The Remains of the Day
Video Length 1:01
Who Should Read It
Fans of the TV show Downton Abbey who wish for a more melancholic perspective from an aging butler.
Why Should We Read It
This novel is an excellent character study of someone pursuing professional greatness at great personal cost.
What Will We Learn
We will glimpse what a life worth living might look like, and what a life worth living probably won't look like.
"...Mr. Ishiguro's novel is a much more intimate portrait of one aging butler..."
It was only eight years ago in 2010 when the historical drama Downton Abbey first aired on television and took the world by storm. Spanning 13 years from 1912 through 1925, the show introduced to modern audiences the bygone world of a gilded British aristocratic family and their servants. It was one of the few shows that I faithfully followed for a time. What most fascinated me was the interplay between honor and duty across class lines. Despite living worlds apart, the lives of nobility and servants were inseparably intertwined in this show, with the consequences of any individual's actions reverberating into the next social class for better or for worse. Kazuo Ishiguro's 1989 historical novel The Remains of the Day is cut from the same cloth as Downton Abbey. Unlike Downton Abbey's expansive scope, Mr. Ishiguro's novel is a much more intimate portrait of one aging butler embarking on a 6-day car trip in 1956 on behalf of a new employer.
"Dignity was the penultimate goal for any serious butler, but it was particularly difficult to achieve because no one in the profession could ever agree on what “dignity” entailed."
The protagonist and first-person narrator of this novel, simply named Stevens, was the trusted head butler of Darlington Hall for decades. Some years after Lord Darlington’s death, Stevens is tasked by his new employer to sojourn across Britain to recruit new personnel, and Stevens uses that time to reflect on his decades of devoted professionalism to Lord Darlington. At the heart of his reflection is the concept of “dignity”. Dignity was the penultimate goal for any serious butler, but it was particularly difficult to achieve because no one in the profession could ever agree on what “dignity” entailed. To Stevens, dignity meant ensuring at all times a smoothly and perfectly functioning house staff, along with maintaining a constant emotional restraint while dealing with the unexpected circumstances that inevitably arise when working for men of great influence. A butler's professional prestige, and therefore dignity, went hand in hand with his employer's social status; to Stevens, no one had greater national and international significance in Britain than Lord Darlington himself.
"He is forced to confront memories he had long chosen to forget..."
In the devastating aftermath of World War I, Lord Darlington networked tirelessly with continental diplomats and aristocrats to rebuild Europe. Behind every meeting was the faithful Stevens, who deftly dealt with house staff bickering and deficiencies to ensure a smooth dinner every single night. No matter how impromptu the meeting, Stevens was there to present the best of Lord Darlington, and therefore the best of Britain. He could not understand the concepts being debated, but he knew that world history was being written as certainly as he was serving (flawlessly) the visiting German ambassador. Unfortunately, it becomes clear during Stevens' 6-day car trip that his high regard of Lord Darlington is not uniformly reciprocated by the surrounding countryside. He is forced to confront memories he had long chosen to forget- that Lord Darlington was a Nazi sympathizer whose efforts undermined much of Britain's diplomatic efforts leading up to World War II. Lord Darlington certainly wielded great influence in Britain, but that influence very nearly inflicted irrevocable damage to society and the world at large.
"...he would have understood that life is not about perfecting our craft, but leveraging our careers to lead the life we were always meant live.”
We never learn Stevens' first name, which seems appropriate for someone who devoted his entire existence striving for a butler's dignity. He never allowed his inscrutable façade to break, and he never questioned his employer’s unconscionable motives. By Stevens' own definition, his devotion to the morally bankrupt Lord Darlington makes very dubious his claim to achieving "dignity". By novel’s end, Stevens also finds that his extreme professionalism had very probably cost him an even greater burden: knowledge that his own actions blocked him from ever having personal intimacy with anyone. Stevens at one point commented, "It is not about how well we practice our craft, but to what end we do so.” He was referring to finding a worthy employer to follow. Had Stevens taken note of the dramatic lives of every character ever to appear in Downton Abbey, he would have understood that life is not about perfecting our craft, but leveraging our careers to lead the life we were always meant live.