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The Remains of the Day | Discussion Questions 11 - 20

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In The Remains of the Day, what is Miss Kenton's motive in pointing out Mr. Stevens's mistakes?

When Miss Kenton confronts Stevens with the truth about his father's failing abilities, she is motivated personally and professionally by concern for the old man. Stevens views his father as the epitome of greatness in a butler. The notion his skills may be diminished by age is unthinkable. Miss Kenton understands Stevens's blind spot regarding his father and fears that soon the elder Stevens will commit "an error of major proportions," which could get him dismissed. Not only would this be humiliating for the aging servant, but possibly disastrous for Lord Darlington or one of his guests. By pointing out William Stevens's mistakes, Miss Kenton hopes to make Stevens see that he must reduce the workload and responsibilities currently assigned to his father before it is too late. It is telling that Stevens is incapable of accepting even such a mild reproach, showing that he is not perhaps so pliable as he would have the reader believe, even in matters related to his master.

In Chapter 2 of The Remains of the Day, what does Stevens's way of addressing his father in the third person indicate?

In this chapter Stevens must tell his father his duties are being reduced. When speaking directly to his father, Stevens uses a third person title, such as "I'm very glad Father is feeling better" and "it has been decided that Father should not carry laden trays of any sort." This manner of speaking is another indication of Stevens's respect and repressed love for his father. Stevens holds his father in high regard and is sensitive to the fact that he now fills a much lower position at Darlington Hall. For Stevens to address his father in the second person "you" would be too familiar, as if he were speaking to an equal or down to an underling. The formality of "Father" allows Stevens to acknowledge their father/son relationship and shows respect for the man's former status, while maintaining his own detached air of professional dignity. The title indicates no friendly, familial warmth. It is cool and courteous. Stevens will not permit himself to exhibit deeper feelings than this. His personal code of behavior would not permit it and neither would his father. Even Stevens's slight attempt at lightheartedness upon entering his father's room—"I might have known Father would be up and ready"—is sternly rebuffed. And throughout the conversation, the elderly man never shows respect, let alone affection, for his son by addressing him properly, or even by name.

In The Remains of the Day, what is Mr. Stevens's driving purpose as he appears to search for something on the steps where he fell?

Stevens's father, Mr. Stevens, is searching for the past and the greatness that is slipping away. He has come to work at Darlington Hall after a distinguished career as a butler. He's in his seventies, and his abilities are significantly diminished. Even his role of under-butler is proving to be too demanding. One day, while carrying a tray up steps to the summer house, he falls in full view of Lord Darlington and his guests. It is a humiliating disaster, especially for a man of his former status and reputation. Mr. Stevens, a man of tremendous pride, has achieved a noteworthy level of professional excellence. In his lower position at Darlington Hall, he struggles to hide the warning signs of aging and frailty, doing everything he is assigned, though it is increasingly difficult for him. He is too proud to confess he needs a lighter workload. Even after his fall, he returns to work with a desperate show of vigor and will not admit the fall he took was due to ill-health or a misstep. Nevertheless, on some private level, he recognizes his failing abilities, and he is determined not to let such a fall happen again. Like Stevens, he is a professional first and foremost, and a life of service is all he knows; it defines him. He returns to the steps to study them and work out what happened, and then to practice walking the pathway. As he practices, his eyes never leave the ground, as if simultaneously he is looking for "some precious jewel" that was lost—the precious jewel of vanished dignity.

In The Remains of the Day, when Stevens avoids driving over a hen in the road, why does the encounter with the hen's owner put him "in very good spirits"?

The encounter involves a spontaneous, heartfelt expression of gratitude from a stranger. While driving, Stevens stops just in time to avoid hitting a hen crossing the road. The hen's young owner witnesses the moment and rushes over to thank Stevens and retrieve the wandering hen. Stevens has been reminiscing about his father and revisiting their relationship as well as his own closely held views of dignity. Duty and restraint have ruled both. Nowhere in his account is there evidence of intimacy, spontaneity, or compassion in his role as son or as butler. His unacknowledged purpose for this journey is to salvage the one relationship that may fill that emotional void. In light of this, his near-miss encounter with the hen results in an exchange with the owner that pleasantly surprises him. The young woman is overtly grateful, without formality or restraint, and she hospitably offers Stevens a cup of tea before he goes on his way. His simple act of kindness is acknowledged, as one human being to another. This is not within the realm of Stevens's everyday experience as a butler. His devotion and flawless performance of duty are customarily taken for granted, and only his errors can be expected to be noted. Stevens finds the young woman's response novel and uplifting. It gives him hope the rest of his journey will be equally fortunate.

How do Lord Darlington's core beliefs lead to the conference of 1923 in The Remains of the Day?

Lord Darlington is an English gentleman who takes traditional values of honor and fair play seriously. His instincts are to offer generosity and friendship to the defeated Germans following World War I. He sees the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles as a kind of vendetta against the German race, and the resulting economic death-spiral in the country as terribly unjust. When his friend, former German officer Herr Bremann, commits suicide, Lord Darlington is shocked to discover the man had "been homeless for some time and his family dispersed." As Stevens states, Lord Darlington's "desire to see an end to injustice and suffering was ... deeply ingrained in his nature." He begins to devote more and more time to addressing the crisis in Germany. Over the two years following Herr Bremann's death, Lord Darlington succeeds in gathering an international alliance of influential people with the goal of calling them all to a secret, unofficial conference in March 1923. Those attending would discuss means by which the harshest terms of the treaty could be revised, with the hopes of influencing an official conference to be held later in Switzerland.

In The Remains of the Day, why is an element of farce introduced to the preparations for the conference of 1923?

Farce is a type of comedy that makes use of highly exaggerated and funny situations intended to entertain the audience. As Stevens is engulfed in preparations for the conference of 1923 at Darlington Hall, Lord Darlington makes a most unusual request. He asks Stevens to explain the facts of life to his godson, Reginald Cardinal, who is to be married soon. Dutifully, Stevens makes two amusing attempts, each of which fails, with comic effect. This thread of farce is woven through the historic and touching events of the conference. It contrasts sharply with the political intrigue and the death of Stevens's father, heightening their drama as well as relieving the tension. It also adds a special poignancy to the moment Stevens's father tries to establish contact with his son as he is dying. He has no more success than does Stevens as he tries to play the role of a father to Reginald. Finally, it explores the dramatic irony that at a time when the lives of a generation of young men and women were being decided, their own fathers could not give them sufficient guidance on the basic matters of life and death that they were now asking them to shoulder.

In The Remains of the Day, what do the American senator Mr. Lewis's final remarks at the conference of 1923 foreshadow?

Mr. Lewis's final remarks foreshadow the disastrous consequences of the softened stance toward Germany that are being promoted at the conference. A banquet is held on the final evening of the conference. Following after-dinner speeches by Lord Darlington and the French gentleman M. Dupont, the American senator Mr. Lewis rises to express a few thoughts. His words are blunt, and he accuses everyone at the conference of being decent, honest, well-meaning amateurs: "a bunch of naïve dreamers." He emphasizes that "international affairs today are no longer for gentlemen amateurs"—their noble instincts are outmoded and they will be played for fools. The implication is that the Germans should not be trusted and meddling with the Treaty of Versailles will end in disaster. His remarks foreshadow the naïve infatuation by British elites with Adolph Hitler; the political deceit practiced by German Ambassador Herr Ribbentrop on well-intentioned men like Lord Darlington; the re-arming of Germany and the rise of the Nazi regime; and the lack of a response when Germany finally violates the Treaty of Versailles. These were consequences of the relaxed terms of the treaty as well as Britain's policy of appeasement that followed. Hitler and the fascist movement were allowed to gain strength and arm Germany for a new world war.

In The Remains of the Day, why is the death of Stevens's father especially difficult for Stevens?

Stevens's father dies during the international conference of 1923 at Darlington Hall. Lord Darlington is hosting the gathering of distinguished guests from all over Europe and the United States. As head butler, it falls to Stevens to make sure the entire event runs perfectly. He knows "if any guest were to find his stay at Darlington Hall less than comfortable, this might have repercussions of unimaginable largeness." He goes so far as to give his staff a military-style pep talk, emphasizing that "history could well be made under this roof." Stevens's father is taken ill on the first day of the conference. Though concerned for his father, Stevens is unwilling or unable to let his father's failing condition interfere with his professional obligations. He returns to his duties and receives updates on his father from other staff members. He undoubtedly cares about his father and is deeply affected by the news of his death on the last evening of the conference. Through observations by Lord Darlington and Mr. Reginald Cardinal, it becomes clear Stevens is crying while he continues to serve the guests. Stevens does not know how to balance his emotional concerns for his father with the obligations imposed on him by his professional code of behavior. He is conditioned by years of determined self-training to not lose control or abandon his duty. External events must not shake him into an undignified display of emotion. "Dignity in keeping with his position" is everything to Stevens and a value he shares with his father. He struggles between safeguarding dignity and acknowledging his personal need to be with his father. If he gives in to the latter, he cannot uphold the principles of dignity, duty, and loyalty that rule his life.

In The Remains of the Day, why does Stevens feel he has met the requirements of a great butler during the conference of 1923?

During the 1923 conference, in spite of all obstacles, Stevens feels he has performed with the dignity worthy of a great butler. Stevens defines dignity as the quality separating a great butler from a merely competent one. It is a butler's "ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits." External events will not affect him or cause him to lose control. He will fulfill his duty with professionalism and calm, no matter the circumstances. For the conference, Stevens must oversee the preparation and management of the entire event. The pressure for everything to run smoothly is enormous. The least mistake could have grave consequences for the success of the conference. Stevens applies the full force of his professionalism to carrying out the task. Yet, his efforts are challenged when his father suddenly falls ill. Nevertheless, Stevens carries on, in perfect performance of his duties, leaving his father's side as he is dying. He rationalizes that this is what his father would have wanted and expected of him—to do otherwise would have been to "let him down." The wall of reserve behind which Stevens hides his feelings cracks once, briefly. Lord Darlington and Mr. Reginald Cardinal notice Stevens seems to be crying as he serves drinks to the guests on the final evening of the conference. Stevens passes this off as "the strains of a hard day." Stevens attends to his duties until the last, and no one suspects any external event has disturbed him. In fact he receives several compliments on his service. He has maintained control and not abandoned his professional being, in spite of the emotional hurt it has caused him. For this reason he feels he has achieved a degree of dignity worthy of the great butlers, including his father. Of course the scene is purposely set against the story of the butler and the tiger, making Stevens's ability, even willingness, to do away with his father and dispose of the remains in time for dinner (so to speak) seem not only undignified but monstrous.

In The Remains of the Day, how did the changing view of service to the aristocracy between Stevens's generation of butlers and his father's impact Stevens's professional choices?

Stevens uses the images of a ladder and a wheel to illustrate the differing views between generations concerning the aristocracy and service to it. Stevens's father and his generation saw society as structured like a ladder, with the aristocracy, as a group, holding the top position. This was made up of the oldest families, identified by their wealth, land ownership, and title. According to the Hayes Society, a butler would achieve the highest professional prestige by being attached to any one of these distinguished households. The Hayes Society did not apply any further standard to the family being served, such as an employer's private behavior. On the other hand, Stevens's generation of butlers saw society as structured like a wheel, with the great houses at the hub. These were the houses where, behind closed doors and out of the public eye, lofty debates were conducted and crucial decisions were made affecting the future well-being of the empire and the world. These were the houses inhabited by an aristocracy intent on furthering the progress of humanity. This was in contrast to those aristocrats concerned only with idling away time in clubs or on golf courses. Butlers of Stevens's generation considered the moral status of an employer to be necessary when defining "a distinguished household." To achieve the highest professional prestige, a butler must be attached not only to an "old" family, but to one at the hub of the wheel. Ironically, this definition contrasts many times with Stevens disavowal of the politics of the day. He claims over and over that Lord Darlington behaved morally and that he himself was unaware of the greater consequences of the occurrences at the Darlington household. Both statements cannot be true simultaneously. Either Stevens knew what Darlington was doing and approved of his actions, giving himself status as a butler in a household at the hub, or Stevens never served with dignity. He cannot have it both ways, although he desperately tries to do exactly that throughout the narrative.

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