English Detachment, Dignity and The Remains of the Day

Adrienne T. Chisolm '93, English 34 (1991)

In a short story entitled "A. V. Laider," Max Beerbohm comically celebrates a certain mode of human (non-)interaction as distinctly English:

I had looked him up in the visitors' book on the night of his arrival. I myself had arrived the day before, and had been rather sorry there was no one else staying here. A convalescent by the sea likes to have some one to observe, to wonder about, at meal-time. I was glad when, on my second evening, I found seated at the table opposite to mine another guest. I was the gladder because he was just the right kind of guest. He was enigmatic. By this I mean that he did not look soldierly nor financial nor artistic nor anything definite at all. He offered a clean slate for speculation. And thank heaven! he evidently wasn't going to spoil the fun by engaging me in conversation later on. A decently unsociable man, anxious to be left alone.

Anywhere but in England it would be impossible for two solitary men, howsoever much reduced by influenza, to spend five or six days in the same hostel and not exchange a single word. That is one of the charms of England. Had Laider and I been born and bred in any other land we should have become acquainted before the end of our first evening in the small smoking-room, and have found ourselves irrevocably committed to go on talking to each other throughout the rest of our visit. We might, it is true, have happened to like each other more than any one we had ever met. This off-chance may have occurred to us both. But it counted for nothing as against the certain surrender of quietude and liberty. We slightly bowed to each other as we entered or left the dining-room or smoking-room, and as we met on the widespread sands or in the shop that had a small and faded circulating library. That was all. Our mutual aloofness was a positive bond between us.

Had he been much older than I, the responsibility for our silence would of course have been his alone. But he was not, I judged, more than five or six years ahead of me, and thus I might without impropriety have taken it on myself to perform that hard and perilous feat which English people call, with a shiver, "breaking the ice." He had reason, therefore, to be as grateful to me as I to him. Each of us, not the less frankly because silently, recognised his obligation to the other. And when, on the last evening of my stay, the ice actually was broken no ill-will rose between us: neither of us was to blame.

That aloofness between two characters in such a close setting can be perceived as courteous and correct behavior -- as an "obligation," even -- is to Beerbohm's narrator a "charm" exclusive to England; indeed, he portrays the phenomenon as a contributing factor to the greatness of the country. Stevens, the narrator in Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, takes pride in similar styles of interaction, and similarly links detachment, dignity, greatness and patriotism: "Continentals are unable to be butlers because they are as a breed incapable of the emotional restraint which only the English race are capable of" (43).

Etiquette beween a butler and all others is, at least in Stevens' world, defined clearly and narrowly, and "'dignity' has to do crucially with a butler's ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits" (42). He is to be chummy but distant with butlers from other households, to maintain a strict professionalism with other employees in his own household, and to remain unquestioningly loyal to his own employer. To achieve "dignity and its crucial link with greatness" (113), it seems, he must even separate himself from himself, as he abstains from the use of first person pronouns and almost always uses the term "one" when describing his own actions and thoughts. In Beerbohm's story it is humorous that a brief and not unpleasant interaction between two strangers is a situation of potential "ill-will" or "blame." But in the case of Stevens' relationships, a similar exaltation of the non-participatory, spectator-like attitude towards acquaintanceship leads to much sadder results; although the same sorts of values are reflected and often are just as amusing, the detachment that Stevens equates with "dignity" is depressing and ultimately is chilling, as well.

The distance Stevens insists upon (by default) between himself and Mr. Graham, a butler from another household whom he greatly admires and enjoys, denies both a friendship that could be quite gratifying, "for although we had not known each other well, I would say we had got on on those occasions we had met" (19). But Stevens, though he "would like to have discovered what had become of Mr Graham," since "those evenings [talking with him] rank amongst my fondest memories," never inquires about the man, for the simple reason that "no suitable opportunity arose for me to gain such information" (19, 31). Again and again Graham's name appears; Stevens thinks of him often. But because there is no detached way to discover his whereabouts, the potential friendship goes unrealized.

The professionalism Stevens insists upon between himself and Miss Kenton, the maid in Darlington's employ, denies him any romantic or sexual pleasure, though there obviously exists a great tension between them; Stevens is too late when he finally (sort of) admits his affection for the woman, and Miss Kenton has gone on to make a life of her own (in which she, incidentally, is equally unhappy). Stevens thinks about Miss Kenton even more than he does about Graham, and with an even stronger sense of regret:

[I]t was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one's relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding. There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable. (179)

But so much reflection on her is "unduly introspective" (179) -- and in the meantime, his "heart [is] breaking" (239).

It is the blind loyalty with which Stevens gratifies his employer (a symptom of that English mode of distancing, since he does not allow himself to look closely at what his employer really thinks or does) that is the most frightening of the symptoms of "dignity," because it is this loyalty that denies him his own opinions on what, he sees by the end of the book, were very scary, Nazi-sympathetic, views. His doctrine is as follows:

[I]t is, in practice, simply not possible to adopt such a critical attitude towards an employer and at the same time provide good service. It is not simply that one is unlikely to be able to meet the many demands of service at the higher levels while one's attentions are being diverted by such matters; more fundamentally, a butler who is forever attempting to formulate his own "strong opinions" on his employer's affairs is bound to lack one quality essential in all good professionals: namely, loyalty. (200)

But the loyalty doctrine denies Stevens his own thoughts on, for instance, Darlington's letting-go of the Jewish maids, or whether or not the "great" guests he has the honor of serving in his capacity as a "great" butler are really so great after all. Stevens' detachment ultimately is chilling, for the distance that he believes is a necessary aspect of dignity instead distances him even from the fact that this attitude of detachment is not great, but unhealthy -- it sets a butler's dignity above human dignity, he realizes at the end, and human dignity must always come first:

"Lord Darlington wasn't a bad man. . . . And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. . . . 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. . . . I can't even say I made my own mistakes. Really -- one has to ask oneself -- what dignity is there in that?" (243)

Of course, the great irony is that Stevens' realization of these pitfalls in such a mode of interaction occurs as he speaks to -- indeed, breaks down in front of -- a complete stranger on a bench by the sea. The behavior is a far cry from the (charming?) mutual avoidance of two very English gentlemen guests at a hostel.

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