Self-Realization in the Characterization in Ishiguro

Jen Chapin '93 (English 34, 1991)

...people, and by extension societies, come to realize things about themselves." - Kazuo Ishiguro (from NYT Book Review cited in "Kazuo Ishiguro's Life and Works," by Randall Bass)

A pivotal and even shocking moment arrives in Remains of the Day when the butler Stevens come to realize the truth about his life in the following passage:

Lord Darlington wasn't a bad man. He wasn't a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted his lordship's wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can't even say I made my own mistakes. Really -- one has to ask oneself -- what dignity is there in that? (Remains of the Day, p. 243.)

The shock derives from the directness of Stevens' confession to a complete stranger, an act completely out of the character of the ideal butler that he has constructed for himself. This contrast plays an effective part of Ishiguro's characterization of Stevens.

In reality, Stevens is peripheral, a fact that lies at the heart of the weaknesses to which he must confess. Like Omar in Rushdie's Shame, he has worn his peripheral status as a shield to protect them from the responsibilities of critical thinking and independent action. Stevens believes that his position as a servant to a "great gentleman" requires him to remain close to the hub of the wheel, but not to ask the sort of questions that would cause him to step out of his role and so take him from the periphery to active living. For Stevens, the confession is a brave and painful expression of self-knowledge that has been kept submerged for years. Like Omar, he must confess to "only-doing-my-job." When he says "one has to ask himself -- what dignity is there in that?" he finally rejects his constant justification of living not as a human being, but as solely a butler.

The crimes of Stevens and Omar are not in their actions -- however immoral some of Omar's may have been -- but in their inaction. Neither man involved himself in preventing or even worrying about the crimes that were committed by the so-called great men, but instead chose to remain in the periphery as silent witnesses to -- even recipients of -- the degradation of humanity.

Postcolonial Web United Kingdom OV Ishiguro OV Remains of the Day