The Remains of the Day | Study Guide

Kazuo Ishiguro

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The Remains of the Day | Chapter 4 : Day Three, Morning: Taunton, Somerset | Summary

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Summary

Stevens spends the previous night at the Coach and Horses, a small inn outside the town of Taunton, Somerset. Before retiring to bed, he visits the bar downstairs, where five or six local people are gathered. They try to engage Stevens in conversation with a joke about the proprietor and his wife, telling him that between the general noise of the bar and the couple's frequent arguments, Stevens will not get much sleep. In response Stevens attempts a witticism that falls flat, much to his disappointment. Recently he's been listening to a comedy show on the radio, attempting to improve his skills in this area. As this incident illustrates "the hazards of uttering witticisms," he decides it is best to avoid them all together for now.

Setting off in the morning to explore Taunton, Stevens stops in the center of the market town for a cup of tea. From the window he sees a signpost pointing toward the village of Mursden and fondly recalls the firm of Giffen and Co. was once located there. The maker of the finest silver polish available prior to World War II, Giffen and Co. appeared in the early 1920s. Its product played a key role in making brightly polished silver a central feature of all aristocratic households—especially the silver used during a meal. This silver in particular served as a public indicator of the household's standards, and the polish used by all discerning butlers was Giffen's. The trend began with Mr. Marshall, a butler considered "great" among his contemporaries, who set the highest standards for the polishing of silver. Soon butlers up and down the country were being pressured by their employers to equal or surpass him.

Stevens's thoughts drift to the distinguished visitors to Darlington Hall who have complimented the silver. They include Lady Astor and renowned playwright George Bernard Shaw. The most memorable, perhaps, is Lord Halifax on the night he dined at the hall with his lordship and German Ambassador Herr Ribbentrop. A few days later, Lord Darlington extends Lord Halifax's compliments on the silver to Stevens. He had been anxious about meeting with Herr Ribbentrop and had found diversion in admiring the beautifully polished silver, which put him in a better mood for the evening.

Stevens's thoughts turn to Herr Ribbentrop, who in post-World War II Britain is regarded as a trickster. However, around 1936 or 1937, the German Ambassador was a welcomed and honored guest in many of the finest houses in England. Untold numbers of distinguished British ladies and gentlemen were, in turn, guests at German banquets hosted by Nazis before fully realizing the true nature of the regime. He finds it "irksome" that these same people now speak of those times as if they had no such connections with the ambassador or the Nazis, and they cast Lord Darlington's association in a traitorous light.

Stevens goes on to insist that claims of Lord Darlington's anti-Semitism and his involvement with the British Union of Fascists are untrue. Admittedly, there was a minor incident in the 1930s involving Jewish staff, and Sir Oswald Mosley—leader of the British Union of Fascists and the "blackshirts"—was invited three times to Darlington Hall. However, this was before the ugliness of the blackshirt movement became apparent to his lordship.

Stevens returns to the subject of the silver and his satisfaction that it had made such a good impression on Lord Halifax. He is proud his efforts, however modest, contributed to an important moment in history. Such incidents are reminders that "one has had the privilege of practicing one's profession at the very fulcrum of great affairs."

However, he notes, looking back on the past so much may not be good, as he has many more years of service before him. For this reason it is essential he keep focused on the present. Otherwise, small errors may surface, like that which occurred last April. One evening at dinner, Stevens noticed Mr. Farraday examining the prongs of a silver fork. Moving quickly, he removed "the offending item" and replaced it.

While insisting there is nothing sinister in the error, Stevens is sure that with Miss Kenton's help, similar mistakes will no longer occur. He cautiously notes, however, her return is not certain. In rereading her letter, he may have, "through wishful thinking of a professional kind," exaggerated her desire to return.

Analysis

In this chapter unpleasant realities about Lord Darlington emerge. However, Stevens's first journal entry for the day returns to the topic of bantering and witticism. To his disappointment his effort to join the local people at the Coach and Horses in a witty exchange fails. He then reveals he has been studying to improve his skills. However, bantering is completely contrary to any form of communication Stevens is accustomed to. So his efforts to learn do not stem from a friendly desire to reach out as one human to another, but from a dispassionate sense of duty to Mr. Farraday. Stevens is bound so tightly by his ideas of dignity and what is proper for a man in his position, he has forgotten how to relax and have fun—a prerequisite to friendly banter.

Stevens also has an exaggerated view of how his actions affect others. He writes he is "tormented" by the idea that his failed witticism came off as an insult. Throughout decades in service, he has shouldered responsibility, aimed for perfection, and taken to heart any failure. He cannot believe his recent misstep will have no impact and be overlooked.

Stevens's next journal entry leads step by step into revelations about Lord Darlington. It begins with the butler's memories of Giffen and Co., supplier of the best silver polish available. He writes with nostalgia of the days when such things as superbly polished silver setting meant something; when the finest houses displayed silver "polished to previously unimagined standards." The closing of Giffen and Co. signaled the end of that era and the high standards set by Stevens's generation of butlers.

Stevens's thoughts then turn to past guests who admired the silver settings at Darlington Hall. Among them are prominent historical figures like American-born socialite Lady Astor and playwright George Bernard Shaw. Both were well-known for their involvement in politics.

Lady Astor is representative of the many other elites of Britain sympathetic to Germany and believed the harshest terms of the Treaty of Versailles should be eased. However, unlike her contemporaries, Lady Astor mistrusted Hitler and was not a Nazi-sympathizer. These British elite turned a blind eye to Hitler's dictatorial rule and fanatical anti-Semitism. They admired the positive changes he had brought to post-World War I Germany. As Stevens asserts, those among British high society who once supported Hitler and his fascist Nazi movement conveniently forgot this when war was declared. They felt shame and deep regret for their flirtation with Hitler—even more so when the appalling murder and genocide of his regime became clear. In light of this, Stevens is justified in feeling it is unfair Lord Darlington has been singled out for his association with Nazis like Herr Ribbentrop, and accused of being an anti-Semite and treasonous pro-Nazi.

Another prominent admirer of Darlington Hall's silver is Lord Halifax. His visit to the hall illustrates the high-level game of politics Lord Darlington is playing. Lord Halifax was foreign secretary in Neville Chamberlain's government. As Prime Minister, Chamberlain was responsible for the policy of appeasement which allowed Germany to rebuild its military strength and attack Poland in 1940. Lord Halifax's position as foreign secretary allowed him to influence Chamberlain's political decisions. It was logical for Lord Darlington to try to enlist his support for improving conditions in Germany. For this he arranged the meeting between Lord Halifax and Herr Ribbentrop.

Herr Ribbentrop is another historic figure who played a key role in global politics leading up to World War II. Herr Ribbentrop was German Ambassador to Great Britain from 1936 to 1938 and, as alluded to in Stevens's narrative, a welcomed guest of the elites. He joined the Nazi party in 1932. Over the next seven years, on behalf of Hitler, he negotiated various treaties on behalf of Germany with Britain, Russia, Japan, and Italy. Each treaty helped to set the stage for war and cleared the way for German aggression. After the war Ribbentrop was tried at Nuremburg, found guilty of war crimes, and hanged.

Sir Oswald Mosley, the British Union of Fascists, and the "blackshirts" are further historical references made in this chapter. Mosley was an English politician who embraced the same fascist, anti-Semitic views as the Nazi party. He was leader of the British Union of Fascists from 1932 to 1940. His followers, called "blackshirts" for the uniform they wore, were known for circulating anti-Semitic propaganda and holding hostile protests in London's Jewish neighborhoods. Mosley was interned for three years following the outbreak of World War II. His presence at Darlington Hall on three occasions is sufficient to cast a cloud of suspicion over Lord Darlington's political activities.

Even as Stevens's recollections expose Lord Darlington's questionable association, he remains intensely loyal to his lordship. He considers him a noble gentleman and claims it was a privilege to serve him—to practice his profession "at the very fulcrum of great affairs." In his pattern of admission and denial, Stevens admits his lordship's association with fascists and anti-Semites, and then denies its implications. He dismisses negative interpretations of his lordship's actions as "salacious nonsense."

Stevens returns once again to the topic of greatness and serving greatness. It is becoming obvious he desperately wants to matter; to feel he has made some meaningful contribution to humanity. Though he humbly downplays his role and its effect, he expresses great pride in it. Nevertheless, it somehow seems a hollow pride. By dwelling on the subject, Stevens seems to be trying to convince himself as well as the reader that what he did was both honorable and significant.

Stevens also returns to the "small errors" that plague him. The incident with the silver fork seems disturbing for two reasons: it represents an error and is reminiscent of his father's failing abilities when, as under-butler, polishing the silver was his job. It stirs Stevens's fears of becoming like his father. Without his work, what is he? He has no other life. He assigns himself a new burden: to show Mr. Farraday all that is best about service in England.

Not surprisingly, Stevens's thoughts turn once more to Miss Kenton. She is a reminder of a time when things seemed more clear and simple, and her return to the hall may bring back a sense of those fondly remembered days. However, he is beginning to question his initial reading of her letter. On this journey he has been thinking deeply about the past and has been unsettled by memories that do not bear close scrutiny. Now, he begins to doubt Miss Kenton's wish to return—indicating, perhaps, that he realizes his perceptions of reality may be unreliable.

Stevens's unreliability as a narrator is, in fact, becoming more apparent. His memories are filled with conflict between delusion and truth; between what he believed at the time (or deceived himself into believing) and what was really going on. For example, Stevens labels as ridiculous the rumors of Lord Darlington's anti-Semitism and his link to the British Union of Fascists. He then contradicts himself by alluding to an unfortunate incident at the hall involving Jewish staff members as well as three visits by BUF leader Sir Oswald Mosley. Another layer of self-deception is added when he stresses the irrelevance of Mosley and his organization to the heart of British political life, knowing full well their influence among the elites of the time.

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