The Remains of the Day and Postimperialism

Gregory Gipson '98, English 27, 1997

Kazuo Ishiguro's intimate novel has been called "postimperial" by George Landow. While this name may seem the occasion for another interminable definition, this is fortunately not the case; postimperialism resolves quickly in terms of postcolonialism, in that it is that, albeit written not from the perspective of the once-colonized, but the once-colonizing. Ishiguro may be Japanese, but the novel is decidedly British in tone and thinking. It follows the travels of Stevens, an old-fashioned English butler who spends much of the book looking back on his years of service to Lord Darlington before World War II. And without at least a passing knowledge of British history surrounding the war, the novel is an incomprehensible muddle -- events and ideas swirl around without any means of resolution. With a knowledge of that history (that context) the novel becomes almost frighteningly rich, layered and complex. Let us probe this phenomenon a bit.

The Remains of the Day is a novel encrusted with complexity, all of it relying on two crucial components: the reader's intimate understanding of Stevens' character, and the context that character and the time periods involved create. On the one hand, the novel is a story of character, a dense probing of a single man and his mind. On the other, it is a complicated critique of imperialism and empire. This critique begins at the very first page. Stevens begins by explaining that he will soon take a voyage, one suggested by his new employer, and American named Faraday. He goes on to wander mentally into discussion of Mr. Faraday's manners and custom. One curious incident foreshadows the text to come: Stevens relates Mr. Faraday's habit of "bantering," as he phrases it, and his own efforts to do the same, mentioning his last attempt, when some gypsies had wandered loudly by the house in the night, and, the following morning, Mr. Faraday had asked "I suppose it wasn't you making that crowing noise this morning, Stevens?" And Stevens responded "More like swallows than crows, I would have said, sir. From the migratory aspect." When his witticism is met with confusion, Stevens reflects that ". . . of course, my witticism would not be easily appreciated by someone who was not aware that it was gypsies who had passed by," (17) the sort of confusion which will continue to haunt Stevens throughout the novel. Such a question does not even arise in the film, but more of that later, I promise. For now, I want to continue with the novel. Specifically, I want to trace the progress of postimperialist evaluation briefly as it spreads throughout the novel.

Stevens spends almost the entire novel in reminiscence over his days serving Lord Darlington, and goes to considerable effort to defend that man's actions, which, we learn over time, ultimately came under heavy public criticism. Lord Darlington was, by all accounts, "a classic English gentleman. Decent, honest, and well-meaning" (102). As such, he made an effort to dabble in politics, trying to ease the pains of Germany in the years following World War I. To him, the situation was "deeply disturbing. It does us great discredit to treat a defeated foe like this. A complete break with the traditions of this country" (71). Thus Lord Darlington's political dealings start innocently enough: hosting informal conferences aimed at convincing the powers that be to ease the burden of reparations, acting essentially out of goodwill. Things darken, however, as he becomes more involved with the Nazi party, more sympathetic to those ideas. He dismisses Jewish servants, consorts with Black Shirts (who, the astute reader notices, were the British fascist party), and ultimately holds a conference aimed at appeasement, involving Neville Chamberlain (again, the contextualized reader notes that Chamberlain was the master of appeasement, of "peace at any cost," who defended his actions on the grounds that "I have Mr. Hitler's word, and Mr. Hitler is a good Christian gentleman.") and others. Indeed, Chamberlain is referred to only as "the prime minister," and historical knowledge only provides his actual identity. The point of all this plot summary is that the novel intrinsically leans on political history; it is by its nature political, demanding a political reading of the sort which postcolonial readings perform. Though written by a British citizen, it no less a postcolonial novel than any we have read in this course. Perhaps I have gone to unnecessary lengths to foreground this idea; in light of the film, however, I think it necessary.

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