“Today’s world is too foul a place for fine and noble instincts.” ~ Kazuo Ishigoru in ‘The Remains Of The Day’
Few years ago, I was under the impression that almost all individuals want to be engaged in a meaningful job. If not everyone, at least those who had received good education.
The only exception I knew was my friend K. He was ready to do anything for money. Or, let’s say, any legal job for money. But, over the years my ‘assumption’ has taken several beatings. I have realised that a large majority of people in this country are like my friend K. They are not concerned about the impact of their job or the meaning of ‘gainful employment’.
All these thoughts resurfaced when I started reading the book The Remains of The Day by Kazuo Ishigoru. I had read one of his books before he won the Nobel prize (The Artist of the Floating World). The Remains of The Day did not have the tension or moral conflict that I noticed in previous Ishigoru book I had read . But it has its own charm.
The book talks about the life of a butler, Mr Stevens who works at the ‘Darlington Hall’. The entire tale is narrated in first person by Stevens. The hall was previously owned by an influential diplomat, Lord Darlington. But it had been taken over by a wealthy American, Mr Farraday, after Lord Darlington’s demise.
Stevens is an old school butler. He is an old school guy in every imaginable way. He is attached to ideas of ‘dignity’ and British way of life. So, he is unable to absorb the changes after his new American master takes over the reigns of Darlington Hall. Stevens reluctantly agrees to take a vacation and drive across the country, hoping that this break will enable him to loosen up and win the approval of his new master.
The story rests on four important relationships in Stevens’ life: one that he had with his father, also a butler; one with his old master, Lord Darlington; one with his new master, Mr Farraday; and one with his ex- colleague, Miss Kenton.
Relationship #1: It is quite obvious that Stevens sees his father as his role model. Stevens senior is one of the finest examples of a professional butler in the opinion of the narrator.
Relationship #2: Stevens is proud to serve Lord Darlington, as he believes that his master has the ability to influence the course of history in Europe. Lord Darlington, in the opinion of his butler, works hard to ensure justice and peace in the world.
Relationship #3: Stevens has not understood the ways of his new American master. So, he doesn’t enjoy his profession under Mr Farraday as much as he did during the times of Lord Darlington.
Relationship #4: Stevens has always maintained a very professional relationship with Miss Kenton. He plans to hire his ex-colleague again to manage staff shortage after Mr Farraday has moved in. But eventually , we realise that there is something more than meets the eye between these two characters. In fact, this relationship carries all the ‘spice’ in this novel.
The narrative in the book keeps shifting from one relationship to the other seamlessly. It could dampen the spirits of the reader if he or she seeks an exciting story with sudden twists and turns. But, if you are willing to probe the life of Stevens, a mere butler in 20th century Britain, you in for a literary treat.
Literary Value of The Book
The Remains of The Day is set in the years between the first and second world war. It touches upon issues related to European politics of the period. Hitler and Neville Chamberlain are mentioned in the book! The author, through his characters, subtly claims that the British diplomacy had been hoodwinked by Hitler in the run-up to second world war.
The author hints at the deficiencies of democracy in a subtle manner. One of the visitors at Darlington Hall, Mr Spencer, questions Stevens on important economic and political issues and demonstrates that the average citizen is unable to comprehend them. Mr Spencer goes on to say:
“And yet we still persist with the notion that this nation’s decisions be left in the hands of our good man here (Mr Stevens) and to the few million others like him. Is it any wonder, saddled as we are with our present parliamentary system, that we are unable to find any solution to our many difficulties? Why, you may as well ask a committee of the mothers’ union to organise a war campaign.”
One can also say that the character , Mr Stevens could be a mascot for someone who wants to understand the essence of the phrase ‘dignity of labour’. He could also be a comical case study for those who want to understand the Gervais Principle. As a reader I stand somewhere in between. I admire some aspects of Stevens’ personality, but I would definitely not subscribe to his ideology.
Stevens is also a warning for people who take their professions way too seriously. We must not forget human emotions while doing our jobs. Otherwise, we might regret our approach towards life in the long run. I must confess that this realisation is quite important for me.
The Remains of The Day is a book meant for the contemplative reader who is interested to explore a wide variety of human emotions and attitudes. It is a book that rewards a patient and observant reader. It may not titillate the readers’ senses, but it definitely challenges the reader’s beliefs and attitude towards less glamorous professions. I shall leave you with this quote.
“What is the point of worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.” ~ Kazuo Ishigoru in ‘The Remains Of The Day’