Remains of the Day (Ishiguro)

The Remains of the Day 
Kazuo Ishiguro, 1989
Knopf Doubleday
256 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780679731726

Winner, 1989 Man Booker Prize

The novel The Remains of the Day tells the story of Stevens, an English butler who dedicates his life to the loyal service of Lord Darlington (mentioned in increasing detail in flashbacks). The novel begins with Stevens receiving a letter from an ex co-worker called Miss Kenton, describing her married life, which he believes hints at her unhappy marriage. Stevens' new employer, Mr. Farraday, who Stevens fails to hold in high esteem, then grants permission for Stevens to borrow the car to take a break.

As he sets out on the motoring trip and meets the long since retired housekeeper, Miss Kenton, he ponders (via numerous flashbacks) his previous actions and his feelings of love for Miss Kenton, which she silently reciprocated. Both characters failed to ever fully admit their true feelings for one another. Arguably this is due to the lack of communication between the pair; throughout the flashbacks, the majority of their interactions are through conflict and confrontation.

Many of Stevens' memories are biased, leaving the reader with the impression that he is an unreliable narrator. Yet throughout the novel, he prides himself on his attention to detail, which leads the reader to believe that Stevens deliberately mis-remembers or alters his recollections so that they cast him in a better light. These purposefully altered memories support what he wants to believe, that there is still a chance for him and Miss Kenton. (From Wikipedia.)

Author Bio 
Birth—November 8, 1954
Where—Nagasaki, Japan
Reared—England, UK
Education—B.A., University of Kent (UK); M.A., University of
   East Anglia
Awards—Whitbread Prize, 1986; Booker Prize, 1989;
   Chevalier de l'Order des arts et lettres, 1998
Currently—lives in London, England

Kazuo Ishiguro is the author of five previous novels, including The Remains of the Day, which won the Booker Prize and became an international best seller. His work has been translated into twenty-eight languages. In 1995 he received an Order of the British Empire for service to literature, and in 1998 was named a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. He lives in London with his wife and daughter.

Ishiguro's novels share certain qualities. The chronology of his plotting is elaborate and the narration is highly subjective. His ability to capture the details and atmosphere of a period has received high praise.

A number of his novels are set in the past. His most recent, Never Let Me Go, had science fiction qualities and a futuristic tone; however, the given time period is the late 1990s, and thus takes place in an alternate, though very similar, world. His fourth novel, The Unconsoled, takes place in an unnamed Central European city. The Remains of the Day is set in the large country house of an English lord, in the period leading up to, and the period after, the Second World War.

An Artist of the Floating World is set in Ishiguro's home town of Nagasaki during the period of reconstruction following the detonation of the atomic bomb there in 1945. The narrator is forced to come to terms with his part in the Second World War. He finds himself blamed by the new generation who accuse him of being part of Japan's misguided foreign policy, and is forced to confront the ideals of the modern times as represented in his grandson.

The novels are written in the first-person narrative style and the narrators often exhibit human failings. Ishiguro's technique is to allow these characters to reveal their flaws implicitly during the narrative. The author thus creates a sense of pathos by allowing the reader to see the narrator's flaws while being drawn into sympathy with him. That pathos is often derived from the narrator's actions, or, more often, inaction. In The Remains of the Day, the butler Stevens fails to act on his romantic feelings toward the housekeeper Miss Kenton because he fails to reconcile his sense of service and his personal life.

The novels end without a sense of resolution. The issues his characters confront are buried in the past, and those issues remain unresolved. Thus Ishiguro ends many of his novels on a note of melancholic resignation, whereby his characters accept their past and who they have become, and find comfort in that realization by a relief from mental anguish. This can be seen as a literary reflection on the Japanese idea of mono no aware, literally, the pathos of things. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews 
First though let's say there's not a lot of plot; this is a character-driven novel. But what a character. Stevens is the butler of a once great English estate, and he tells us his story. In doing so, he becomes the poster child for Unreliable Narrator.
A LitLovers LitPick (Jan '08)

Greeted with high praise in England, where it seems certain to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Ishiguro's third novel (after An Artist of the Floating World ) is a tour de force-- both a compelling psychological study and a portrait of a vanished social order. Stevens, an elderly butler who has spent 30 years in the service of Lord Darlington, ruminates on the past and inadvertently slackens his rigid grip on his emotions to confront the central issues of his life. Glacially reserved, snobbish and humorless, Stevens has devoted his life to his concept of duty and responsibility, hoping to reach the pinnacle of his profession through totally selfless dedication and a ruthless suppression of sentiment. Having made a virtue of stoic dignity, he is proud of his impassive response to his father's death and his "correct" behavior with the spunky former housekeeper, Miss Kenton. Ishiguro builds Stevens's character with precisely controlled details, creating irony as the butler unwittingly reveals his pathetic self-deception. In the poignant denouement, Stevens belatedly realizes that he has wasted his life in blind service to a foolish man and that he has never discovered "the key to human warmth." ... This insightful, often humorous and moving novel should significantly enhance Ishiguro's reputation here.
Publishers Weekly

The Remains of the Day is a dream of a book: a beguiling comedy of manners that evolves almost magically into a profound and heart-rending study of personality, class and culture.... Stevens plays perfectly the role of model butler as obliging narrator.... .Underneath what Stevens says, something else is being said, and the something else eventually turns out to be a moving series of chilly revelations of the butler's buried life - and, by implication, a powerful critique of the social machine in which he is a cog. As we [progress on the trip] with Stevens, we learn more and more about the price he has paid in striving for his lofty ideal of professional greatness.
Lawrence Graver - New York Times Book Review

Discussion Questions 
1. What does Stevens care most deeply about? Can you articulate a world view for him?

2. Consider the decisions Stevens makes during time of his father's death, as well as the dismissal of the two Jewish servants. Where do Stevens's ethical responsibilities lie — given his time in history and place in society?

3. Talk about is the social hierarchy to which Stevens is completely loyal—yet which exploits him thoroughly.

4. And, of course, poor Miss Kenton. Would she ever have been happy with Stevens? Or could she have humanized him had she persisted and won him over? Oh...and what about the fact that she never left when she was forced to dismiss the two Jewish maids? Is she as culpable as Stevens in this matter? What would most of us do in her place?

5. This novel is famous for its "unreliable narrator," meaning that Stevens who tells the story colors a great deal in his telling. He seems blind to much that goes on around him, events that we, the readers, see and judge differently than Stevens seems to. Give some examples of Steves's inability to see things as readers see them. What blinds Steven, or gets in his way of understanding, especially when it comes to Lord Darlington.

6. You might also tackle the ending. What happens to Stevens after he leaves Miss Kenton? What does he come to understand, what insights has he gained? Will he change—indeed, is he capable of change?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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