The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day is a 245 page historical fiction set in Great Britain. It was published in September 1990 by Vintage. I read this book for my 20th Century British Novel class, and so far it is my favorite of the books we’ve read.

The story takes place almost entirely in the main character’s memory. Stevens, a great butler for decades to Lord Darlington, now faces a change of pace as he goes from managing a staff of 20-30 people for the Darlington House, to managing three staff members for his new “lord,” an American named Farraday. The reminisces occur after Stevens accepts Farraday’s offer to “foot the bill for gas” as Stevens takes what is most likely his first vacation ever, to see some of the beauty of Great Britain.

Stevens decides to visit a past staff member, Miss Kenton. While on the drive to see her, he thinks back on his life as a butler to Lord Darlington, the conferences he saw there, and what makes something “great” (Britain, butlers, lords, etc.). Since he views dignity as the most important aspect of a great butler, he spends time musing on what is dignity, giving examples of his father and himself what I call “staying in character” and being the loyal butler when emotional or physical distractions are occurring. Though he believes Darlington was respectable and noble, Stevens manages to miss all the pro-Nazi sentiments that he harbors, making excuses that all high-minded people “fell” to the same tricks that Darlington did from powerful German ambassadors.

Besides the subtle Nazi sympathizing, I really enjoyed this book. Stevens was an introspective, unreliable, fantastically English narrator. While most of the narrative takes place in Stevens’s memories, the current events are interesting as well. While motoring around Great Britain, he stops at many scenic and peaceful locations, which encourages his meditations on the past. Both present and past are quiet and thoughtful about the changes occurring in Europe throughout WWII highlighted by some funny exchanges with his new American lord.

I enjoyed Stevens’s narration, even though he was very contradictory and unreliable. His stories were fun to read, and every time Miss Kenton tried to make him relax, he would get more tense and butler-y, which added a humorous touch and some needed characterization. Miss Kenton was a refreshing loud and active character to Stevens’s quiet, passive nature. There is no traditional romance or emotional plot whatsoever, as Stevens believes dignity encompasses a person absolutely embodying the role of the butler, not allowing their own emotions to surface while in service.

The lack of emotion may seem like it stunts the narrative, but it actually just makes Stevens a fun, tragic character. It also makes the reuniting with Miss Kenton that much more poignant. At the end of the novel, I immediately wanted to start it over. That rarely happens with books, so I wanted to share that it was my first thought upon finishing The Remains of the Day. The thoughtful nature of the book really drew me in and kept me interested in Stevens’s developing mind. The long and laboriously crafted sentences are so well written, I felt compelled to keep reading, finishing the novel in two sittings. Overall, quite enjoyable.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Adam
    Mar 09, 2014 @ 00:36:24

    Are you sure that this is the same book that I read a while back? You seem to have the same title, by the same author, with the same cover as my copy, but beyond that I swear we read different books.

    My sarcasm aside, I’m glad that you enjoyed the book, but at this point I want to ask if you’ve read any other books by Ishiguro? Before I read this book I had read Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro, and this book doesn’t hold a candle to Never Let Me Go. I thought that Never Let Me Go was amazing because of the subtlety that he used in telling the story, leaving you begging for more information as you read the book, by comparison, this book felt like Ishiguro was smacking you in the face with a hammer to make his point.

    Maybe if I had read this book first I would have enjoyed it more, but when compared to his other works that I’d read first, this book doesn’t stand up nearly as well as it might on it’s own. But I suppose that’s what you would expect from an author, to get better as they work on their craft over the years.

    Reply

    • Hannah Bassett
      Mar 10, 2014 @ 21:10:55

      I have never read another Ishiguro novel, but I am planning on reading Never Let Me Go early this summer, and it was Remains that convinced me to do.

      That’s fair enough, I suppose I will have to wait and compare when I read Never Let Me Go. I liked this novel more after discussing it in my class–we talked a lot about Stevens and, even though I wasn’t sure I liked him, I enjoyed seeing the world through his eyes. If only because he was clearly misleading the reader, and probably himself, many times.

      I was also pleased by the disappointing end. I’m not sure why, but I was really glad that it didn’t end as a romance.

      Reply

  2. Trackback: Mini Reviews – British Novels | Realm of Reviews

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