The Self and the Ideal of Service in Ishirguro's The Remains of the Day

Randall Bass PhD '91 (English)

In The Remains of the Day, the butler, Stevens, is portrayed as having a sense of "self" that is completely defined by his ideal of service -- that is, his entire is identity is bound up with serving his master. As one reviewer puts it, "Stevens has lived a repressed and stilted life in pursuit of an illusory goal and is left to reconcile himself to the truth that the man he served was hardly as honorable or noble as he believed" (The Nation, 12/18/89). Another critic says,

As memories reverberate in Stevens's solitude, he is forced to look at the implications of his obedience, to face the truth about the employer he revered for not only his breeding but his virtue, and to realize that, along with his butlerine perfection, he has sold his soul. (The Servant, Rhoda Koenig, New York , October 16, 1989).

Stevens values his ability to "serve" and considers its virtue to lie in the totality of appropriation by the role. Stevens says at one point,

The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost; they will not be shaken by external events, however surprising, alarming or vexing. They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit. (42-43)

What are the costs of Stevens' ideals of service and self-sacrifice? Does a socio-economic system that depends on "servants" necessitate that a segment of the population be denied its sense of "self"? Is there a diametric opposition between self and service?

One critic has suggested that Stevens' relationship to his Lord/Master mimes that of a Colonizing power to its colonized subjects? How might Stevens' sense of service render him an ideal colonized subject?

Postcolonial Web United Kingdom OV Ishiguro OV Remains of the Day