‘Live while you can; it’s a mistake not to.’
-Henry James, The Ambassadors
Henry James was born in America, Kazuo Ishiguro in Japan a century later. Both permanent expatriates lived in England and became British citizens, but wrote about English habits, manners and customs from a perceptive outsider’s point of view. Above all James is interested in character: how people succeed or fail to live a moral life, and how social codes operate in individual lives. The Remains of the Day (1989), Ishiguro’s contemporary masterpiece, creates a character and setting in the Jamesian tradition.
Critics have suggested that Ishiguro’s handling of formal speech and conduct derives from his Japanese cultural inheritance. But his narrator, the butler Stevens, reveals his character through studiously formal, mannered and periphrastic speech that is more Jamesian than Japanese. Like James, Ishiguro produces his ironic effects through a gradual revelation of character and theme. In a hauntingly original style and voice, Stevens painstakingly constructs his own self-image, just as he perfects his performance as a butler. But Ishiguro’s thoroughly Jamesian character suffers from the self he has created.
One important difference between James and Ishiguro, however, is that while James wrote about contemporary life, Ishiguro writes a historical novel, set in a great house in the period between the two World Wars. Instead of focusing on the wealthy and aristocratic, Ishiguro’s main characters come from the servant class. While Stevens wrestles with his personal difficulties, he is also caught in a historical process. His employer, Lord Darlington, hopes to return to the traditional world as it was before the Great War, but political events overtake him and ultimately destroy his reputation and his way of life. Stevens, trained to keep up appearances, maintain dignity and propriety, and correctly perform minutely detailed duties, also strives to support the old order. As a butler he is a go-between, mediating between the upstairs and downstairs life of the house, an awkward role which normally leads to a double life. But Stevens identifies entirely with his master and wilfully deprives himself of an emotional and moral life that is distinct from his employer’s interests.
One of Henry James’s central themes is the hard necessity of personal sacrifice inherent in the artist’s life. In The Lesson of the Master (1888), for example, he portrays the inevitable conflict between family life and the pursuit of art, a higher calling that demands total dedication and solitude. In this story the great writer Henry St. George explains to the young aspirant Paul Overt that the emotional demands of marriage interfere with the sacrificial quest for artistic perfection, and that a man endangers his work if he devotes himself to personal rather than to intellectual passion:
‘One’s children interfere with perfection. One’s wife
interferes. Marriage interferes.’
‘You think, then, the artist shouldn’t marry?’
‘He does so at his peril – he does so at his cost.’
‘Not even when his wife’s in sympathy with his work?’
‘She never is – she can’t be! Women haven’t a conception
of such things.’
‘Are there no women who really understand – who can take
part in a sacrifice?’
‘How can they take part? They themselves are the
The older man finally renounces his own sacrificial vow and marries the young woman he has urged his disciple to abandon. Overt is the loser and St. George seems to have won, but as his work deteriorates, he ceases to count as a writer and the strict principle of sacrifice remains valid.
Stevens is Ishiguro’s artist, who constantly and deliberately refuses to engage with life while he pursues perfection in his role as a servant. He practices various forms of renunciation: of friendship and love, the expression of feeling and individual ideas, moral and political responsibility. Stevens makes these sacrifices for his profession and employer, but fails to realise that his sacrifice has been in vain. By portraying events through Stevens’s first-person narrative, Ishiguro reveals the ironies that flow from his limited perceptions. The dominant, tragic theme of The Remains of the Day, adopted from James, is the wasted existence and the unlived life.
Stevens’s opening sentence sets the tone of the entire novel: ‘It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.’ This retrospective journey, undertaken many years after the main action has taken place, frames the story and shapes his recital. The suggestively Jamesian American abroad, the wealthy bachelor Mr. Farraday, is the current owner of Darlington Hall. Describing their relations, Stevens ventures to observe, in this periodic sentence, ‘my new employer in several other instances had had occasion to call upon such qualities as it may be my good fortune to possess and found them to be, I would venture, dependable.’
Stevens’s idiosyncratic speech is one of the most impressive achievements of the novel. Though apparently lucid, it is artificial, drained of emotion and utterly lacking in spontaneity, designed for evasion, deception and disguise. He usually employs elaborate Latinate verbiage instead of simpler Anglo-Saxon speech: ‘partake’, not ‘eat’; ‘costume’, not ‘clothes’; ‘peruse’, not ‘read’; ‘commenced’, not ‘began’; ‘made my exit’, not ‘left’; ‘unseen complication’, not ‘accident’; ‘squeezed my person’, not ‘slid myself’; ‘implements at hand’, not ‘dust rags.’ He always puts commonplace, colloquial and slangy phrases in quotation marks in order to dissociate himself from ordinary speech, and carefully attributes them to others.
Stevens tries to plan everything he says beforehand, and when taken by surprise becomes either silent or mendacious. When the housekeeper, Miss Kenton, teasingly forces him to disclose the contents of the trashy romance he is reading, he defensively but absurdly claims it is a model for his ornate speech and attempt at self-improvement: ‘a sentimental love story … was an extremely efficient way to maintain and develop one’s command of the English language.’ Stevens has learned his diction from his employer, Lord Darlington, and imitates him as if he were speaking a foreign tongue. He has, in fact, bewitched his mind through language. Sometimes he speaks in perfectly elegant iambic pentameter, as when he quotes Kenton, recalling a servant retracing his steps as if ‘to find some precious jewel he had dropped there.’ Later on, when he is away from Darlington and travelling by car, his elaborately constructed persona fails to convince another servant, a batman still employed by his wartime colonel. The man tells Stevens, ‘Couldn’t make you out for a while, see, ’cause you talk almost like a gentleman.’
In contrast to his typical speech, Stevens has recently attempted to adopt a lighthearted, humorous bantering, a teasing badinage, which he believes his new employer expects of him. (Ishiguro places excessive emphasis on this comical notion, mentioning it, at the beginning and end of the novel, more than thirty times.) When Farraday essays a slightly risqué jest, Stevens either does not comprehend the witticism or fails to find it amusing. Nevertheless, he ‘endeavoured to smile appropriately.’ When he launches his own banter, it falls noticeably flat. He remarks that his small but polite audience, ‘noticing the mirthful expression on my face, broke into a laugh, though in a somewhat bemused fashion.’ Stevens is all business and no banter. His inability to engage in playful raillery reveals his failure to connect with other people.
As the book progresses and he muses over the past, Stevens gains occasional insight into his own lack of insight and grasps glimmers of truth after a lifetime of self-deception. Finally, he must face reality and admit, like a character in Henry James, that he has never been fully alive. Stevens’s external life conceals an inner truth that is disguised by deceit. In ‘Lady with Lapdog’ (1899), Anton Chekhov also described the true character and unlived life of a man like Stevens:
He led a double life: one for all who were interested to see, full of conventional truth and conventional deception … and another which went on in secret …. Everything that was important, interesting, essential, everything about which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made up the quintessence of his life, went on in secret; while everything that was a lie, everything that was merely the husk in which he hid himself to conceal the truth … all that happened in the sight of all.
Stevens has been brought up to follow the profession and uphold the values of his elderly father, who works under him in Darlington Hall. His father’s favourite story concerns an admirable butler in India who coolly informed his employer, ‘I’m very sorry, sir, but there appears to be a tiger in the dining room. Perhaps you will permit the twelve-bores to be used?’ Shortly afterwards, the guests heard three gun shots and the butler announced, ‘Dinner will be served at the usual time and I am pleased to say there will be no discernible traces left of the recent occurrence by that time.’
But this quaint story belongs in the colonial past. The old social order in Britain is changing, and his father’s disastrous fall, when carrying a heavily laden tea tray into the garden, symbolises the collapse of the British old order before World War Two. Kenton cannot forbear mentioning, with one of Stevens’s own locutions, that the large drop at the end of father’s nose, dangling over the soup bowls when he serves at table, would not be ‘a great stimulant to appetite.’ Mr. Stevens senior, his duties curtailed and dignity destroyed, now sadly pushes a trolley filled with mops and brooms – a dire warning of Stevens’s future fate. When he suffers a severe stroke and tries to have what may well be their final, confessional conversation, Stevens cuts him off. Father says, in clipped phrases, ‘I’m proud of you. A good son. I hope I’ve been a good father to you. I suppose I haven’t.’ Always acting in character, Stevens replies, ‘I’m afraid we’re extremely busy now, but we can talk again in the morning.’ He abandons his sick father to attend to the sore feet of M. Dupont, an important French guest.
Refraining, as always, from unseemly displays of emotion, Stevens suppresses his feelings for his dying father. When informed that his father has died, he once again excuses himself to tend to the ever complaining Frenchman and explains, ‘This is most distressing. Nevertheless, I must return downstairs … I know my father would have wished me to carry on just now.’ Similarly, and with more fatal consequences, he fails to console Kenton when she tells him that her aunt has died. Fearing that she will express her feelings and may even be crying, he does not return to her room to make good the omission. He offers merely pro forma congratulations when Kenton informs him that she has accepted Mr. Benn’s proposal of marriage – a decision that will have a profound effect on his own life.
The strict hierarchy among the servants mirrors the rigid English class system. The young servants live in communal dormitories and serve the older ones, who have their own rooms; and there is a strong contrast between father’s stark, narrow room and Stevens’s austere but more comfortable quarters. Stevens, who is not awarded a first name, merges his own identity with Lord Darlington’s and proudly notes that he possesses a number of his employer’s splendid suits that fit him perfectly. His bantering definition of dignity ‘comes down to not removing one’s clothing in public’ and never revealing one’s true identity.
Stevens’s duties are confined to the household and he does not serve as valet to Darlington. Kenton supervises the female servants and does not serve as nanny or governess. So they are frequently thrown together, both professionally and personally. Ishiguro portrays Stevens’s relations with Kenton with Jamesian subtlety. Emotionally starved, though more self-aware than he is, she tries to arouse his romantic feelings. Resenting her intrusion into his private domain, Stevens ungallantly refuses the flowers she kindly brings to brighten his quarters. When he criticises her for addressing his father as William, she adopts, with considerable irony, his own icy formality, which suggests their increasingly strained relations: ‘I am most indebted to you for your advice, Mr. Stevens. So do please tell me, just what marvellous things I might learn from observing your father?’ When their connection becomes even more tense, she insists they communicate only in writing; after they’ve returned to normal speech, he himself suggests they revert to written messages. He also mistakenly discontinues their congenial, though still strictly formal, evening cups of cocoa in her parlour. The breakdown of their personal relations suggests, in a small but significant way, the breakdown of international relations in the years leading up to World War Two.
The young housemaid Lisa, whom Kenton hired despite Stevens’s serious misgivings, disappoints her by running off with the footman. Kenton says Lisa has thrown away a promising career, ‘all for nothing.’ But as Lisa sweetly explains, sounding an important theme in the novel, ‘we have love and … we’ve got one another, that’s all anyone can ever want.’ When Kenton realises that Stevens will never respond to her emotional overtures or cheeky teasing, she follows Lisa’s example and abandons her position as housekeeper, seizes the chance to love and marries Mr. Benn.
Mrs. Benn’s ambiguous letter, after an absence of more than twenty years, suggests that her marriage has come to an end. It raises Stevens’s hope that she might solve his staff problems by returning to Darlington Hall and give him another opportunity to establish a meaningful life with her. A few hints suggest that Stevens has some chinks in his emotional armour. At the beginning of the novel, Farraday guesses that Stevens might actually have ‘a lady-friend. And at your age.’ When Kenton forces him to show her the supposedly racy book he has been reading during his rare moments of leisure, it turns out to be a sentimental story of ‘ladies and gentlemen who fall in love and [unlike Stevens] express their feelings for each other.’ Frustrated by Stevens’s unresponsive coldness, Kenton – like Daisy Miller with Winterbourne – tries to break his defensive carapace and confront him with the truth by asking: ‘why do you always have to pretend? … Can it be that our Mr. Stevens is flesh and blood after all and cannot fully trust himself … [with] pretty girls being on the staff?’
The possibility of recapturing Mrs. Benn sets the plot in motion as Stevens, encouraged by Farraday, drives his employer’s splendid Ford automobile to visit her. He is guided on this journey by Jane Symons’s The Wonder of England, a fictional version of Nikolaus Pevsner’s The Buildings of England (1951-74). Traveling beyond his previously constricted boundaries, Stevens commences at Darlington Hall, Oxfordshire, and drives to Salisbury, Wiltshire; the fictional village, Mortimer’s Pond, Dorset; Taunton, Somerset; a village near Tavistock, Devon and another village near Halston, Cornwall. He then turns back toward home and travels east to Weymouth, Dorset.
Stevens’s hermetic existence in Darlington Hall has enabled him to retreat from reality and exercise absolute control over his own small world. His car journey – which puts him into contact with ordinary people and stimulates him to reflect on the past – seems to be modeled on the reflective car trip that Leo Colston takes in L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953) – another Proustian à la recherche du temps perdu. Hartley’s novel, like Ishiguro’s, is a first-person narrative in which an elderly man recalls the events of the past in a great country house that had had a profound influence on his life. Stevens’s journey shows that he still stands on his false concept of dignity and moves from self-deception to the deception of others. To avoid what he calls embarrassing ‘unpleasantness’ and criticism of Lord Darlington, Stevens tells both the colonel’s batman and Farraday’s guest Mrs. Wakefield that he had never been employed by the now disgraced Darlington. He even claims that it was his good fortune ‘to have consorted not just with Mr. Churchill, but with many other great leaders and men of influence.’ He also tries, with his educated speech, fine clothing and an impressive vehicle, to pass himself off as a dignified gentleman. But he is unmasked and recognised as a butler by the batman and as some sort of manservant by Dr. Carlisle, who gives him a lift in the Devon village when he absentmindedly runs out of petrol.
Stevens begins his momentous journey by traveling west, toward the fading day and the last of the light, toward sunset and death, all of which evoke the title of the novel, The Remains of the Day: the twilight years of life and last chance to live. During his disappointing encounter with Mrs. Benn, the sun turns to rain and darkens the mood. In a telling (and perhaps encouraging) phrase of her letter, Mrs. Benn had confessed that ‘the rest of my life stretches out like an emptiness before me.’ When Stevens finally meets her, he discovers that he has misread her letter and deceived himself. She’s gone back to her husband, a kind steady man whom she’s grown to love, their daughter is pregnant and she wants to stay near her new grandchild. She has settled for the best she could get, which is better than nothing, and has no intention of returning to her constricted life in Darlington Hall. After hearing this sad news, Stevens experiences a rare moment of truth, feels ‘a certain degree of sorrow,’ and for the first and only time in the novel expresses his deepest feelings: ‘Indeed – why should I not admit it? – at that moment, my heart was breaking.’
The political history of Lord Darlington, recollected by Stevens on his momentous car journey, runs parallel to his own personal life. He has no wife or children, and his lack of family ties allows him to form a closer relationship with the faithful Stevens. To intensify Darlington’s isolation, his closest German friend, Karl-Heinz Bremann, commits suicide and his closest English friend, Sir David Cardinal, dies in a riding accident. (Like Christopher Tietjens in Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End (1924-28) and Tony Last in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1934), Darlington is the last of his line.) After his death his great house, reduced to a skeletal staff, is sold by his heirs to Farraday, a wealthy American. Desperately trying to maintain the decent values of a world that’s already been lost, Darlington is a sentimental idealist, devoted to an outworn code, whose traditional adherence to chivalric values proves catastrophic.
For all his idealism and charm, Darlington has personal as well as political faults. He cannot fulfil Sir David’s request to inform his young son Reginald, who is engaged to be married, about the facts of life. Though Stevens’s sexual experience is as limited as Darlington’s, his employer asks him to deal with this delicate matter. In two fine comic scenes that satirise English sexual repression, Stevens tries to tell Reginald that ‘ladies and gentlemen differ in several key respects,’ but fails to come to the point. When Farraday banters with him about having a lady-friend, Stevens insists that Darlington would never have placed him in such an embarrassing situation. But Darlington has, in fact, embarrassed Stevens in a far worse way, by allowing his friends to ask him baffling political and economic questions, and laugh at him when he cannot possibly know the answers to these complex issues. Darlington later apologises for subjecting Stevens to that dreadful ordeal, but he clearly intends this public humiliation to demonstrate his anti-democratic belief that ordinary people have neither the ability nor the right to make political decisions.
More grievously, Darlington, while involved with Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Fascists, insists on dismissing his two Jewish maids, who have done excellent work. He justifies this appalling decision by stating, ‘we have no choice. There’s the safety and well-being of my guests to consider’ – though the timid maids pose no conceivable threat to his guests. The anti-Semitic firing of the maids, which brings the politics of the 1930s from the drawing room to the servants’s quarters, provokes the most intense conflict between Stevens and Kenton. As always, Stevens suppresses his feelings, defends Darlington’s decision and carries out his lordship’s instructions. But getting rid of the Jews by blindly following orders recalls Adolf Eichmann’s pathetic defense at his trial in Jerusalem. Kenton, furious at the injustice, threatens to resign, but has no place to go and admits she is too cowardly to carry out her threat. In any case, after the maids are fired, her principled resignation would have no practical effect. Stevens later calls the whole incident a terrible misunderstanding and enrages Kenton by falsely claiming that he was equally distressed by the unfortunate episode. Later on, Darlington admits that he was wrong and Stevens, seizing the upper hand, taunts Kenton for her failure to resign.
Darlington’s political ideas are determined by his egoistic personal feelings, his misguided sense of honour and his belief that the victor must treat his defeated foe decently. He had told Herr Bremann, ‘Look here, we’re enemies now and I’ll fight you with all I’ve got. But when this wretched business is over, we shan’t have to be enemies any more and we’ll have a drink together. Wretched thing is, this [Versailles] treaty is making a liar out of me …. I told him we wouldn’t be enemies once it was all over.’ Darlington takes up John Maynard Keynes’s persuasive ideas in The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), which argued that Germany had been treated with unjust severity at Versailles (an idea that formed a major part of Hitler’s political platform) and that more generous peace terms would enable its ruined economy to recover. The calamitous political events in post-war Germany substantiated Keynes’s argument. The Kaiser had been forced to abdicate and flee into exile after the military defeat in 1918, when the monarchy became a republic. Oswald Spengler published his pessimistic and ominous The Decline of the West, in two volumes, in 1918 and 1923. In 1919 the idealistic but short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic collapsed, and the Spartacist-Communist revolutionaries, Rosa Luxemberg and Karl Liebknecht, were murdered. The distinguished German-Jewish foreign minister, Walther Rathenau, was assassinated in 1922. In 1923 Hitler staged the abortive beer-hall putsch in Munich, his first violent bid for power, and the French occupied the industrial heartland of the Ruhr after Germany had failed to pay war reparations. The Reichsbank collapsed, causing a severe economic crisis, marked by mass unemployment and wild currency inflation, which wiped out the lifetime savings of the middle class.
In March 1923, just after these catastrophic events, Darlington organises the first political conference at his country estate. It is held, significantly, between the Genoa Conference of 1922, which tried to rebuild the German economy after the war, and the Locarno Conference of 1925, which attempted to secure post-war borders and establish normal relations with Weimar Germany. Darlington, naïve as always, does not understand why the French continue to hate Germany after the war while Englishmen like himself have forgiven them. The answer, though not provided in the novel, is clear. The French, defeated by the Germans (and their allies) in the Napoleonic Wars and the Franco-Prussian War, had been terrified by German unification in 1870 and by the meteoric rise of Prussian power under Bismarck. France was invaded again in World War One, and most battles on the Western front were fought on French soil. France had also suffered the greatest number of casualties: a devastating 1,350,000 dead and 4,260,000 wounded. They naturally, even vengefully, demanded compensation for their losses with new territory and substantial reparations.
The American Senator Lewis makes the most challenging and prophetic speech at the conference. Defying the prevailing opinion of the handpicked delegates, he frankly calls Darlington and his supporters ‘just a bunch of naïve dreamers.’ He admits that Darlington is ‘decent, honest and well-meaning,’ but calls him an ‘amateur.’ Darlington had argued that ordinary people have no ability or right to make political decisions. Turning this argument upside down, Lewis argues that Darlington’s faction has no business meddling ‘in matters they don’t understand …. You here in Europe need professionals to run your affairs. If you don’t realise that soon you’re headed for disaster.’
The second conference, which takes place in 1936, combines real historical figures – the British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax and the German ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop – with the fictional Lord Darlington and his cronies. Darlington’s greatest fault is that he has exactly the same attitude toward Germany in 1936, three years after Hitler took power, as he had in 1923. In the early 1920s his views about the unfairly harsh Versailles Treaty had some validity; in the late 1930s he has become a dangerous, even treacherous pro-Nazi sympathiser. Darlington asserts that ‘democracy is something for a bygone era. The world’s far too complicated a place now for universal suffrage …. Look at Germany and Italy, Stevens. See what strong leadership can do if it’s allowed to act.’
Reginald Cardinal, now an ambitious political journalist who’s got wind of the secret conference, turns up unexpectedly at Darlington Hall to find out what is going on and scoop his rivals. He tries to tell Stevens what is actually happening behind closed doors at that very moment. Echoing Lewis’s speech at the first conference, Reginald calls Darlington ‘a bungling amateur’ and insists that ‘he is out of his depth … His lordship is being made a fool of.’ Cardinal mentions the crucial events that took place in Germany in 1936: the Rally in Nuremberg, the Olympic Games in Berlin and the German reoccupation of the Rhineland, as well as the brief reign that year of the pro-Nazi, English King Edward VIII. He then forcefully concludes, ‘Over the last few years, his lordship has probably been the single most useful pawn Herr Hitler has had in this country for his propaganda tricks.’ Destined to be killed in Belgium in World War Two, Reginald becomes the indirect victim of his godfather’s political activities.
Despite this overwhelming evidence, Stevens stays safely within his protective shell. After a lifetime of self-deception, he can only survive by continuing to deceive himself. He has formed an ideal conception of Darlington’s character and beliefs, and remains adamantly loyal to his lordship. He believes that Darlington is admirable and wise, honourable and courageous, that he has great moral stature and is nobly helping to further the progress of humanity. Stevens affirms, after observing the momentous affairs of the conference, that he feels uplifted by a ‘sense of triumph.’ Harry Smith, whom Stevens met in a Devon village, had stood up for the democratic rights of all free-born Englishmen. Stevens fails to uphold those rights by refusing to express his own ideas and by refusing to condemn the ideas of Lord Darlington.
Though he later concedes that Darlington ‘chose a certain path in life [which] proved to be a misguided one’ and that his good name was destroyed forever when he lost a post-war libel suit against a newspaper, Stevens clings to his illusions. He refuses to admit that his thirty-five years as a devoted butler have been tragically wasted and declares that Darlington ‘was a truly good man at heart, a gentleman through and through, and one I am today proud to have given my best years of service to.’
Both James and Ishiguro portray the risk of renunciation. In James’s artist stories, the hero risks giving up his emotional life for what may be a total failure. In Ishiguro’s novel, Stevens risks his happiness and individual freedom by identifying himself so completely with Darlington. He believes that professional ‘prestige lay most significantly in the moral worth of one’s employer.’ But Darlington’s fatal mistake makes Stevens’s sacrifice seem meaningless. His intellectual failure to recognise Darlington’s pro-Nazi appeasement complements his emotional failure to respond to Kenton’s overtures and to recapture her on his trip to the West Country. Stevens’s self-effacing Jamesian restraint has killed the vital core in his life.