Bantering as a Framing Device in The Remains of the Day

Randall Bass, Assistant Professor of English, Georgetown University

In the "Prologue" to Ishiguro's novel, the circumstances precipitating Stevens' physcial and introspective journey are largely determined by the new character of his employer. After a lifetime of working for a true British Lord, Stevens now works for a wealthy American who has bought Darlington Hall and retained Stevens in the hopes of getting a couple true British "originals."

The presence of this new American ownership and employment both launches and galvanizes many of the threads that run throughout the novel, signalling that the social order that had once validated the character of Darlington Hall (and by extension its master and butler) have undergone a significant transformation. One of the subtle by definitive signs of these changes is one distinct difference in the new employer, Mr. Farraday's, habit of bantering with Stevens. As Stevens remarks to the reader,

It is quite possible, then, that my employer fully expects me to respond to his bantering in a like manner, and considers my failure to do so a form of negligence. This is, as I say, a matter which has given me much concern. But I must say this business of bantering is not a duty I feel I can ever discharge with enthusiasm. It is all very well in these changing times, to adapt one's work to take in duties not traditionally within one's realm; but bantering is of another dimension altogether. For one thing, how would one know for sure that at any given moment a response of the bantering sort is truly what is expected? (16)

The enormous stress that bantering puts on Stevens as a sign of changing orders returns in the novel's closing pages to frame and somehow take the measure of Stevens' journey to self-knowledge. One critic summarizes it this way:

As the sun finally sets on the British empire, we hope that Stevens will replace his unquestioning loyalty to one master with membership in the larger human community. However, old habits of mind reassert themselves ina new guise. His means of experiencing human warmth, Stevens decides, is to learn the art of bantering which his new master indulges in and which he seems to expect his English butler to reciprocate. If bantering is defined as verbal game-playing, we could interpret Stevens' decision as a bid for freedom, at least on a verbal level. But alas, Stevens' attitude to bantering is inevitably butler-like--he envisages it as a service he must perform to please his new employer...In other words, Stevens will learn a new trick to perform for a new master. Even as he acknowledged the waste of his life in service to a discredited master, he prepares to devote the reast of his life to another. (MLS unpublished ms.)

Think about how the act of bantering in the novel is a discursive act--that is, it is not merely verbal play, but a specific kind of interaction intricately bound up with certain assumptions and hierarchies of power.

How does Stevens' debate over his willingness to engage in bantering reveal to the reader his complete subjugation by discourse?

How might Stevens' resolution to learn how to banter constitute an act of mimickry associated with the discourse of colonized subjects?

Postcolonial Web United Kingdom OV Ishiguro OV Remains of the Day