The Remains of the Day | Study Guide

Kazuo Ishiguro

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The Remains of the Day | Themes



Professional principles are the driving force in James Stevens's life. Over decades of service, he has immersed himself in his profession, dedicating his existence to the principles of dignity, duty, and loyalty. His ultimate goal is to be recognized as a "great" butler. However, "greatness" has a price. Stevens must censor all expressions of personal feelings while on duty in order to inhabit—as opposed to mimic or pantomime—his professional role. He does so, but to crippling effect. By the time he rises to his position of butler at Darlington Hall, he is unable to separate himself from the role and is always "on duty" in the presence of others. He is trapped by the principles he has so zealously embraced.

Dignity is foremost among the principles which Stevens links to greatness in a butler. It requires placing service to his master above all else and binding his own destiny to his master's. Dignity requires restraint; to not "run about screaming" at the slightest hint of trouble. It demands he wear his professionalism "as a decent gentleman will wear his suit," taking it off only when he wishes to do so and in privacy, when he is entirely alone. However, once Stevens achieves this level of dignity, it leaves no room for intimacy and separates him from his humanity. All ability to bestow or receive human warmth is blocked. In the presence of others, he must always deny and displace his real feelings.

Devotion to the principle of duty becomes the outward expression of Stevens's struggle for dignity and greatness. He works hard to please his employer and takes pride in his subservience. When he stoically carries out his duties during the great conference of 1923 while his father is upstairs dying, Stevens experiences "a large sense of triumph" at the end of it all. In the face of everything, he had displayed dignity worthy of a great butler. Similarly, he feels a sense of triumph on the evening he loses Miss Kenton forever because he has submissively served his lordship well, "in a manner even my father might have been proud of."

Loyalty is linked to duty and, by Stevens's standards, is another aspect of greatness. Loyalty as an unquestioned principle does not permit Stevens to examine the actions of Lord Darlington as his lordship becomes deeply mired in international affairs. He stubbornly represses any feelings of curiosity or doubt, trusting in his lordship's good judgment. In his desire for greatness, Stevens dedicates his loyalty to a gentleman whom he perceives to have fine and noble intentions. This blind loyalty, which Stevens believes he has "intelligently bestowed," proves ruinous and casts doubt on the life path he has taken.

Social Constraints

As butler of Darlington Hall, Stevens's profession demands subservience to Lord Darlington and devotion to duty. His role as a servant is fixed within the hierarchy of social classes left over from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. His father was a butler and so, in keeping with a tradition of service within families, Stevens follows in his father's footsteps. His position and duties as a butler are defined by the rules and customs that bind the servant class. Deference to superiors and obedience are expected. Devotion to duty is required. As Stevens explains, all attention must go "to providing the best possible service to those great gentlemen in whose hands the destiny of civilization truly lies." Nothing less is acceptable. And within the distinguished houses there is no room for romantic liaisons among the servant class. Married life interferes with dedication to service, and those wishing to marry must leave the staff.

These are the class conditions under which Stevens serves and the standards he strives to meet. Always immersed in his professional role, masking his feelings as expected, and accepting the restraints on his emotional life, he eventually finds it impossible "to abandon the professional being he inhabits." He is locked in. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear this has cost him the one chance he had of finding romantic love. Furthermore, his devotion to Lord Darlington—whose life is wrecked by a misguided personal code of ethics—has ended in disillusionment and the sense his life in service has been wasted.


The theme of loss builds like a slow-moving avalanche until, at last, the weight of it becomes crushing as it descends upon the lives of Lord Darlington, Stevens, and to a lesser extent, Miss Kenton.

Lord Darlington is a gentleman with a personal code of ethics leading him to disapprove of the harsh terms imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. Seen through the eyes of Stevens, his lordship is a truly good man at heart and became involved in international affairs due to a strong sense of moral duty. However, as the story rolls out, Lord Darlington's true motives and intentions fall under suspicion. Is he a "naive dreamer" and "amateur" being manipulated by the Germans, or does he really know what he is doing? His countrymen suspect and then openly accuse him of being a Nazi-sympathizer and traitor to England. Eventually, Lord Darlington loses his reputation entirely, falls ill under the strain, and dies a broken man.

Stevens gallantly tries to defend his lordship's actions, claiming the allegations are absurd. Over the years he had placed his full confidence in Lord Darlington, certain he was a man of honor intent on serving the good of humanity. He, in turn, was doing his part in the world by serving a great man. As memories gather and their significance builds, Stevens at last must abandon his position. Clearly, his loyalty has been bestowed on an illusion of greatness. Everything he has done in service suddenly appears futile and empty. This includes the moments in which he might have chosen the duty of a son over the duty of a butler as his father lay dying, or the chances for love over the chances for greatness when Miss Kenton needs him most. Stevens loses his illusions about Lord Darlington, his cherished dignity and pride in service, his father, and what might have been a life of happiness with Miss Kenton.

Miss Kenton has built a life away from Stevens and Darlington Hall. She is married to a man who is good to her—a man she has come to love. She has a grown and married daughter who will soon have a child. However, it is a life built upon great loss. During her time at Darlington Hall, she loses the only family she has when her aunt dies. She is alone in the world. Later, she loses—or gives up on—the hope of a life with Stevens she so deeply desired. And as Stevens notes when he sees her, the years have taken "the spark which had once made her such a lively, and at times volatile person." This loss has been replaced by the touch of weariness and sadness.

Guilt and Regret

Stevens's recollections are focused on events between the two world wars in the 1920s and 1930s. Telltale episodes slowly build pictures of his relationships with his employer Lord Darlington, the housekeeper Miss Kenton, and his father, William Stevens. However, each picture on display is shadowed with guilt and regret.

Lord Darlington is an aristocrat who aligns himself, perhaps unwittingly, with the Nazis during the buildup to World War II. Publicly accused of being a traitor, he eventually dies in disgrace. Stevens serves his lordship during those years with blind and stubborn devotion, refusing to see the signs that Lord Darlington may be less than a great man who has been drawn into an evil cause. Stevens recalls during the summer of 1932 Lord Darlington assigned him the task of firing two Jewish housemaids. His lordship asserted this was necessary for the safety and well-being of his guests. Stevens states "every instinct opposed the idea of their dismissal." Nevertheless, his personal principles of duty and loyalty do not permit him to question his master's decision or motives. His job is to carry out the task "with dignity," to satisfy his lordship and his lordship's anti-Semitic guests. By not questioning his lordship's motives or actions, Stevens shares his lordship's guilt when accusations are later made. In this way the greatness to which Stevens aspires is tainted, and this becomes a source of profound regret. While Lord Darlington had the privilege of making his own mistakes, there is no dignity in the misplaced trust that tied Stevens to his master's bad decisions.

Guilt—in the sense of remorse—is very much a part of Stevens's recalled relationship with Miss Kenton, the housekeeper of Darlington Hall during the interwar years. Time and again, he remembers moments, possible "turning points" in their relationship, when a different choice might have sent them both down another path, together. On several occasions, he pushes her away and rejects her expressions of affection, as when he snubs her gift of flowers for his pantry. He misses the opportunity to console her upon the death of her aunt. And when she announces her intent to leave her position in order to marry, he lets slip his last chance to ask her to stay. His sense of remorse over these lost moments is largely denied until the end, when he learns Miss Kenton intends to stay in her marriage and not return with him to Darlington Hall. He can no longer ignore the whispers telling him those turning points were important—more so now that no chances remain for love or happiness with Miss Kenton. He acknowledges his heart is breaking, and his regret finds expression in tears.

Stevens's relationship with his father is uncomfortable and complex. He reveres his father, yet finds it difficult to relate to him beyond the professional level. Many of the values Stevens holds and the standards by which he judges himself come from his father. At the time the elder Stevens arrives to work at Darlington Hall, Stevens refuses to admit his father's years of greatness as a butler are behind him. Furthermore, he protects his father's dignity by sternly insisting that the staff—especially Miss Kenton—address the elderly man by his full title "Mr. Stevens" instead of "William." Nevertheless, he deserts his father who is dying in order to carry out his duties to Lord Darlington. He is unable to deal with his father's deathbed confession of pride in him and escapes into his servant's role, where emotion is not permitted. The only way Stevens can deflect any feelings of guilt or regret is to assert he had done what his father would have expected.

Memory and Perspective

The Remains of the Day weaves together strands of memory from Stevens's life in service at Darlington Hall. Presented from the viewpoint of Stevens, the principal strands concern his employer, his father, and the housekeeper, Miss Kenton.

Stevens recounts his memories in fragments, as they are sparked by some present event, such as Miss Kenton's letter. Each describes the past as Stevens remembers it, but from a subjective, often faulty perspective. In this way, as the narrator of the story, Stevens proves himself to be unreliable. His journal drifts from one strand to another, and each recollection is subject to his memory's whims and inconsistencies. This in turn produces likely inaccuracies and contradictions in the information being supplied. In addition he introduces highly significant episodes into the narrative while simultaneously downplaying their full importance. For example, he recalls but glosses over the political misdeeds of his employer, Lord Darlington, though their historical significance is disturbing and the outcome destroys his lordship's reputation. On occasion Stevens acknowledges that a recollection may be confused. For example, he attributes a blunt observation concerning his father's failing abilities to Miss Kenton, then admits it may well have been made by Lord Darlington.

Self-deception and denial are at the core of Stevens's unreliable memory and point of view. He clings to the principles and illusions that have sustained him in life and in his role as butler in service to a great man. However, as the story unfolds and the nature of Stevens's character becomes clear, it is possible to see past his protective façade to the truth he himself must eventually face.

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