The Remains of the Day | Study Guide

Kazuo Ishiguro

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The Remains of the Day | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro's third novel, was published in 1989 and is told through the eyes of Mr. Stevens, a butler working for the aristocrat Lord Darlington. The story describes Stevens's relationships with his employer and with Miss Kenton, the housekeeper, whom he never dared to love. The novel explores the concepts of dignity and moral responsibility in the years leading up to World War II.

The novel is revered for its restrained but elegant prose and its depiction of the fading world of the British aristocracy. It won the 1989 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and a 2006 vote as one of the top 10 best British novels.

1. The title The Remains of the Day came from a phrase by Sigmund Freud.

Ishiguro related that he named the novel when he was talking with a group of writers at a conference. The poet Judith Herzberg mentioned a German word from Freud's work, Tagesreste, meaning "the debris of the day." Freud used the word to refer to dreams. Ishiguro was taken with this idea, saying, "It seemed to me right in terms of atmosphere."

2. Ishiguro's mother survived the atomic bomb attack on Nagasaki.

Ishiguro and his family moved to England when he was five years old. His family was from Nagasaki, Japan, and was living there when U.S. forced dropped the second atomic bomb on the city in 1945. Ishiguro stated that people there spoke of the bomb as if it were a natural disaster, without judgment or bitterness. His grandfather, he said, "died shortly after the bomb due to the radiation almost certainly," but his mother was working in a factory at the time and wasn't harmed.

3. Ishiguro considers Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoevsky "god-like."

In speaking about how he wrote his novels, including The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro stated, "I have these two god-like figures in my reading experience: Chekhov and Dostoevsky." Ishiguro acknowledged that he has tried to write more like Chekhov, using "the spare and the precise, the carefully controlled tone." But he claims to "envy" the "mess" and "chaos" of Dostoevsky's writing. The Remains of the Day is certainly more spare and precise than messy and chaotic.

4. The film adaptation of The Remains of the Day was nominated for eight Academy Awards.

Opening in 1993 to nearly universal positive reviews, the film version of The Remains of the Day starred Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Reviewers called it "subtle," "affecting," and "a heartbreaker of a movie." It was nominated for eight Oscars—but won none; it did win a BAFTA (the British Oscars) and several other awards.

5. Ishiguro wrote The Remains of the Day in a work style he termed "The Crash."

After making no progress on The Remains of the Day over the period of a year, Ishiguro and his wife planned "The Crash": he would write from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. six days a week for four weeks. He explained, "The priority was simply to get the ideas surfacing and growing." He wrote freehand, and at the end of the four-week period had the entire novel written (though he would have to rewrite and edit it later).

6. Ishiguro considers the butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day to be a monstrous version of himself.

Talking with writer Neil Gaiman about writing The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro explained that the character of the butler Stevens included "a very small, negative set of impulses in myself." These included the fear of love and the impulse to ignore the moral implications of actions. He exaggerated those traits until he felt that Stevens had become a "monstrous manifestation." He said, "The butler doesn't look like a conventional monster, but I always thought that he was a kind of monster."

7. One critic thought the butler's character in The Remains of the Day was more Japanese than English.

Critic Alan Stone states that he felt Ishiguro made the butler Stevens into a kind of samurai character who prized honor over life. Stone notes, "One begins to wonder if The Remains of the Day truly tells a story of English life and sensibilities." Whether Stevens's character is truly English or not, however, Stone believes that "this sad story may not be authentically English, but it is all too human."

8. Ishiguro was inspired by Tom Waits's song "Ruby's Arms" when writing The Remains of the Day.

Ishiguro believed he had finished his novel when he heard the Tom Waits song "Ruby's Arms." In the ballad a soldier leaves his lover asleep, and the speaker overcomes a terrible resistance to admit that his heart is breaking. Ishiguro was inspired by that moment to change the unyielding character of the butler Stevens, saying, "I decided that at just one point—which I'd have to choose very carefully—his rigid defense would crack, and a hitherto concealed tragic romanticism would be glimpsed."

9. Lord Darlington's admiration of Nazis in The Remains of the Day reflected that of real aristocrats.

Lord Darlington, the aristocrat for whom the butler Stevens works in The Remains of the Day, was a Nazi sympathizer, and in fact many of Britain's real aristocrats felt as he did during the lead-up to World War II. According to Lawrence James's book Aristocrats, anti-Semitism and a fear of communism and its effect on the aristocratic class fueled this attitude. Even the Duke of Windsor, who had been King Edward VIII before he abdicated, admired Hitler.

10. Ishiguro originally wanted to be a rock musician.

Ishiguro played guitar and piano and wrote songs growing up, and as he stated, "I am not quite sure if I wanted to be a musician or a rock star." When his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, was published in 1982, he decided, "Well, I had better make a go of this career." However, he has written several songs for the jazz singer Stacey Kent.

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