Social Structures and Questioning Roles in The Remains of the Day and In Custody

Jennifer Ellingson, English 27, 1997

Deven, the passive-aggressive college lecturer of Anita Desai's In Custody, and Stevens, the English butler of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day are both self-sacrificing servants devoted to a hierarchical order upon which they base their sense of dignity. Deven has devoted himself to the perpetuation of Urdu, the dying language of Indian court days, through the prostration of himself to an elderly Urdu poet, Nur. Stevens lives his life based on the premise that he can best serve humanity by serving the "great gentleman," Lord Darlington, who in Stevens' words, "embodies all that I find noble and admirable."(200)

In addition to being servants (literally or figuratively), these men are simultaneously masters. Deven, through socially mandated patriarchy, holds power over the fate of not only his wife, but an aspiring poetess. As a butler, Stevens holds a slight professional advantage over the housekeeper, Miss Kenton, but he doesn't realize until years after their professional relationship how much power he held over her personal life. His professional indifference to her personal feelings toward him impact the course of her life, resulting in her loveless marriage. His failure to take responsibility for his own beliefs, instead of robotically deferring his conscience to his employer, the great gentleman Darlington, also causes Miss Kenton emotional turmoil and loss of self-respect. Although Miss Kenton is deeply disturbed by the dismissal of the Jewish maids, Stevens refuses to validate her moral misgivings. Yet when Darlington declares the discrimination a mistake some time later, and Stevens admits for the first time (even to himself?) that "the whole matter caused him great concern," Miss Kenton poignantly emphasizes his moral responsibility to voice his conscience, for the sake of others even more than his own:

Do you realize, Mr. Stevens, how much it would have meant to me if you had thought to share your feelings last year? You knew how upset I was when my girls were dismissed. Do you realize how much it would have helped me? Why, Mr. Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?(153)

Miss Kenton's heartfelt question illustrates that self-imposed passivity does not free one from individual moral responsibility. Although Mr. Stevens may not have had power to significantly alter the situation of the Jewish maids, his disloyalty to his own conscience in preference to someone else's is also disloyalty to Miss Kenton. By implicitly sanctioning an immoral act, Stevens discourages others from acting according to their own conscience, and invalidates the righteous guilt or sense of wrongdoing felt by Miss Kenton.

Deven, on the other hand, is pandering, cowardly, meek, and yet perfectly capable of lording whatever power he may lack in the world of men over his wife Sarla and her family. In all fairness to Deven's unfortunate character, this last tendency is as much an accepted aspect of gender relations in his society as it is of his own personality. So while he lives a life of humiliation, self-contempt, and loneliness (occasionally indulging in his bitter belief that he was meant for better), he preserves the gender hierarchy not only to maintain his own idea of dignity, but in his mind, that of his wife's:

His position of power over her, a position that was as important to her as to him: if she ceased to believe in it, what would there be for her to do, where would she go? Such desolation could not be admitted. (194)

Whether or not Sarla feels similarly, we never know. Yet we do learn that Sarla too has humble (grandiose to her?) ambitions of middle-class. Furthermore, we also learn of at least one woman who certainly does not depend on male dominance for her self-dignity. Nur's poetess-wife, Imtiaz Begum, solicits Deven to read her Urdu poetry, new poetry which could revive the dying language and art which Deven worships. Whether a woman can be talented or not in this male-dominated art is irrelevant to the story because we never find out. Deven will not deviate from his preconceived social values so much as to read the woman's poetry before ripping it to shreds. The interaction of their socially assigned roles is not lost on Imtiaz Begum:

Is it not you who has made me play the role of the loose woman in gaudy garments by refusing to take my work seriously and giving me just that much regard that you would extend to even a failure in the arts as long as the artist was male? In this unfair world that you have created what else could I have been but what I am?(196)

Here, Imtiaz accuses Deven of being responsible for her degraded condition: responsible as a male in a male dominated society, but more so as a weak individual, incapable of questioning the prejudices which prevent her from achieving her dreams. Ironically, those selfsame prejudices prevent him from realizing his own dream of preserving Urdu poetry. Although the rigid social structure ultimately serves no one's best interests, Deven proves too weak to even question it, much less surmount it. Just as Deven finds the bus can carry him easily out of Mirapore, the town in which he believed he was confined, Desai clearly wants the reader to understand that the rigidity of these societal structures stems from boundaries of the human psyche and not inexorable laws or truths. Deven fails to live up to his responsibility to question.

Be they servants or masters, Deven and Stevens both fail to achieve their aspirations of dignity due to the rigidity of the roles they impose on themselves and others. Ultimately, however, Stevens exhibits sufficient strength of character to come to terms with his misguided principles late in life, whereas Deven refuses to confront the possibility that the entire social order upon which he places his values could be ill-founded.

Both Deven's and Stevens' preconceptions about their roles in relationship to the rest of the world are challenged when they travel outside their respective isolated realms of Mirapore and Darlington Hall. Deven is disillusioned by the degenerate lifestyle he finds Nur leading, but rather than abandon or even reevaluate his object of worship, he instead scorns the revelers and women who surround him. Stevens is also confronted with conflicting ideas when he drives to see Mrs. Benn (née Kenton). The common people he encounters do not fit into his framework of deference to presumed greater ability of the nobility. The villagers treat him excellently, complimenting him on his personal dignity. Yet when they voice their distaste of another nobleman with less of that elusive quality, Ishiguro makes it clear to the reader that they do not base their evaluations solely upon apparent class. Furthermore, the outspoken Harry Smith makes his simple yet provocative statement that: "We've all got strong opinions here and its our responsibility to get them heard."(189) At first Stevens dismisses these democratic ideals, yet by incorporating these experiences in the village into his reflections on the past, his moral rationalization of the slavery of his mind, (as opposed to mere servitude as employment) becomes less and less convincing to the reader and to Stevens as well.

Responsibility to question roles is a theme of both novels. Throughout The Remains of the Day, Stevens expounds on his criteria for dignity, continually reflecting on his class-structured beliefs, and the manner in which he has lived his life. This moral-intellectual need for Stevens to rationalize, and believe in his moral purpose results in his eventual shame and revision of his conceptions of dignity: "I can't even say I made my own mistakes. Really—one has to ask oneself—what dignity is there in that?"(243) He is forced to accept his painful mistakes -- including his loyalty to a misguided Nazi sympathizer and his emotional neglect of Miss Kenton who loved him -- albeit that these epiphanies come too late in life to reverse the most biting of what he had (or more to the point, had not) done.

Deven, on the other hand spares himself this painful process of self-realization with which he can not cope, for "if it were not perfect, and constant, then it would all have been for nothing, it would be nothing."(192) The prospect that his self-sacrificing misery as a poorly paid teacher living in a hovel could be for nothing, the prospect that the social order which prostrates him to others, yet empowers him over some, could be based on false premises is much too dangerous. Such an internal revolution would leave him the same demeaned role, without the rationale of order. Deven has bought into, is integrated in an order which oppresses him, so to maintain his dignity he must at least uphold patriarchy! He could no longer consider his mediocre life virtuous if a woman could succeed as an Urdu poet, so he refuses to risk the possibility.

Both Desai and Ishiguro present hierarchy— gender hierarchy in In Custody, and class hierarchy in The Remains of the Day— as difficult to overcome, particularly because both masters and servants so identify themselves with their role within it. Deven envisions any alteration of the system as "desolation," and Stevens feels compelled to maintain professionalism at all times "except when completely alone." Yet what divides Stevens from Deven? What accounts for the fact that Stevens eventually comes to question his role whereas Deven does not? A key difference between the characters of Deven and Stevens is their motivations, and thus the reader's willingness to sympathize with their plights. Stevens contemplates "greatness" in his role as a butler, with the ultimate objective of serving humanity to his utmost ability.

Those of us who wish to make our mark must realize that we best do so by concentrating on what is within our realm; that is to say by devoting our attention to providing the best possible service to those great gentlemen in whose hands the destiny of civilization truly lies.(199)

Where Stevens, albeit misguidedly, idolizes his employer Darlington for his perceived qualities of greatness in serving civilization, Deven, on the other hand, fantasizes about social prestige and idolizes Nur, who embodies for him a past era of luxury and high art. Could their willingness to honestly reflect upon their beliefs be related to their differing value systems? Or is it a question of time in which Deven's aged character will in "The Remains of [his] Day" regret opportunities lost? In any case, the end of In Custody does not leave us with optimism for Deven's future success in his endeavors, and in the same way The Remains of the Day ends on a feeble note of hope, somewhat overshadowed by the overwhelming comprehension of an irretrievable happiness and much-sought-after dignity.

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