Serving Humanity by Polishing Silver

In his novel The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro portrays the English class society and the English mentality: Two topics that influence each other and that are both influenced by the events of the 20th century. Stevens, the main protagonist and narrator of the story, is a product of the English society and an embodiment of the English mentality in their extremes.

Stevens approaches the “evening” (256) of his life and like most people of his age, he tends to look back on his life to assess what he has or has not achieved. His retrospection is prompted by a letter from a former colleague and a resulting journey by car to another part of the country. What awaits Stevens at the end of this journey is disillusionment.

Because Stevens has devoted the chief part of his life to serving a politically active English lord, Stevens’s personal history is closely related to the history of his country. Having no personal life, Stevens derives the value of his whole life solely from the value of his emloyer’s life and actions: “‘The day his lordship's work is complete, the day he is able to rest on his laurels, ... only on that day ... will I be able to call myself ... a well-contented man’” (182). Shifting responsibility is characteristic for Stevens on all levels of human life and history.

On the lowest, personal level, Stevens refrains from any personal relationships or even feelings. He justifies it saying that as a butler, he “should never allow himself to be ‘off duty’ in the presence of others” (178) because “‘dignity’ has to do crucially with a butler's ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits” (43). The motivation behind his philosophy is his inability to engage in interpersonal relationships and express emotions, as demonstrated when Miss Kenton’s aunt dies and instead of condoling with her, Stevens starts discussing professional matters and ends up criticizing the mourner.

On another level, Stevens suppresses any opinions on things happening around him that may make him feel uncomfortable about his employer. When Miss Kenton protests againts the dismissal of Jewish maids, he claims that “[she] and [he] are simply not in a position to understand ... [w]hereas his lordship ... is somewhat better placed to judge what is for the best” (157-158). Later, when Lord Darlington himself admits his fault in dismissing the Jewish maids and Stevens’s sentiments are thus in accord with those of his employer, Stevens reveals them to Miss Kenton but still does not want to sound too personally involved and uses the generalizing 3rd person: “‘Naturally, one disapproved of the dismissals. One would have thought that quite self-evident’” (162).

Finally, on the highest level, Stevens shifts responsibility for “the great affairs of the nation” on “those great gentlemen in whose hands the destiny of civilization truly lies” while he “make[s his] mark ... by concentrating on what is within [his] realm” – namely “providing the best possible service” (209). When confronted with the views of Mr Harry Smith, a politically conscious villager who claims that “‘it’s one of the privileges of being born English that ... you’re born free and you’re born so that you can express your opinion freely [and t]hat’s what dignity’s really about’” (196), Stevens feels that the morality of his own comfortable ignorance is questioned and seeks to justify himself: “There is ... a real limit to how much ordinary people can learn and know, and to demand that each and everyone of them contribute ‘strong opinions’ to the great debates of the nation cannot ... be wise. ... It is ... absurd that anyone should presume to define a person’s ‘dignity’ in these terms” (204). Again, he is only conveniently paraphrasing Lord Darlington’s views who told him once: “‘Democracy is something for a bygone era. The world's far too complicated a place now for universal suffrage and such like’” (208).

But even though Stevens avoids any responsibility on any level of his life, he likes to think he has “ma[de his] own small contribution to the creation of a better world” (122). Having done nothing except for serving Lord Darlington, Stevens uses all his intellectual powers and his eloquence to convince himself that Lord Darlington was a “gentlem[a]n who [was] ... furthering the progress of humanity” (120) and through serving him, he was “serving humanity” (123). This theory supposes that Lord Darlington was an influential figure and Stevens makes sure to demonstrate it was so: “[D]ebates are conducted, and crucial decisions arrived at, in the privacy and calm of the great houses of this country” (121) and he illustrates his point by comparing the world to “a wheel, revolving with these great houses at the hub, their mighty decisions emanating out to all else, rich and poor, who revolved around them. It was the aspiration of all those of us with professional ambition to work our way as close to this hub as we were each of us capable” (122).

But by the 1920s and 1930s, of which Stevens speaks, the influence of these “great houses” has been continually decreasing. This fact is stated by the American Mr Lewis who attends an unofficial conference held by Lord Darlington and, at the end of this conference, calls the participating gentlemen “‘a bunch of naïve dreamers’” (106) and exclaims that “‘[t]he days when [gentlemen] could act out of [their] noble instincts are over’” (107). It is later revealed that Lord Darlington actually did exert some influence: Owing to his efforts, “‘Herr Ribbentrop’s been able virtually to bypass [UK’s] foreign office altogether’” (235). But Mr Lewis may have been right to point out that “‘[people] in Europe need professionals to run [their] affairs’”, otherwise they are “‘headed for disaster’” (107) – indeed, Lord Darlington’s well-meant assistance to Nazis resulted in his personal disaster.

The biggest problem for Stevens’s theory of “serving humanity” is the fact that Lord Darlington did not futher the progress of humanity, he actually engaged in quite the opposite, though probably not deliberately. Stevens makes much effort to twist the facts so that Lord Darlington appears in a favourable light, but without success. As Stevens’s car trip proceeds, his attempts to delude himself get more and more desperate, but he keeps failing to convince himself there is nothing to feel sorry about and gives up completely at the end. The first time Stevens admits there might have been something wrong about Lord Darlington is towards the end of the novel when Stevens is trying to pass off his unquestioning loyalty as loyalty “intelligently bestowed” (211). Funnily enough, Stevens’s justification precedes the fault itself which is mentioned in an impersonal, by-the-way tone: “How can one possibly be held to blame in any sense because, say, the passage of time has shown that Lord Darlington’s efforts were misguided, even foolish?” Yet again, he is shifting responsbility to the “great gentleman”: “[I]t was he and he alone who weighed up evidence and judged it best to proceed in the way he did, while I simply confined myself, quite properly, to affairs within my own professional realm. ... [I]t is quite illogical that I should feel any regret or shame on my own account.”

The closest to truth Stevens gets is when he says: “I can't even say I made my own mistakes. ... [W]hat dignity is there in that?” (256). Even now, however, he does not accept responsibility: “The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and me, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world that employ our services” (257).

Ishiguro ridicules Stevens’s understanding of history and one’s role within it by the use of contrasts. An ever-present contrast is Stevens’s lofty, eloquent language through which he always exaggerates unimportant issues and euphemizes the important ones. Many other contrasts are the cause of absurd and comic situations:

Stevens is preparing the household for an upcoming conference, “aware of the possibility that if any guest were to find his stay at Darlington Hall less than comfortable, this might have repercussions of unimaginable largeness” (80), motivating his staff by exclaiming that “‘History could well be made under this roof’” (81). However, when the great event comes, Stevens is assigned a ridiculous task the “great gentlemen” were too embarassed to carry out themselves: to explain reproduction to a young man. While the most important guest of the conference is arriving, Stevens is jumping from behind bushes to engage the young man in a private conversation. Later on, towards the end of the conference, Stevens’s father dies. Instead of mourning, Stevens is taking care of a Frenchman who whines about his sore feet.

Stevens’s lecture on “the full significance of silver” (142) highlights the actual insignificance of a butler’s activities. When Stevens “drift[s]” (146) to Lord Darlington’s association with Ribbentrop, he returns to the topic of silver as if it were more important, recalling with “a glow of satisfaction” (147) the moment Lord Darlington told him the silver had “‘[p]ut [Lord Halifax] into a different frame of mind altogether’” (144).

Stevens’s views are most effectively challenged during his stay in Moscombe: The manservant who does not have his own views is confronted with his complete opposite – Mr Harry Smith, an ordinary villager who is campaigning in the region to “‘mak[e] sure [their] voice gets heard in high places’” (199). Still, Stevens feels superior to the villagers, firmly embedded in his class consciousness. The villagers, confused by his clothing and language, mistake him for a gentleman and look up to him, but if they knew who he worked for, they would despise him. Later on, the local doctor Dr Carlisle’s high, political sense of dignity – “‘Socialism would allow people to live with dignity’” (221) – is contrasted with Stevens’s banal sense: “‘I suspect [dignity] comes down to not removing one’s clothing in public’”.

To conclude, Ishiguro poses in his novel the question about the worth of a person and his life on three levels: personal, social, and political. He sharpens his readers’ ability to recognize self-delusion and distinguish significant roles from the insignificant ones. Although these topics are quite serious and they prompt the reader to think, they are put across in a kind and entertaining manner.

Works Cited
Kazuo, Ishiguro. The Remains of the Day. Faber and Faber, 1999. Print.