The Remains of the Day: Leading Questions

Members of English 27, Postcolonial Studies, Brown University, Autumn 1997

See also the questions posed by the previous class in this course.

1. "Can it be that our Mr Stevens is flesh and blood after all and cannot fully trust himself? (156)

Stevens describes many instances in which he appears to be made of something more immortal than flesh and blood. The cold and calculated manner with which he handles his father's illness and death depicts a man of little human feeling. As his father's health wanes, Stevens visits only briefly and leaves curtly with the explanation that his duty as a butler calls more strongly than that duty of a son. Stevens shows little reaction to his father's final words, "I'm proud of you. A good son. I hope I've been a good father to you. I suppose I haven't" (97). Stevens' actions and reactions towards his dying father do not represent typical human emotions. Why does Stevens take on an inhumane role in order to fulfil his butler duties? Other examples of his lack of flesh and blood include his cruel treatment of Miss Kenton on receiving notice of her aunt's death and his inability to show affection towards anyone: neither his father, Miss Kenton, nor anyone else. Why must he control himself to the point where all human characteristics go obsolete? What can one say about the absence of these characteristics and Ishiguro's insistent descriptions of this so-called dignified butler. Can we define Mr. Stevens as both a dignified butler as well as a human lacking all dignity? [Corey Binns]

2. Stevens is a person of the past: he lives in and of memories. He bases his entire set of life values on a tradition that is coming to pass. The ethic of the English butler was more germane to his father's generation than his own. Thus as Stevens emulates and strives for his father's impeccable professional dignity as butler of the house of Darlington, he is almost the sole individual to be able to judge his achievments, since he is one of few to have retained the corresponding set of values to appriciate the performance of a butler. Farrington, Stevens' new American employer, only requested a traditional English butler of the best renown, but ultimately he is in no position to gauge for himself the quality of how he is served. The only pool of values in which it makes sense for a butler to develop certain virtues, is to be drawn from the past. Thus Stevens revolves on memories, drawing his purpose from what is past.

Though the main plot takes place when the Darlington era and work with Miss Kent are long past, the bulk of the story focuses on that past more than on more actual developments. Stevens' four day road trip is of little consequence in the novel, until he meets Miss Kent again after many years of leading separate lives. Even when they meet, the words they exchange are argueably completely euphemistic; they only ring powerful and meaningful to a reader who has strolled with Stevens through many memories of past days.

Interestingly, even this meeting is related as an event of the past. Day after day, the road trip progresses in sequence as Stevens makes his way towards Miss Kent. But then he skips over their actual meeting, preferring to relate it as an event of the past, once he has returned to Oxfordshire, and is once more left to ruminate over his memories to pass his hours in service.

From what Stevens recounts of this episode, we learn how Miss Kent interrogates Stevens on the neglected question of the future: "'And what about you, Mr Stevens? What does the future hold for you back at Darlington Hall?'" The question is left in suspension so to speak, since Stevens extracts himself from answering in butler fashion, "'Well, whatever awaits me, Mrs Benn, I know I'm not awaited by emptiness. If only I were. But oh no, there's work, work and more work.' We both laughed at this," Stevens-narrator adds. Later in the same conversation, Miss Kent concludes, "There's no turning back the clock now. One can't be forever dwelling on what might have been." Stevens receives her words with solemnity. What does Stevens have left to live for? Are his memories valid possessions to cling onto gratefully? How can he not ponder what could have been at this point in his life, when all he is left with are most obviously the "remains of the day" pointed out by novel's title? With these comments in mind, how is Stevens' life like one giant substraction? [Emilie Cassou]

3. In our class discussions of Remains of the Day, there was criticism of Stevens' concluding decision to practice the art of "bantering" in deference to his new employer, Mr. Farraday's apparentpreferences. What is the relationship between this undertaking of "bantering," and Stevens examination of his own "role" throughout the novel, and ultimate shame in having pledged his humanity in allegiance to the faith that Lord Darlington was a "great man?"

In class, this relationship seemed to be interpreted as a mostly pessimistic one; that Stevens will continue (for "the remains of the day") to dehumanize himself to the service of his employer. However, to play the devil's advocate, does this ending necessarily need to be read so harshly? After all, "bantering" is hardly comparable to firing the Jewish servants because he believes it to be the will of his master. On the contrary, bantering," in itself requires individual thought and expression on a somewhat equal level with whom you are bantering. This is precisely why this form of communication gave him so much trouble from the beginning.

"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? One need hardly dwell on the catastrophic possibility of uttering a bantering remark only to discover it wholly inappropriate."(16)

Obviously here in the beginning he is missing the point entirely: bantering is not about regurgitating an expected response. So couldn't his decision to "banter" as easily represent a willingness on his part to change his role in the old hierarchical order of things, as much as continue in it?

After all, when one thinks about it, it is not such a foolish thing to indulge in-- particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth.(245)

Must we really read this cynically? Hasn't Stevens conception of his role in the world really changed if he is concerning himself with "the key to human warmth" as a sufficient end in itself? [Jennifer Ellingson]

4. So yet again I ask the obvious: why is this novel a postcolonial work? Where, in the muddle of Stevens' memories, thoughts on buttling (is this a word?), and other disorders, is postcoloniality (if only we'd succeeded at defining it)? Is it significant that the book is set thirty years before it was written, and ten years after World War II? That period is right in the middle of the dissolution of empire -- what do Stevens' questions about Lord Darlington have in common with Mr Harry Smith's politicizing and Dr Carlisle's disillusionment from socialism? What does time mean in the novel? [greg gipson]

5. In Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, Stevens ruminates on the British countryside:

And yet what precisely is this 'greatness'? Just where, or in what, does it lie? . . . I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of the beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it. In comparison, the sorts of sights offered in such places as Africa and America, though undoubtedly very exciting, would, I am sure, strike the objective viewer as inferior on account of their unseely demonstrativeness (28-29).

How do we read this having read African works, where the English have been seen as the aggressor/colonizer? What insights do the viewing of the land give us, especially when compared to the writings of Hove and Vera? How does Stevens' England compare to Tom Crick's?

[Andy Greenwald]

6. In the morning of day three Stevens directly postulates his view of the meaning of history:

One seeks to provide a general, sustained service to one's employer, the value of which could never be reduced to a number of specific instances-- such as that concerning Lord Halifax. But what I am saying is that it is these sorts of instances which over time come to symbolize an irrefutable fact; namely that one has had the privilige of practising one's profession at the very fulcrum of great affairs. And one has a right, perhaps, to feel a satisfaction those content to serve mediocre employers will never know -- the satisfacation of being able to say with some reason that one's efforts, in however modest a way, compromise a contribution to the course of history. (138-9)

His view of history seems to be tied into the notion of "greatness" that has woven through his narrative, of a "great" landscape, a "great" butler, a "great" household, a "great" employer, and now "great affairs. By this point in the book we have an outline of his idea of "greatness." How would you describe this?

Above all else, I would describe it as old-fashioned, representitive of England's old guard which seems to be, as he even admits in talk of newer "generations," changing. Would it be reasonable to say that Stevens view of history exactly the one that the teacher in Waterland sought to contradict and dispel for his students? An aside: Why does Stevens so often use "one" when he means "I"? What does this say about him? [Margaret Hander]

7. A "great" butler can only be, surely, one who can point to his years of service and say that he has applied his talents to serving a great gentleman -- and through the latter, to serving humanity. (117)

And I don't to remind anyone here, there's no dignity to be had in being a slave. . . .And it's one of the privileges of being born English that no matter who you are, no matter if you're rich or poor, you're born free and you're born so that you can express your opinion freely . . .That's what dignity's really about, if you'll excuse me, sir. (186)

However, if a butler is to be of any worth to anything or anybody in life, there must surely come a time when he ceases his searching; a time when he must say to himself: 'This employer embodies all that I find noble and admirable. I will hereafter devote myself to serving him.' This is loyalty intelligently bestowed. What is there 'undignified' in this? (201)

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 in 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?

Clearly Stevens does not meet his own standards of a great butler or exhibit what he defines as dignity. Lord Darlington was not the embodiment of all that was "noble and admirable," nor was he a great gentleman devoted to serving humanity. But Stevens also fails to meet Harry Smith's standard of dignity. He was Darlington's slave. And now, unable to shed his slave mentality, he will continue to be Farraday's slave (proof: his obsessive compulsive commitment to mastering the art of bantering). How should we view Stevens at the end of the novel? Should we feel sorry for him, sorry that he is trapped? Or is it unduly critical to think of him a sad, pathetic waste of a human mind? [Alaka Holla]

8. Much of Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day is devoted to ideas on the notion of dignity. Mr. Stevens, the main character of the book and butler of Darlington Hall, forms an opinion about the Hayes Society's description of "dignity in keeping with his position" that ranges at times from "not removing one's clothing in public" (210) to "jhfdgkjhgfkdj". On page 200, Stevens connects the much-pondered "dignity" to "loyalty" (intellegent, not blind) by claiming that

the likes of you and I will never be in a position to comprehend the great affairs of today's world, and our best course will always be to put our trust in an employer we judge to be wise and honourable, and to devote our energies to the task of serving him to the best of our ability.

Can one take the role of a butler as a metaphor for the English citizen? If so, then what are the implications of the concluding sentiment expressed on page 243, when Stevens finally questions and essentially DOUBTS his own dignity?

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?

(Kind of important to understanding Stevens' ideas on diginity and the role of the English citizen are the notions on page 194 in response to Harry Smith's "far too idealistic, far too theoretical" sentiments about the common person's role in politics. Stevens says "There is, after all, a real limit to how much ordinary people can learn and know...", which I cannot bring myself to agree to or trust that even he himself believes.) [Zandra Kambysellis}

9. In The Remains of the Day, Stevens is presented as part of a living house; he is less human than butling machine. He has solidly bought into the master/servant hegemony and does his best in his role as butler to allow his master to be a "great gentleman."

You will no doubt agree that the hardest of situations as regards dinner-waiting is when there are just two diners present. I would myself much prefer to wait on just one diner, even if he were a total stranger. It is when one of them is one's own employer, that one finds it most difficult to achieve that balance between attentiveness and the illusion of absence that is essential to good waiting; it is in this situation that one is rarely free of the suspicion that one's presence is inhibiting the conversation.

On that occasion, much of the room was in darkness, and the two gentlemen were sitting side by side midway down the table. . . . I decided to minimize my presence by standing in the shadows much further away from the table than I might have usually done. Of course, this strategy had a distinct disadvantage in that each time I moved towards the light to serve the gentlemen, my advancing footsteps would echo long and loud before I reached the table, drawing attention to my impending arrival. . . but it did have the great merit of making my person only partially visible. . . (Ishiguro, pp.72-73)

It is Stevens maintainance here of the "illusion of absence" that illustrates the dehumanizing effect of his position. Can this passage be read from a Marxist framework: the separation of working- and middle-class housing to prevent "seeing how the other half lives" and to maintain the illusion of a benevolent system? Where else in the novel do issues of presence and absence come up? [Adam Stolorow]

10. Mr. Farraday's words equate Stevens with the house, as "part of the package", in a manner of speaking. In the following passage, the commodification of Stevens as a historical object is painfully apparent.

"Mrs. Wakefield turned back to the arch and putting her hand to it, said: 'So we don't know for certain then. Still, it looks to me like it's mock. Very skilful, but mock.'" . . .

"'You know, Stevens, Mrs Wakefield wasn't as impressed with this house as I believe she ought to have been.'

'Is that so, sir?'

'In fact, she seemed to think I was exaggerating the pedigree of this place. That I was making it up about all these features going back centuries. She kept asserting everything was "mock" this and "mock" that. She even thought you were "mock", Stevens."

'I mean to say, Stevens, this is a genuine grand old English house, isn't it? That's what I paid for. And you're a genuine old-fashioned English butler, not just some waiter pretending to be one. You're the real thing, aren't you?'" [124]

How can Steven's position under Faraday's dehumanizing definition/reduction into a "genuine old-fashioned English butler" be compared or contrasted with his position of class degradation and personal void under Lord Darlington? Are the two brands of dehumunization and void equivalent? Is Stevens in a better or a worse position with Faraday than he was with Darlington? Farraday's purchase of Stevens and the history he supposedly embodies, trivializes Steven's personal history and all of the experiences that he spends the duration of the book coming to terms with. But when he tries to deny that history, he denies the very characteristics that give him so-called value in the eyes of Farraday and Wakefield and thus results in the devaluation of his self. What are the implications for the binary of personal and national history as they are played out in the rest of the novel? Also what parallels might Farraday's emphasis on authenticity have with the exotification of native cultures in colonized lands? Is there implicit irony in the discussion of "mock", in relation to the themes of superficiality and authenticity in the rest of the novel? [Irene Tung]

11. At the beginning of Stevens' quest to come to terms with his identity, he encounters a white haired man who encourages him to travel up a path to see the beauty of the surrounding English countryside. In a way the man foreshadows Stevens' inward journey.

I'm telling you, sir, you'll be sorry if you don't take a walk up there. And you never know. A couple more years and it might be too late. . . Better go on up while you still can. (25)

What could happen in a few years that would make it too late? Does this man somehow symbolize a spiritual guide for Stevens? Only after Stevens goes down the path does he feel ready for the journey before him. Awed by the surrounding landscape, he realizes that he had never before been exposed to such beauty. He, in fact, has lead quite a sheltered life. Who is responsible for his sheltered existence? What role does his father play in the response to this question? At the end of Stevens' journey he has come to certain new realizations about life. How would his view of the beauty of "restraint" of the English countryside have changed if he were to again go back up the path the old man showed to him? [Dave Washburn]

12. After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and I, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services. What is the point in worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one's life took?

How do Stevens' discussions of dignity serve to justify his complacency? How does the above quote elucidate ideas of hegemonic class structure that have been prevalent in past novels we have read? How does this acceptance of a disempowered position by Stevens (and perhaps Desai's Deven) relate to the man's power dynamic in relation to Ms Kenton (or Deven's wife)?[Molly Yancovitz]

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