I imagine that it is never easy when one attempts to compare the life one has lived with one’s principles. Personally, denial is my policy on this sort of thing. I try to avoid thinking about it. It is certainly not noble, but does can anyone consider such a thing and truly come to the conclusion that he or she has lived well according to the convictions he or she started out with? After all, life does not seem to think much of our plans or beliefs. Life just happens. I don’t mean to be so quasi-philosophical right now, but I just finished reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for Melissa Bank and 2nd for T.C. Boyle)
At the outset, The Remains of the Day seems simple enough. Mr. Stevens (the perfect example of an English butler) is preparing to take a trip. Life is not what it once was for Stevens, having served a distinguished lord and presided over a large staff at Darlington Hall for thirty-five years, now serves a rich American who bought the hall when the lord died. The class system he once served, indeed the entire profession to which he committed his life, is virtually gone. Still, he carries on. In fact, the trip he intends to take, suggested by the rich American who won’t be at Darlington Hall for a time, includes the side purpose of sounding out whether or not a former housekeeper who has written him would be interested in being again employed by the hall:
It is of course tragic that her marriage is now ending in failure. At this very moment, no doubt, she is pondering with regret decisions made in the far-off past that have now left her, deep in middle age, so alone and desolate. And it is easy to see how in such a frame of mind, the thought of returning to Darlington Hall would be a great comfort to her. Admittedly, she does not at any point in her letter explicitly state her desire to return; but that is the unmistakable message conveyed by the general nuance of many of the passages, imbued as they are with deep nostalgia for her days at Darlington Hall.
During his trip, for once not harried constantly by duty, Stevens thinks back over his career and his life. He reflects on how the profession has changed and remembers his own commitment to duty. However, it is not merely duty that obsesses him. In order for a butler to be great, Stevens believes that he must dedicate his life to serving a great man. He repeatedly insists that this is what he has done, but this is not the case:
‘I’ll tell you this, Stevens. His lordship is being made a fool of. I’ve done a lot of investigating, I know the situation in Germany as well as anyone in this country, and I tell you, his lordship is being made a fool of.’
I gave no reply, and Mr Cardinal went on gazing emptily at the floor. After a while, he continued:
‘His lordship is a dear, dear man. But the fact is, he is out of his depth. He is being manoeuvred. The Nazis are manoeuvring him like a pawn. Have you noticed this, Stevens? Have you noticed this is what has been happening for the last three or four years at least?’
‘I’m sorry, sir, I have failed to notice any such development.’
Stevens himself, though he does not believe the rumors that are spread about Lord Darlington, at least believes that the man led a misguided life. What can that mean for Stevens? After all, if his conviction is to only serve the greatest of men and the man he served lived a misguided life, did Stevens not waste his life? He dedicated himself, putting duty above family and his own chances for a life (often to an appalling degree):
Behind me, Miss Kenton’s footsteps came to a sudden halt, and I heard her say”
‘Are you not in the least interested in what took place tonight between my acquaintance and I, Mr Stevens?’
‘I do not meant to be rude, Miss Kenton, but I really must return upstairs without further delay. The fact is, events of a global significance are taking place in this house at his very moment.’
‘When are they not, Mr Stevens? Very well, if you must be rushing off, I shall tell you that I accepted my acquaintance’s proposal.’
‘I beg your pardon, Miss Kenton?’
‘His proposal of marriage.’
‘Am I to take it,’ she said, ‘that after the many years of service I have given in this house, you have no more words to greet the news of my possible departure than those you have just uttered?’
‘Miss Kenton, you have my warmest congratulations. But I repeat, there are matters of global significance taking place upstairs and I must return to my post.’
Really, though, what can Stevens do as he looks back? He can’t attach himself to a better lord. He can’t reclaim his family, or Miss Kenton. All he has is his work. This is what he must come to terms with. Shall he recognize the difference between his ideals and his life? Will he mourn what he has given up? Or, will he refuse to acknowledge what he has realized and stay fast to the only life he has ever known?
After reading, I have to say that I’ve seen few things that I would classify as the truly English novel quite as much as this book. Formal in tone (and perfectly so), it moved me with quiet dignity. It is both a marvelous depiction of the changing post-WWII England and of Stevens passing judgment on his entire life. Really, I found it to be quite beautiful.