Friday, December 3, 2010

"The Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro

Summary: Mr. Stevens, an aging English butler, once served Lord Darlington at the height of the Lord's prominence, looking over a large house staff and overseeing events involving important political figures.  But Lord Darlington has been dead several years, and an American gentleman now owns the property.  When Stevens' American employer leaves for several weeks, he suggests Stevens take a holiday.   As Stevens takes a motoring trip, he looks back on his many years of service, facing the truth of his employer and his service.

Musings: Remains of the Day is probably one of the most thoughtfully characterized book I have ever read, and in this small novel, which is almost all introspection, I found myself more engrossed than in any action book I've read.

The Remains of the Day is a quiet novel, much like Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go.  Its strength lies in the way Ishiguro absolutely makes you believe you are listening to a real English butler named Stevens.  Stevens is an absolutely convincing character, and because of this, his experiences are all the more heartbreaking.  Stevens is a man who has dedicated himself to executing his profession to perfection.  But this all-consuming dedication has been his biggest downfall.  In seeing himself as a butler above all else, and in holding himself to expectations higher than anyone else's, he has sacrificed relationships (with his father, a housekeeper named Miss Kenton), intellectual vigor, and enjoyment of life.  He has been a martyr for a cause no one but himself supports.  And this is all the more sad because Stevens refuses to acknowledge it; he stubbornly defends his choices, even though it's painfully obvious to the reader that his has not truly been a life well-spent.

Stevens narrates the novel in first person, and it's easy to want to empathize with him.  His dedication to his job is admirable, and he holds himself to high standards.  But it's soon apparent that though Stevens is good at his job, he is not good at being human.  He is inconsiderate and uncaring of others' feelings; he rejects friendly conversation, and he holds no room for human fallacy--except in the case of his employer, for whom he mostly overlooks mistakes.  He is someone who, at this point in his life, has no friends, no family, and years dedicated to an employer now despised by most.

The Remains of the Day is a beautiful novel, and one I would highly recommend.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge and the Books of the Century Challenge.


  1. I love this book. Ishiguro always pays so much attention to detail, and you have to immerse yourself in the perspective of his creation. It doesn't work in all his novels that I've read, but Stevens is a character you can feel sympathy for, at the same time as wanting to shake him. Maybe the appeal of the novel is not so much what happens, as what you want to happen.

  2. This is one of my all-time favorites. Stevens' life is one full of unrecognized regrets--so very heart-breaking. You may like Ishiguro's "The Unconsoled" as well.

  3. What a heart breaking story this was. And Stevens' definitions of dignity really struck me and made me consider true dignity for a long time after. Among the most "dignified" characters in the book there was Ms. Kenton (of course) and the doctor who gave him after his Ford had run out of gas. Not to mention the various acts of kindness he was shown along the way, kindness given by strangers to an extent he never received from his "dignified" employer.

    Stevens really was an empty shell ready to be filled by whatever concepts someone he considered worthy of his service would pour into it. Self delusion never seemed so poetic.

  4. Supertec-- I was really struck by how much I wanted to like Stevens, even though he clearly was so (largely unknowingly) abrasive to others around him. Certainly a testament to Ishiguro's skill.

    Helen-- I'll definitely have to try The Unconsoled. I've liked both of his pieces I've read so far (this better than Never Let Me Go).

    Monique-- It was interesting how Stevens' sense of dignity was only able to extend to his job. He couldn't see the dignity in personal relationships (like the other "dignified" characters you point out, Kenton and the doctor).

  5. I preferred both those to the other book of his I've read, When We Were Children, which somehow never seemed to ring true. It doesn't diminish my appreciation of his skill as an author, though.