The Remains of the Day

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Published 1989 258 pages

When Kazuo Ishiguro said, in 2015, that he writes the same book over and over, he wasn't kidding. The Remains of the Day's narrator is Stevens, a butler on an English estate in the 1950s—a subordinate outsider with a unique perspective on their position. Like Klara, Stevens is unflinchingly dedicated to his craft and his employer; like Kathy, he is romantically frustrated and ends the story with a lonely view on the way that his life has been spent.

Most of the book is made up of flashbacks to Stevens's tenure as the butler of the Nazi sympathiser Lord Darlington, to whom he is blindingly devoted, but of whom his opinion starts to migrate nearer the end of the book. He's also committed to the notion of personal dignity, the stiff upper lip that British folks seem to share with the Japanese, with which, no doubt, Ishiguro is well-acquainted. But Stevens takes it to the point almost of inhumanity—in one harrowing scene serving table while his father dies upstairs. He takes this as a significant personal victory.

It wouldn't, of course, be an Ishiguro book if there wasn't some sort of upending of expectation near the end of the book: in this case, Stevens comes to realise that despite exerting inhuman control over himself for his entire life (in the name of dignity), he hasn't actually lived his life on his own terms. Speaking of Lord Darlington near the end of the book, Stevens tells a passerby,

"He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship's wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can't even say I made my own mistakes. Really, one has to ask oneself—what dignity is there in that?"

There's a softening of Stevens's hard exterior here, in the last pages of the book: listening to locals bantering to each other, he remarks on how easily they "build such warmth among themselves so swiftly." Warmth with others is something that Stevens has never had, so his ensuing commitment to learning how to banter with his new employer feels like a small (though arguably pitiable) concession to humanity. Which after all is what Ishiguro's books are always about.


June 2022

A full month: catching COVID, going to Riga, getting back out on my bike, & thinking long & hard about what I want to do next.


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