Remains of the Day
Published: 2018-03-29 . Back to ≈

What Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel has to say about the predicaments of modern democracy.

“The Remains of the Day” is a book about a butler. Yes, a butler.

For Americans, the recognition that one might write a book about a butler as opposed to say, Elizabeth Bennet, poses an interesting question: When we Americans read Jane Austin or watch period dramas set around the time of Ishiguro’s novel, are we aware that these stories often adopt the perspective of landed gentry occupying a strata of society very different from that which working-class Americans inhabit? Maybe not always. Do we ever consider that we ought to identify more with the butler–a professional role of great respect and responsibility–or his underlings, than with the typical protagonists? Probably not.

“The Remains of the Day” forces the reader to come to terms with these considerations. Indeed, given the opportunity to view English nobility from the perspective of a professional, we quickly come to see that, if anything, we would be more outsiders to the distinguished halls of Darlington House than the butler, Mr. Stevens, who hovers on the fringes of gatherings seeking hardly to be noticed. So Mr. Stevens’ vantage point should be of interest to us.

What is perhaps most powerful and fascinating about this vantage point is how bizarre certain ideas come to appear when viewed it–particularly, ideas about democracy that were modern to British society at the time of the novel and which Americans typically take for granted.

At the peak of his career, Mr. Stevens is employed in the service of a Lord Darlington, a gentlemen with the education, leisure, and sense of responsibility to spend his days and nights in discussions and deliberations about various issues of policy and international affairs, which evidently involve a great deal of complexity and nuance. At one point, Mr. Stevens is called into the company of Lord Darlington and his evening guests and asked a battery of detailed questions pertaining to certain nuances of international affairs at the time: Whether Mr. Stevens has particular thoughts regarding the questions is not made clear, as Mr. Stevens considers it strictly outside of his professional duty to voice opinions on such matters and refuses to supply an opinion. But what we see in the novel of Mr. Stevens life, the constant busyness and task saturation mirroring that of many of our own lives, we hardly expect him to have a well-developed perspective on any matter of policy of equal stature to that of the gentlemen who make it their business to constantly debate and refine their ideas on these affairs. One is somewhat inclined to side with the gentleman who invited Mr. Stevens to participate in his ruse: “You see, gentlemen, our man here is ‘unable to assist us in these matters.’ And yet, we still persist with the notion that this nation’s decisions be left in the hands of our good man here and to a few million others like him. Is it any wonder, saddled as we are with our present parliamentary system, that we are unable to find a solution to our many difficulties?”

Ironically, it is actually these very same gentlemen who are also criticized for being amateurs on the political scene, operating severely out of their depth. In fact, Lord Darlington is ultimately found to have waged a well-intentioned but misguided campaign which proves instrumental in Hitler’s duping of Europe. With his mind steeping in Lord Darlington’s tragic folly, Mr. Stevens encounters the people of Moscombe, who hold “strong opinions on all manner of great affairs,” or at least feel that they ought to. “We’ve all got strong opinions here, and it’s our responsibility to get them heard.” His private response is one that few would voice in America, but it clearly flows from his experience:

“Even so, taken on their own terms, his statements were, surly, far too idealistic, far too theoretical, to deserve respect. Up to a point, no doubt, there is some truth in what he says: in a country such as ours, people may indeed have a certain duty to think about great affairs and form their own opinions. But life being what it is, how can ordinary people truly be expected to have ‘strong opinions’ on all manner of things–as Mr. Harry Smith rather fancifully claims the villagers here do? And not only are these expectations unrealistic, I rather doubt if they are even desirable. There is, after all, a real limit to how much ordinary people can learn and know, and to demand that each and every one of them contribute ‘strong opinions’ to the great debates of the nation cannot, surely, be wise. It is, in any case, absurd that anyone should presume to define a person’s ‘dignity’ in these terms.”

Who can deny the reasonableness of these words? How many modern people honestly have the time to be well-informed on “of the the great matters of our day.” More than merely memorizing the talking points of a favorite commentator, how many people have the time to seek out first-hand sources on something like, say climate change. To actually read the reports published by the IPCC and weigh the merit of the claims against other arguments and analyses of the data. Obviously, hardly anyone. Those who chose to spend the time doing the leg-work needed to warrant a ‘strong’ opinion on something will typically find the the most immediate impact of their efforts is rather a sobering of their opinion, as it becomes obvious the level of expertise required to parse through the arguments, methodologies, and results (Incidentally, this isn’t just true for issues of an overtly scientific character.) In all events, any time spent analyzing one issue will mean time taken away from others. Realistically, given our everyday commitments, most of us would be honest to admit that we don’t have the bandwidth to approach more than a few closely related issues in this manner. In the end, it seems we have no choice but to defer to expertise on most such judgments.

Yet the novel offers another possible response to this situation. If even the Lord Darlingtons of society can be so misled, why should their judgments be of any greater weight than mine? Mr. Stevens can’t help but feel the weight of this question as the novel reaches its close.

The boundaries observed by Mr. Stevens in his quest for the “dignity in keeping with his profession” keep him from engaging from not only political discourse, but even anything resembling a personal relationship, even with his own father. Perhaps is is the encounter with Miss Kenton and the inescapable conclusion–that his extreme  restraint has cost him a fulfilling, lifelong, romantic relationship–which finally causes Mr. Stevens to see his career in a different light. His final reflections tend toward the question of whether he can truly consider himself a great butler in spite of Lord Darlington’s failings. Were there not many occasions where he might conceivably have altered the course of events simply by offering a trusted opinion, however unqualified? Was his perspective so irrelevant that he bore no responsibility to push back against racial discrimination or give attention to the assertion by certain visitors that Lord Darlington was being manipulated?

Having lived a life of such commitment to the principles which Mr. Stevens defends over the course of the novel, the weight of these questions seems to be more than he can bear for long, preferring to focus on making the best of the time that remains to him.

For the rest of us, the novel is a welcomed gut-check concerning assumptions about our society that we might never otherwise think to question.