Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Remains of the Day

One of the first things we discussed with this month's book The Remains of the Day (If the title sounds familiar, that may be because it was made into a movie with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.) was Ishiguro's writing style. What particularly struck me was the fact that a novel about a very traditional, bordering on stereotypical, English butler was penned by an Asian author. The biographical information provided at the back of the novel states that Ishiguro, who was born in 1954, has lived in England since 1960. This fact may help account in part for his ability to capture the ideas of the English relationship between master and manservant as well as the language. Bob also helped me out on this one by explaining that the English and Japanese feudal systems have many similarities. While one might argue that as a butler Stevens and his story do not quite fall under the heading of feudal, the premise is the same as both systems are based upon strict standards of conduct such as masking one's emotions and exerting a sobering amount of emotional control. At one point in the novel, Stevens addresses this idea under the term dignity, though it is a dignity which I would argue few of us are in a position to truly understand. The writing at times has an almost stream of consciousness feel, particularly when Stevens appears to be having a revelation of sorts about himself and his life, and these revelations are in fact what the book is all about. I'm not even sure that I fully understood or appreciated the depth of the character Steven's until Bob and Nick discussed him. My initial impression was, "Show an emotion, any emotion!" Bob pointed out that while Stevens is quite disconnected from his emotions, such as the handful of instances when he is crying and doesn't seem to realize it, he does in fact feel things deeply, but these feelings remain veiled behind his professional exterior. This veiling is exactly why the line where he is discussing Miss Kenton and he states something to the effect of "My heart was breaking" hit me so forcefully. At last he seems to be having an truly authentic emotion.

This idea of authenticity was also addressed as we see that in most instances Stevens takes on the views of those around him rather than establishing his own opinions and positions. This tendency to avoid a conflict of opinion is seen with regard to his feelings toward his former employer Lord Darlington. In his private thoughts, Stevens asserts that Lord Darlington was real gentleman who fell under a manipulative influence, resulting in the tarnishing of his good name. However, on at least two occasions Stevens denies that he worked for Lord Darlington. What then is the cause for his denial? While he attempts to convince himself that is not in good taste to discuss one's former employers, to actually address his behavior would first force Stevens to assert an opinion and secondly would force him to acknowledge the foibles of his former employer.

This novel is a journey for Stevens, not only a journey across the English countryside but a journey toward an understanding of himself, one that is authentic by casting aside the rigid exterior and assuming for better or worse a bit of Lord Darlington by making his own decisions. Toward the end of the novel, the reader finds Stevens on a park bench with another older man who also served as a manservant, though at not nearly so prestigious an estate as Stevens. The man tells Stevens that they can and must make use of the remains of the day, both the literal day once one's work obligations are done and the metaphorical in the remainder of the days of their lives. One thing that we were all curious about and that another 100 or so pages of text would put to rest is where does Stevens go now? Now that he has had the epiphany what does he do with the knowledge such a revelation brings? Of course, that may very well be Ishiguro's intended response for his audience as to end the story at this moment leaves an infinite realm of possiblity open for Stevens that he has been blind to prior to his journey, and we as the reader are allowed the luxury of filling in the blanks in any way we choose.

1 comment:

wordswordswords said...

Nancy! Very eloquent discussion of both the book & our group.

Another thing about the book I liked was the way Stevens intellectualized the art (or science) of butlering (I know that's not the right word). He seemed to have very strong opinions about that.

Recently, I've become more & more interested in the concept of the intellectual & so I've been looking for it in EVERYTHING.