The Remains of the Day | Study Guide

Kazuo Ishiguro

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The Remains of the Day | Chapter 1 : Day One, Evening: Salisbury | Summary

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Summary

The first day of Steven's trip has ended at a guest house in the city of Salisbury, where he will spend the night. Looking back over the day, Stevens notes it was difficult to leave Darlington Hall closed up and empty for perhaps the first time since it was built. Once on his way, he experiences a mix of unease and exhilaration when he realizes he has truly left the hall behind. Stopping the car, he gets out to stretch his legs and assess the situation.

Down the road a ways, he encounters a thin, white-haired man sitting on a large stone and smoking a pipe. The man advises Stevens to take a nearby footpath up the hill for the best view in all of England. "I'm telling you, sir," says the man, "you'll be sorry if you don't take a walk up there. And you never know. A couple more years and it might be too late." Stevens takes his advice and is rewarded with a stirring view of the rolling English countryside. For the first time, Stevens experiences "a healthy flush of anticipation" for the adventures ahead.

That afternoon in Salisbury, he has tea at the guest house and then goes out to explore the town. Following the advice of Mrs. Symons's guidebook, he visits the fine cathedral and is generally charmed by the sights of the city. However, what he recalls most vividly is the morning's hilltop panorama of the English countryside. Its serene beauty and self-assured lack of drama may be summed up—as Stevens sees it—in the word "greatness." It is a quality which lacks vulgar spectacle and stems from confidence in its own beauty; a quality the landscapes of other countries, no matter how impressive, fail to possess.

These thoughts lead Stevens to share his ideas on "greatness" as a quality to be admired in a butler. He fondly recalls hours of discussion in the servants' hall on the topic of just what this quality is. In the 1920s and 1930s a society of butlers called the Hayes Society attempted to define the term. Membership in the society required a butler "be possessed of a dignity in keeping with his position." While not a fan of the Hayes Society, Stevens agrees "dignity" most closely captures the factor that distinguished a great butler from those who are merely very competent. To convey his idea of what the term means, he looks to memories of his father, who was a butler himself.

His father often told a story about a butler who worked in India. One afternoon, the butler found a tiger lying beneath the dining table while his employer was busy entertaining guests in another room. After a quiet word with his employer, the butler calmly goes off to shoot the tiger. Returning some time later to refresh the teapots, he assures his employer all is well. "Dinner will be served at the usual time and I am pleased to say there will be no discernible traces left of the recent occurrence by that time." Whether true or not, Stevens says, the story reveals his father's ideals and the kind of butler he endeavored to be.

The next story concerns Stevens's father and two drunken guests at the estate of Mr. John Silvers, where his father served. The two men enlisted his father to take them for an afternoon drive. Though they behaved like coarse, ill-mannered schoolboys, Stevens's father treated them with his usual politeness until he heard them make offensive remarks about his employer. Abruptly, he stopped the car, got out, and opened the back door. He was a forbidding figure as he stood silently and waited for the men to realize they had been insufferably rude. Following their muttered apologies, he resumed his role as driver, and the outing was completed in near silence.

The final story Stevens shares involves Stevens's father and an army general responsible for the needless death of Stevens's older brother Leonard among many others during the Southern African War. Despite the irresponsible leadership that led to the bloody tragedy, the general escaped court martial and went on to a prosperous post-war life. He once was a guest at Mr. Silver's house. Stevens's father served as the man's valet for four days, in spite of the personal pain it caused him. He performed his duties so flawlessly the general never guessed what he was thinking and left him a tip. Without hesitation Stevens's father asked his employer to donate the money to charity.

Stevens concludes his father comes close to personifying the Hayes Society's standard of "dignity in keeping with his position." Dignity and greatness are inseparable. The great butlers, he says, "are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role ... to the utmost," unshaken by external events. Dignity is a quality a butler must achieve.

Analysis

This next entry in Stevens's journal provides deeper insight into the beliefs and values that have shaped his life. It also reveals the confined nature of the world in which he has existed, physically and emotionally, for more than three decades. These are keys to understanding how Stevens's greatest achievements lead to regret and an emotionally barren life.

Stevens says a surge of concern makes it difficult for him to leave Darlington Hall. The hall will stand empty for perhaps the first time since its construction. However, it is just as likely he is uneasy because he has never left it behind like this. For the first time in his career, he will be unnecessary as a butler, which strikes at the heart of his identity and sense of purpose. His anxiety increases once he departs and the country surroundings grow unfamiliar. He feels a mix of unease and exhilaration that turns to alarm.

His alarm is eased by the view of the English countryside. The calm, restrained beauty of the landscape reassures him. In it he sees reflected the greatness of Britain. It is dignified, which Stevens describes as the essence of greatness, just as dignity is the essence of a great butler. It is also the essence of Englishness. In other words, the greatness of the English countryside and the greatness of the English butler are a reflection of the nature of Englishness and its values. While this is an old-world view of what it is to be English, for Stevens, it is comforting. It relates to a time of empire, when Great Britain ruled and the world seemed calm, safe, and unchanging. Now, he can feel the "flush of anticipation" for the journey ahead.

It is interesting to note that, as Stevens records his impressions of the day's events, he writes, "I find that what really remains with me from this first day's travel." The choice of words casts the meaning of the novel's title in a slightly different light. Considered in this sense, the phrase "the remains of the day" refers to what is left at the end of a day, a life, or an era; what remains in memory.

Stevens's thoughts on the nature of greatness inevitably drift away from the landscape to his profession. This is his point of reference for everything. The greatness Stevens strives for is embodied in other butlers of the day, renowned for the high standards they have set and maintained. High among those whom Stevens reveres is his father. Even his childhood memories are related to the elder Stevens's career as a butler, such as the recalled story of the butler and tiger. Descriptive words for his father include "impressive," "dignified," and a "dark, severe presence"—words expressing awe, but little warmth.

As he reminisces about his father, Stevens tells about his older brother's death during the South African War (1899 to 1902). Also called the Boer War, it was between the British Empire and the descendants of the original Dutch settlers of southern Africa, called Boers. Stevens provides a detached, unemotional description of his brother's death. The incident appears to be important only because it relates to his father's demonstration of greatness.

Stevens notes he began as a footman under his father's supervision. This foreshadows the difficulties that develop when his father comes to work as an under-butler at Darlington Hall. A footman is a uniformed male servant whose job includes opening doors and serving food.

Stevens's musings about the nature of dignity and greatness is summed up in his statement that "dignity has to do crucially with a butler's ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits." This is the core of Stevens's professional achievement as well as his empty and failed personal life. In his quest to be a "great" butler, he dons his professional habit and never takes it off while on duty. He will not allow himself to do so, even in the most extreme circumstances. In time he no longer controls it and cannot take it off. This is not a decision he can make and would be like stripping the flesh from his body. He is not a human being who is a butler; he is a butler who happens to be a human being. The first dominates the second. He looks down on other butlers who act the part, never realizing he is imprisoned by the role, unable to discern where it ends and where his natural self begins. He becomes what he wished to be and loses himself in the process.

Stevens objects when his colleague Mr. Graham compares dignity with beauty, and implies a butler will have it by nature or not at all. This undermines Stevens's principles and his life's work to achieve it. He is admirable in his desire to strive—to "think deeply about these things" and to take steps for self-improvement. Nevertheless, he takes it to an extreme, which is ultimately self-destructive.

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