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The Remains of the Day | Motifs


Wheel and Ladder

The wheel is a familiar symbol in European literature, generally represented as the wheel of fortune, to which humanity is strapped. As it turns, humans are subjected either to the heights of fame or the lows of ignominy. Stevens's different interpretation of the wheel presumes a greater degree of control over one's fate than is normally associated with this symbol and reflects both his and his country's arrogance and naiveté.

The motif of the wheel and ladder illustrates Stevens's view of the world he inhabits and his role in it. Stevens explains "butlers of my father's generation, I would say, tended to see the world in terms of a ladder ... Our generation, I believe it is accurate to say, viewed the world not as a ladder, but more as a wheel."

In other words his father's generation saw the social structure of British society as based on a vertical hierarchy. At the top were the royalty and the aristocracy—people with wealth, land, and a title. Below them were the "new money" people, and below that, individuals possessing wealth without land or title or, at the bottom, no wealth at all. However, Stevens's generation saw their world as a wheel with the great houses as the center, or hub. Here, the great decisions were made that affected the country, influenced international affairs, and shaped the course of history. People like Stevens, with professional ambitions, aspired to work as close to the hub as their abilities permitted. To serve the great gentlemen of the time was their way of making a "contribution to the creation of a better world."


The art of bantering and Stevens's enthusiasm for it trace a critical transformation in Stevens. The butler's new employer, Mr. Farraday, enjoys a bit of lighthearted bantering now and then, which Stevens finds disconcerting. He is unaccustomed to what he describes as this "affectionate sport" which in the United States is meant to show "a good, friendly understanding between employer and employee." Not only is Stevens unsure how to respond but, on occasion, is quite astonished by things his employer says. Nevertheless, he is determined to please Mr. Farraday and somehow learn the art of bantering.

Stevens's initial efforts stem from of a stiff sense of duty, and not a true desire to relate to his new employer in a friendlier manner. He approaches the issue carefully and methodically, with uncomfortable results. However, by the end of his physical and emotional journey, Stevens at last embraces the art of a friendly exchange as the possible key to human warmth, which is something he longs for. He renews his resolve to improve his skills and surprise his employer.

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