The Remains of the Day | Study Guide

Kazuo Ishiguro

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Course Hero, "The Remains of the Day Study Guide," December 29, 2016, accessed August 17, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Remains-of-the-Day/.

The Remains of the Day | Plot Summary

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Summary

The Remains of the Day tells of a man's journey into the past during a motoring trip through the English countryside. Told from a first-person perspective, the story is narrated in the form of a diary by an English butler named Stevens. It begins in July 1956 at Darlington Hall, where Stevens has worked for 34 years. The hall now is owned by Mr. Farraday, an outgoing American businessman. Farraday purchased the estate following the death of its previous owner, Lord Darlington.

Always conscious of himself as a butler, Stevens has difficulty relating to his new employer. Though he likes Mr. Farraday, he is unaccustomed to the gentleman's relaxed, more familiar manner. In particular he struggles with Mr. Farraday's fondness for joking, which Stevens terms "bantering." He feels he is expected to join in, but decades of dignified restraint make it difficult. However, throughout the novel Stevens repeats his desire to please his employer by improving his bantering skills.

One afternoon Farraday invites Stevens to take a driving holiday. He offers Stevens the use of his Ford. Stevens accepts after he receives a letter from the hall's former housekeeper, Miss Kenton, who left service 20 years earlier to marry. Her letter's nostalgic tone suggests she wishes to return to Darlington Hall, and Stevens decides to use the trip to visit her and assess whether this is so. Currently, the house staff is limited to four people and several "small errors" have occurred. He reasons "with her great affection for this house, with her exemplary professionalism," Miss Kenton is just what he needs to eliminate the problems. There are hints the butler's intentions also may be personal. He seems especially attentive to indications in her letter that her marriage is falling apart.

Armed with a road atlas titled The Wonder of England, Stevens sets off from Darlington Hall. Over the next six days, he records his thoughts in his diary, interweaving the events of the trip with recollections of the past when Darlington Hall was at the hub of great international affairs. Throughout the hall's glory days in the 1920s and 1930s, Stevens served Lord Darlington, whom he describes as a man with "a deep sense of moral duty." As he recalls the course of events between World War I and World War II, Stevens repeatedly reassures himself that, by serving this good and noble gentleman, he was serving humanity.

Stevens's recorded stories sketch out his relationship with Lord Darlington and the evolution of his lordship's involvement in political affairs. Gradually, a picture emerges of elaborate dinners, secret meetings, and political intrigue; of frequent "off the record" visits by powerful, influential people; and of Lord Darlington's ruinous entanglements in foreign policy. It becomes clear his lordship sympathized with the Nazis and was Hitler's pawn in a diplomatic game to influence the British government. Even so, Stevens loyally maintains "Lord Darlington wasn't a bad man. He wasn't a bad man at all," though the bond of trust between them was broken, leaving Stevens engulfed by the sense his life has been wasted.

Entwined with these memories are others involving Stevens's father, William, who works at Darlington Hall in his declining years. Once a head butler, he now is in his 70s, and the best position he can acquire is under-butler at the hall. Stevens reveres his father and believes he epitomizes greatness in a butler. However, the two men rarely converse, and familial love is never expressed until the elder Stevens is dying, and even then only in the most reserved terms possible. Both men seem afflicted with the inability to communicate emotion. However, Stevens carefully protects his father's sense of dignity when the elderly man's workload proves to be too much and he suffers a humiliating fall. He also stubbornly denies his father's failing ability to serve. When his father is dying, Stevens is not present, choosing to perform his duties as butler rather than stay at his father's side—as he believes his father would have wished.

Stevens's most guarded, yet intimate relationship involves the housekeeper, Miss Kenton, who comes to Darlington Hall in 1922—the same year as his father. Though never explicitly stated, Stevens's feelings for Miss Kenton deepen over the course of her 14-year service. He recalls entire conversations and moments of dreadful indecision when his desire to reach out emotionally battles against his self-protective reserve. He struggles to keep their relationship on a professional footing, while Miss Kenton gently tries to break past the walls of his restraint. His efforts to push her away become more forceful as his buried feelings grow. Eventually, Miss Kenton leaves to marry another man, causing Stevens deep but unacknowledged regret.

The culmination of Stevens's journey is bittersweet. He meets with Miss Kenton—now Mrs. Benn—and learns that, while she has often wondered what life would have been like with Stevens, she has grown to love her husband and their daughter is expecting a child. She no longer dwells on what might have been and will not return to Darlington Hall. Stevens is devastated. Fully realizing how much he had been hoping she would return, he admits, "At that moment, my heart was breaking." He does not tell her, but he confirms she is correct: "it is too late to turn back the clock." The two say goodbye, and Stevens heads back to Darlington Hall. He decides it is time to give up living in the past, to enjoy his remaining days, and to perfect his bantering skills. The art of bantering, he concludes, may not be such a foolish pastime after all, especially if it holds the key to the intimacy and compassion—the human warmth—missing from his life.

The Remains of the Day Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 James Stevens sets out on a road trip to visit Miss Kenton.

Rising Action

2 Each day's experiences spark memories uncovering the past.

3 Steven's father and Miss Kenton join his staff in 1922.

4 Mr. Stevens has a fall; his health fails.

5 Lord Darlington's involvement with the Germans begins.

6 Secret conference of 1923 takes place; Mr. Stevens dies.

7 Lord Darlington falls under the influence of the Nazis.

8 The hall becomes a hub of political power and intrigue.

9 Romantic tensions grow between Stevens and Miss Kenton.

10 A covert meeting at the hall ensures Lord Darlington's ruin.

Climax

11 Miss Kenton becomes engaged; Stevens loses her forever.

Falling Action

12 After WWII, Lord Darlington is labeled a Nazi-sympathizer.

13 Darlington dies a ruined man; the hall is sold to Farraday.

14 Miss Kenton remains contentedly married to Mr. Benn.

Resolution

15 Stevens's journey ends, and he resolves to let the past go.

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