing sadness of depression. Ishiguro gives the reader hope, even if he identifies with Stevens, that respite is available and people come together to make merry when the sun sets. (The end of the book takes place on an amusement pier and is really beautiful.)
The book’s theme seems to me to be the falling away of the old order, based on duty and sportsmanship, and the rise of the professional man and self interest. Ishiguro seems to really hate the professional man. Stevens loses the girl because he forces himself to act professionally at all times. An American senator is revealed to be a dishonorable lout then praises rise of professionalism in the US.
Ishiguro gives the reader an out, but he condemns Stevens at the end, who he sits on a bench on the pier, drying his eyes over his lost life and steeling himself to improve his bantering skills. Maybe the book needed a martyr.
Nothing can penetrate the butler's uniform Mr. Stevens has armored himself with. We beign to wonder if there is a real Mr. Stevens with genuine emotions and a will of his own, because his whole being seems swallowed up in the greater role of serving at Darlington Hall.
This is a brilliant, well-written novel of manners. A portrait of an isolated man, totally unable to connect and open up - a warning example of conformaty and the danger of hiding behind a mask and not standing up for what is right. We truly feel sorry for him - but also a good insight into the costs many had to pay as servants in those days.
When Miss Kensington begin working at Darlington Hall as a housemaid she challenges Mr. Stevens strict protocol and reserved behaviour. She's trying to poke inside the armour. And we begin to sense some minor cracks.
Some scenes are very chilling because of the unemotional way Mr. Stevens narrates them. For example when he's busy attending the guests while his father is dying, or the clashes with Miss Kensington. And chilling the way he defends himself and rarely admits anything wrong in his own behavior. But then - isn't there something of Mr. Stevens in a lot of us? Our masks? Our identity in family and on the job? A lot to think about.
I've seen the movie adaptation with Anthony Hopkins several times - and I got a little more sympathy with Mr. Stevens listening to the audiobook. Brilliantly narrated by Dominic West.
Now that I've said that, let me say that you SHOULD read this book. It's a great book with an interesting plot and is well-written. Just don't expect to be swept away or cry big buckets of tears.
To do all this in just around 250 pages is also a testament to the author's abilities. While the simplicity of the story necessarily means that it may not have you on the edge of the seat reading as quickly as possible, neither does it seem to have a dull moment in which your attention drifts. That was my experience, at least. Fittingly for an england-based novel, I would perhaps compare it to a cup of tea: something to be savored and contemplated gently as opposed to guzzled down.
Recommended highly as an armchair book on a cold rainy day under a cozy blanket.
The book: The first thing I noticed was the Dickensian nature of the prose, in that it takes this narrator, a butler in a grand old English house, takes forever to make a point, is very clear, eventually, in what he wishes to convey, and every syllable is a delight. I'm sure this book has been reviewed ad nauseum so I'll limit my observations. Stevens is an endearing character from the inside, altho he must seem awfully reserved and detached from the outside. The sole -- and I mean sole -- focus of his life is to perfectly embody the ideal butler. The book is about the repercussions of that, especially to one's (as he would put it) personal life. I was surprised to find it humorous in places and enjoyed Stevens' view of his role, as support to Lord Darlington, in major political events of the 1920s through 40s. I'm looking forward to renting the DVD very, very soon.
Like Never Let Me Go, this novel left me with a feeling of extreme discomfort and the impression that it would stick in my head for a long, long time. Ishiguro does chilling very well, because he doesn't just make the ordinary chilling; he imagines an ordinariness that is so self-effacing that we plunge deep below the surface only to find--more surface.
In The Remains of the Day he shows us Mr. Stevens, a man who so perfectly inhabits the role of butler to a great man that there is simply nothing else of him left. Every thought is made subject to his notions of being the perfect butler, and similarly every emotion; in striving to preserve perfect dignity, he screens off the love that's within his reach, all affection, all curiosity and all the bitterness that he should properly feel in the realization that his late employer was not the great man Stevens thought he was, but simply a pawn in the hands of the powerful.
As with Never Let Me Go, I was struck by two things: the long, rambling passages detailing the main character's obsessions, and the feeling of deep unease that began to grow inside me almost on page 1. And I can see that the two things are linked; by allowing the reader into the minutiae of everyday preoccupations, Ishiguro brings us into the character's very soul and we discover that there is nothing there, or perhaps only a tiny, shriveled thing mewling away blindly in the darkness. It's horrifying because it could be us. How often have we turned away from facts or events because they are none of our business? Because we wish to concentrate on what we believe is our main purpose in life? And supposing we're wrong about that purpose?
I can't say I liked this short novel. But I'm pretty sure I'm going to re-read it one day.
One thing I wasn't expecting was to laugh. Stevens' musings on the thorny question of bantering in the opening chapters had me grinning hugely ... and yet, his musings on the same topic at the end, in the literal and metaphorical evening were ... excuse me, but would you happen to have a tissue handy? So kind. Touch of hayfever, I fancy.
(I must see the film).