The story is about a journey an English butler undertakes from Oxfordhshire to Weymouth in 1950s and reminisces about his past during the journey. The protagonist Stevens, like any other Ishiguro’s lead character, is of failing memory and through his journey he reminisces over the past not in a chronological order and offers several explanations to the question as to what are the characteristics of a “Great Butler” (as those admitted by Hayes society) and feels that dignity is one of the main characteristics.
“Continentals are unable to be butlers because they are as a breed incapable of the emotional restraint which only the English race is capable of.”
“A butler of any quality must be seen to inhabit his role, utterly and fully; he cannot be seen casting it aside one moment simply to don it again the next as though it were nothing more than a pantomime costume.”
But as Coetzee has spelled out in Summertime, “When one falls in love, one loses his dignity.”
Dignity is what Stevens doggedly holds on to but in return forgoes his own emotions completely: doesn’t shed a tear on his father’s death and never accepts, even to himself, that he is in love with Miss Kenton. He goes on about his duty at the helm of personal crisis saying, “Matters of great importance are going on now,” ironically these were the matters for which Lord Darlington was criticized for after world war 2. Thus it would seem he had given up most of his day on futile efforts while now he clutched at what remained of his day to observe the lights go on at sunset at Weymouth.
After having read 4 out of Ishiguro’s 6 novels and his short stories- Nocturnes, I can safely say Ishiguro is a brilliant writer and a versatile storyteller. He can with equal ease write about UK and Japan or create a completely fictional dystopian world (in Never Let Me Go). “Remains of the Day” is a brilliantly written book from a butler’s perspective set in Great Britain in early 1900s and he truly makes Britain come alive.
Ishiguro dexterously mixes fiction and non-fiction so well that one is unable to discern when one gives way to another. For instance the route Stevens follows from Oxfordshire to Weymouth has both fictional and real places enroute: Salisbury, Mortimer’s Pond in Dorset (fictional), Taunton, Moscombe near Tavistock (again, fictional) and Little Compton. Lord Darlington- Steven’s employer is fictional but most of the guests that come to meet him- Lord Halifax, Churchill, Eden were real people who had a key role to play in shaping the Versailles treaty and the fate of Germany during the world wars period. It also alludes to the Blackshirts movement that started in Italy as a fascist movement but soon the Nazis dominated the same.
I especially love Ishiguro’s portrayal of the British pride, even in their plain landscape:
“The English landscape at its finest – such as I saw this morning – possesses a quality that the landscapes of other nations, however more superficially dramatic, inevitably fail to possess. It is, I believe, a quality that will mark out the English landscape to any objective observer as the most deeply satisfying in the world, and this quality is probably best summed up by the term ‘greatness’…. I distinctly felt that rare, yet unmistakable feeling- the feeling that one is in presence of greatness. We call this land of ours Great Britain, and there might be those who believe this is a somewhat immodest practice. Yet I would venture that the landscape of our country alone would justify for the use of this lofty adjective.”
(Interestingly, the Romans called the island as Engand, Scotland and Wales Britania. After the Romans, Britain referred to England and Wales. When Queen Elizabeth I in England died without any heirs, James VI, King of Scotland became King James I in England as well in 1603 . He sometime described himself as King of Great Britain, which meant of England (and Wales) plus Scotland. The name Great Britain was officially accepted in 1707 by the Act of union passed by the Scottish Parliament and Westminster. )
“I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it. In comparison the sorts of sights offered in such places as Africa and America, though undoubtedly very exciting, would I am sure, strike the objective viewer as inferior on account of their unseemly demonstrativeness.”