The Remains of the Day | Study Guide

Kazuo Ishiguro

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The Remains of the Day | Chapter 2 : Day Two, Morning: Salisbury | Summary

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Summary

Stevens awakens early and, while waiting for the landlady to arise, his thoughts turn to passages in Miss Kenton's letter. He notes, properly speaking, her name now is Mrs. Benn, and she has recently moved out of her husband's house to stay with a friend. Stevens observes, no doubt, she is experiencing regret for decisions made in the far-off past that now have left her alone. Once again he interprets the sad, nostalgic quality of her letter as her desire to return as housekeeper to Darlington Hall.

Miss Kenton's letter mentions a few fond memories of life at the hall, and then brings up an incident leading Stevens down a long path of remembrance. It begins with the simultaneous arrival of Stevens's father and Miss Kenton hired to work at the hall in the spring of 1922. The previous housekeeper and under-butler had recently disrupted the order of the house in a most unprofessional way by eloping. This behavior, Stevens observes, is especially irritating and troublesome when it involves higher-ranking employees.

The employment references of Miss Kenton and Stevens's father are outstanding. However, Steven's father is in his seventies and "much ravaged by arthritis and other ailments." It soon becomes apparent to Miss Kenton that, however great the elderly servant once was, his abilities are greatly diminished by age and illness. While the resulting mistakes are trivial at the moment, she feels it is just a matter of time before something serious occurs. She puts the matter before Stevens, telling him bluntly his father "is entrusted with far more than a man of his age can cope with." Stevens stiffly dismisses her concerns as foolish and refuses to take action.

Her concerns are justified two months later. While carrying refreshments out to the summerhouse, Stevens's father falls on a walkway where Lord Darlington is entertaining two guests. Dr. Meredith is sent for and determines the elderly man is overworked. As a result, Lord Darlington suggests Stevens "reconsider" his father's duties—a difficult and awkward task for Stevens. Not only has his father since returned to his duties with renewed vigor, but silence has grown between them over the years. All communication is uncomfortable.

The later interview between father and son is overly formal and guarded. The elderly man impassively receives instructions for his reduced duties, but firmly states his fall was due to the steps being crooked. One evening soon after, Miss Kenton and Stevens observe him outside, studying the steps on which he fell and then walking up and down, his eyes trained on the ground. As Miss Kenton recalls in her letter, it was "as though he hoped to find some precious jewel he had dropped there."

The seeming bluntness with which he treats his aging father bothers Stevens. He hastens to explain he had no choice considering the critical nature of an international conference which was to be held at Darlington Hall in March 1923. Since the signing of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I, Lord Darlington had become increasingly concerned with the harsh effects of that treaty on post-war Germany. The people were starving and desperate, and their country was plummeting into economic chaos. His close friendship with Herr Karl-Heinz Bremann, a gentleman and former officer in the German army, fuels his feelings that the terms of the treaty are an insult to decency and fair play. "It does us great discredit," he says, "to treat a defeated foe like this." The growing despair and ultimate suicide of his friend further strengthen Lord Darlington's resolve to find a way to revise the harshest demands of the treaty.

The conference at Darlington Hall is informal. Many are attending "off the record." Attendees include a broad alliance of dignitaries who share his lordship's views, including diplomats, politicians, clergymen, writers, thinkers, and retired military gentlemen—all influential people in their respective countries. Lord Darlington hopes they will be convinced to exert their influence on leaders attending an official conference called for by British Prime Minister Lloyd George. It is to be held in Switzerland later that year.

Tensions are high as the house prepares for the guests' arrival. It is imperative everything go smoothly and the needs of every guest be met. Yet, in the midst of preparations, Lord Darlington makes a memorable request of Stevens. His lordship's colleague Sir David Cardinal is bringing along his son Reginald to act as secretary. Reginald is due to be married soon, and try as he might, Sir David cannot bring himself to tell his son the facts of life. Could Stevens take on the task? Rising to the occasion, Stevens makes two muddled attempts before events of the conference intrude. The task is never accomplished.

Present at the conference are two key figures in its outcome: a French gentleman, Monsieur Dupont, and an American senator from Pennsylvania, Mr. Lewis. Knowing the vindictive attitude of the French toward the Germans, Lord Darlington is particularly interested in persuading M. Dupont to revise his views on the Treaty of Versailles. Mr. Lewis initially appears to have a similar goal.

As the conference begins, Darlington Hall is filled with people of all nationalities. The atmosphere is tense. Stevens's father becomes ill and, knowing the pressures of the first day, Miss Kenton offers to stay with him while Stevens returns to his duties.

That evening, Stevens overhears a conversation between Mr. Lewis and M. Dupont. Lewis states he is being manipulated by Lord Darlington and others at the conference. They view the French as barbarous and despicable. Discussions the next day reach new levels of intensity.

Throughout the second day, Stevens makes trips up to the attic room where his father is resting, but he always finds him sleeping. That evening, the chambermaid wakes the elderly man, as he himself has instructed her to do. The old man asks Stevens if everything is in hand downstairs. Then, staring at his hands, he says, "I hope I've been a good father to you," and tells Stevens he is a good son and he is proud of him. Awkwardly, Stevens says "we're extremely busy now, but we can talk again in the morning," and leaves the room.

That evening is the last night of the conference. Following Lord Darlington's after-dinner speech of thanks and a toast to "peace and justice in Europe," M. Dupont rises to say a word. Utter stillness falls over the banqueting hall. He thanks his host and expresses his intent to "bring what modest influence I have to encourage certain changes of emphasis in French policy." He then reveals the negative impact the American Mr. Lewis has tried to have on the proceedings, and ends by toasting Lord Darlington.

In turn Mr. Lewis stands and accuses everyone present of being "a bunch of naïve dreamers": decent, honest, well-meaning amateurs. The world has changed, and gentlemen are no longer fit for running it. Europe needs professionals to run its affairs. Lord Darlington retorts that what Lewis describes as "amateurism" is what most present would prefer to call "honor." Furthermore, he wishes no part of the "professionalism" that serves greed and advantage over goodness and justice.

Amidst the applause for his lordship's remarks, Miss Kenton sends for Stevens. His father is ill. As he heads up to see his father, Stevens learns from the cook, Mrs. Mortimer, it may be the result of a stroke. Though he is distressed, Stevens feels duty bound to return downstairs and care for the guests. As he makes his way among them, serving wine, Reginald Cardinal and Lord Darlington notice something is not quite right; Stevens seems to be crying. He assures them he is fine and apologizes; it is simply "the strains of a hard day."

Moments later, Miss Kenton signals to Stevens through the open doorway. She tells him his father died about four minutes ago. Thanking her, Stevens says he will be up in a while. "You see, I know my father would have wished me to carry on just now." Dr. Meredith arrives a short time later and confirms that Stevens's father died of a stroke.

As Stevens assesses his performance during the 1923 conference and on that last night in particular, he concludes he displayed a dignity worthy of an ideal butler—indeed, worthy of his father. He looks at it as a turning point in his professional development and "for all its sad associations," recalls that evening "with a large sense of triumph."

Analysis

In this chapter a picture begins to emerge of Stevens's professional and personal life during the glory days of Darlington Hall in the 1920s and 1930s. However, Stevens is an unreliable narrator, prone to self-delusion and denial, and he speaks from behind the mask he has worn for many years. Even as he tells his story, he avoids its core truths and often projects his private thoughts and motivations onto other people. Much information must be gathered from the reported words and actions of others.

Most of Stevens's memories are organized around a series of political events. Lord Darlington has become increasingly concerned over the negative impact of the Treaty of Versailles on the German economy and people. The events in this chapter highlight his lordship's involvement in political matters and raise questions about his competence for doing so. Incidents related to the secret conference of 1923 become the central focus of attention in Stevens's narrative. Even the reduction in his father's duties hinges on the upcoming occasion. In this way Stevens's relationship with his father, his personal pursuit of greatness, and the political aspects of the story intersect.

The drift of Stevens's recollections begins once more with Miss Kenton's letter—passages of which Stevens seems to have memorized. He characterizes her life as one dominated by a sense of waste. This he bases on lines such as "The rest of my life stretches out as an emptiness before me." Stevens is unwittingly projecting onto Miss Kenton's life the emptiness—as yet unacknowledged—that has plagued his own. He assumes she regrets "decisions made in the far-off past ... that have now left her ... alone and desolate." This foreshadows the realization he must face about his own life.

As he ponders the return of Miss Kenton to Darlington Hall, Stevens again refers to "trivial errors" which he hopes to remedy or prevent. Though he takes responsibility by saying they are his errors, he also takes care to state, after careful diagnosis, they are really caused by the short staffing at the hall. Stevens does not permit himself to err; human error in a butler is not acceptable. Even so, while trivializing such problems, he is obsessed with examining and fixing them. This is more than a streak of perfectionism. The deeper cause is found in the memories of his father, evoked by Miss Kenton's letter.

When his father joins the staff at Darlington Hall as an under-butler, Stevens is very protective of the elderly man's dignity. Later he fiercely defends his father's minor slip-ups and denies his father's former skills are failing. In recollecting his father's diminished abilities, Stevens continues to minimize the resulting errors, just as he did in 1923. To admit the truth would be disturbing. It would suggest age had robbed his father of the excellence and greatness he had achieved. Like his father, Stevens has worked hard to reach the level of professionalism he believes defines a great butler. Recently, he has been committing small errors of his own, and this could foreshadow the passing of his own abilities.

The elder Stevens, like his son, rejects the truth of his growing frailty. There is pathos in the image of him pacing the flagstone path, studying the stones, and practicing so as not to repeat his humiliating fall. While he has asserted it was because the flagstones were uneven, he nevertheless is determined to regain his confidence by practicing the path. The "lost precious jewel" is his self-assurance and dignity.

Another aspect of the relationship between father and son is revealed when Stevens must inform his father of his reduced duties. Stevens is still in awe of his father and sensitive to his disapproval, needing only a critical glance from the elderly man to make him lower the wick on his lamp. He also addresses his father in an oddly formal manner, as if "Father" is an impersonal title instead of an affectionate familial term. For his part the elderly man is intent on putting and keeping his son in his place. In response to Stevens's pleasant observation that he "might have known Father would be up and ready for the day," the elder Stevens coldly replies he has been up for three hours. Keenly aware of the reversal of power in their positions, Stevens's father speaks to his son like as if he is an underling, striving to retain the sense of dignity that is slipping away.

Memories of his father are painful, and Stevens chides himself for becoming preoccupied with memories instead of enjoying the moment. However, he cannot help returning to the topic as it relates to the conference of March 1923—a turning point in his professional life.

The illness and death of his father during the conference starkly illuminates Stevens's inability to step outside of his professional role of butler. He is locked in emotionally and unable to respond with any spontaneity or naturalness to his father's dying. Instead, he escapes back into his duties, determined to provide good service in spite of the circumstances. Only through the concerned observations of Reginald Cardinal and Lord Darlington is it clear that Stevens is deeply affected by his father's death and weeping as he serves drinks to the guests. In an effort to give meaning to the sad affair, Stevens counts the March conference as a professional triumph worthy of his father's approval.

Woven into the chapter is the beginning of Stevens's relationship with Miss Kenton. She is a match for him in wit and skills. Her help and kindness as his father is dying demonstrates an empathy Stevens lacks. And she seems to not judge Stevens harshly, but with understanding and compassion.

Stevens notes in his journal he continues to refer to Miss Kenton by her maiden name, instead of Mrs. Benn, citing their long years of association as the reason. It may also be denial of her married status, which stands between him and his hopes of her return to Darlington Hall. Even so, he repeats his interest in seeing her again is purely professional, safely buffering himself from possible disappointment.

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