A couple of months ago, I was watching Netflix’s excellent drama The Crown and remarked to my husband, “It’s quite an accomplishment to make a compelling drama about a group of people whose entire guiding principle is to show as little emotion as possible in any given situation.” If this is true about the British upper classes it is, perhaps, even more true of the servant class who traditionally made their lives of luxury possible. The ideal English butler, like the ideal English servant at any level, was envisioned as a blank slate, a person who expressed no personal opinions or wishes except to be of service. Never has this suppression of emotion been more deftly explored than in Ishiguro’s 1989 novel The Remains of Day. Although I’d often heard of the book and the 1993 movie starring Anthony Hopkins, I’d never seen the movie and had never read the novel until a couple of weeks ago.
The book is narrated in first-person by the butler, Mr. Stevens, in the 1950s. As with many of the great houses in Britain, the house in which Stevens has served for so many years is on the decline in the post-WW2 years. No longer owned by the nobleman who once employed Stevens, the house has been bought by a rich American and the staff greatly reduced. Stevens is taking his first vacation in — well, ever, really — and borrowing his employer’s car to drive to visit the former housekeeper, Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn), who has written him a troubling letter that causes him to re-examine their past relationship. The novel, and Stevens’s memories of the past twenty-some years, unfold throughout the one-week solitary road trip.
Using a character as emotionally repressed and unused to self-examination as Stevens as a first-person narrator is a very difficult trick that only a writer as skilled as Ishiguro could pull off. Stevens is a man so completely subsumed in his role and so hemmed in by rules and expectations that he is almost completely cut off from his own feelings, and so the reader intuits Stevens’s feelings more from what he doesn’t say than from what he does. We realize as the story unfolds that Miss Kenton was in love with Stevens and that he was attracted to her; that he grieved over the illness and death of his father; that he disapproved of his old employer’s tolerance for Nazis in the pre-WW2 years — but he never admits any of these things openly, either to himself, to other characters, or to the reader. Rather, in every case he puts his own opinions and feelings to one side to do what he feels is his duty. This devotion to duty results in a life that is, to put it kindly, emotionally stunted — and by the end of the novel, there is just a suggestion that perhaps Stevens is beginning to realize this. Whether he has the capacity to live any differently in what remains of his day, or whether he will remain forever trapped by the image of the perfect English butler, is a question left unanswered. This is a masterful character study and left me far more moved than I expected to be.