The Remains of the Day | Study Guide

Kazuo Ishiguro

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The Remains of the Day | Prologue : July 1956: Darlington Hall | Summary

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Summary

The period is July 1956. A genial American, Mr. Farraday, has recently purchased Darlington Hall. Situated near Oxford, England, the great house was the residence of the Darlington family for 200 years. James Stevens, a butler well past his prime, has stayed on to serve the new owner.

Now Stevens ponders a journey he is about to take. Recently, Mr. Farraday has suggested Stevens take a few days to get out and see the country. Mr. Farraday will be returning to America for five or six weeks, and he does not expect Stevens to stay "locked up" in the house all the time he is away. He invites Stevens to use his car and even offers to "foot the bill for the gas."

Stevens dismisses the idea until a letter arrives from a former employee, Miss Kenton, who once served as housekeeper at Darlington Hall. After several careful readings of her letter, Stevens believes it hints at her desire to return to service at the hall. Her presence would be a boon. In the past the spacious hall had been staffed with as many as 28 servants. Stevens has been struggling to run things with a staff of four: himself, Mrs. Clements, and two hired girls, Rosemary and Agnes. Several errors have occurred—small ones, but nonetheless troubling.

Stevens resolves to take a driving trip to Cornwall, in the West Country, where Miss Kenton has been living since she left Darlington Hall. A casual visit will allow him to discover if she is truly interested in returning to employment at the hall. Carefully, he plans what he will wear, ever mindful he is a representative of Darlington Hall. He examines a road atlas and consults Volume III of The Wonder of England, a series of travel books written by Mrs. Jane Symons. He last studied this particular volume 20 years ago to learn more about the region where Miss Kenton had gone to live with her husband. At last there is nothing left to do but obtain Mr. Farraday's final permission for the journey.

Tactfully timing the moment for broaching the subject, Stevens brings it up while serving his employer afternoon tea. As he is explaining that the former housekeeper lives in the West Country region—where he is proposing to go—Stevens realizes he has not discussed the idea of adding to the staff. He pauses awkwardly, and Mr. Farraday takes it that Stevens has "a lady friend" whom he wishes to visit. His light teasing embarrasses Stevens. However, the butler maintains his professional cool, and soon his employer consents to the trip, renewing his offer to "foot the bill for the gas."

Stevens then reflects on his new employer's fondness for "bantering," which the butler assumes is because he is an American. He muses that it is, no doubt "a sign of a good, friendly understanding between employer and employee, indulged in as a kind of affectionate sport" enjoyed in that country. Even so, Stevens worries his failure to join in will be seen as a form of negligence. His job may now require him to provide entertaining banter. With some nostalgia he recalls the day when he might have discussed this with colleagues. In times past, when Darlington Hall hosted frequent gatherings of the elites, other butlers would accompany their employers. During off-duty times, they would exchange ideas on various work dilemmas. He would have liked to hear other views on the issue of "bantering." However, with so few great butlers remaining in service and the quiet that has descended on Darlington Hall, no such opportunity was likely to come his way soon.

Analysis

The novel opens in July 1956, the beginning of the historic Suez Crisis. By the end of the conflict, Great Britain and France will lose control of the vital Suez Canal, a sea-level artificial waterway in Egypt. As a result, Britain's military and political power in the Middle East will be greatly weakened. The era of Great Britain's world dominance is waning, as is the era of its great houses and politically powerful aristocrats. While never directly alluded to in the novel, these dramatic shifts in power and influence, both global and social, are evident in the changed conditions at Darlington Hall and the mindset of various people encountered in the novel.

The prologue introduces Stevens, who is both the narrator and central figure in the story, and provides important insights into his character. It also introduces Darlington Hall, which will be the setting for Stevens's memories as he travels to Cornwall. Miss Kenton's letter serves as the motivation for his physical journey as well as a portal to the past and his emotional journey.

One of the first clues to Stevens's character is his formal manner of speaking. At all times Stevens strives to be clear and precise, mimicking the language of the aristocracy whom he serves. It is all part of his role as a gentleman's gentleman and is especially evident in stiff phrases such as "On seeing my person" or use of the word "one" instead of "I." The rigid formality of his speech—which never wavers—also indicates the determined, poker-faced reserve with which Stevens faces the world.

This section also sets up Stevens's habit of revealing information and then minimizing its significance with descriptive labels such as "small," "minor," and "trivial." For example, he refers to "a series of small errors in the carrying out of my duties ... quite trivial in themselves." Yet, the errors trouble him enough to consider "all sorts of alarmist theories" (the origin of these fears, which relate to his father, becomes clear later on). Revelations that Stevens feels most deeply about are often treated with this pattern of admission and denial.

Stevens's inability to respond to Mr. Farraday's friendly suggestion that he take a holiday is telling. It takes him two weeks to accept the invitation, prompted by Miss Kenton's letter. Stevens is unaccustomed to an employer either noticing or caring about him as a human being—a fellow creature. He is the product of an era where servants were simply part of the silent machinery in a smoothly running household. In contrast, as an American, Mr. Farraday views people on a more equal footing. Stevens cannot help but see Mr. Farraday's suggestion as "just another instance of an American gentleman's unfamiliarity with what was and what was not commonly done in England."

Stevens's recollections of exactly where he was or what he is doing at certain points in the chapter provide a sense of the environment in which he works. For example, he describes dusting the portrait of Viscount Wetherby when Mr. Farraday first proposes he (Stevens) take a road trip. The portrait suggests the bygone days of aristocracy associated with Darlington Hall. "The strangely bare study of Darlington Hall," where Stevens first meets Mr. Farraday and the "dust-sheeted" guest rooms illustrate the absence of luxury and hospitality that once distinguished the great hall.

The reduced staff number Stevens is forced to work with (from 28 down to four) is another indication Darlington Hall is not the great house it used to be. Mr. Farraday will not be holding large social occasions like those held in the past. Miss Kenton's letter reminds Stevens of those glory days, and he imagines her return will restore the air of order and professionalism that once characterized the hall. A feeling of loneliness and nostalgia for the old days emerges as he contemplates the "old ways" and how things have changed.

As Stevens admits, his careful staffing plan has fallen short, although this escaped his attention until "prompted quite accidentally" by an external event. The event is receiving Miss Kenton's letter. As the novel progresses, this pattern repeats. External events jog Stevens's memory, forcing him to confront important issues past and present.

Miss Kenton's letter prompts Stevens to take the suggested road trip, and he continues to refer to it throughout the journey. In this way the letter serves as a gateway to the past. He takes great care in reading it, so as not to misinterpret Miss Kenton's understated wish to return to Darlington Hall. With this same level of care, he prepares for the trip, weighing what he should wear so as not to make a mistake. He cannot forget he is traveling as a representative of the hall and cannot risk being an embarrassment. Even on a holiday, he will not set aside his role as a butler, and frames his excursion as a professional duty—to improve the staff plan. It is interesting to note much of his clothing is not his own, but consists of cast-offs from well-meaning gentlemen. It seems Stevens does not possess enough personal identity outside of his role of butler to express himself as an individual through his clothing.

As part of his planning, Stevens refers to the travel guide The Wonder of England by Mrs. Jane Symons. He mentions spending a good deal of time 20 years ago perusing the volume which includes the area where Miss Kenton went to live her married life. He chalks this up to curiosity; however, it is a subtle indication of his unacknowledged feelings for the former housekeeper.

Countryside books like The Wonder of England were popular during the interwar years. These books sought to highlight the rural beauty of the English landscape and to capture the essence of traditional Englishness that it symbolized. It is appropriate Stevens would use a pre-war reference as his guide. Like Stevens, the book reflects the values and standards of an era that has past.

Stevens's concerns over the issue of bantering reflect another aspect of his character. He wants to please Mr. Farraday by acquiring the skill, but his heart is not in it. He views it as an "affectionate sport" practiced only by Americans, but does not want to appear negligent in his duties by not participating. Stevens's attitude serves as a benchmark against which his personal growth can be measured during the course of the novel.

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