The Presence and Absence of History in Ishiguro

[Randall Bass, English '91]

History plays a very subtle role in the structures of Ishiguro's novel, The Remains of the Day. At many levels the novel is very much about the repression and reclamation of history, both global and individual. For the butler, Stevens, the evaluation of his own personal history is inseparable from the evaluation of his master's role in the important events of global history. One might say that the presence and absence of history rely upon each other within the novel the same way that the individual and the societal rely upon each other within the story's development.

One critic of the novel points out that the famous statement by the critic Raymond Williams about the 19th-century realistic novel applies very well to The Remains of the Day:

Neither element, neither the society nor the individual, is there as a priority. The society is not a background against which the personal relationships are studies, not the individuals merely illustrations of aspects of the way of life. Every aspect of personal life is radically affected by the quality of the general life, yet the general life is seen at its most important in completely personal terms. (Williams, Partisan Review XXVI 200-213)

The forces and events of history are powerfully present in the novel, while at the same time being submerged within the unfolding of an individual's experience with them. The technique of suppressing powerful historical events behind the dramatic representation of an individual's personal feelings is characteristic of Ishiguro. As Susanne Wah Lee notes in a review, in all three of Ishiguro's novels, "a shattering social event looms as an unspoken backdrop that sharpens and defines the characters and defines the characters in the foreground. Each allows the readers to see the world that shapes its characters much more clearly than they can" (The Nation, 12/18/89).

Are there other novels in the English literary tradition that utilize this technique? How is Ishiguro's handling of personal and public history similar to a writer like Graham Swift in his novel Waterland?

The novel begins, and mostly takes place, in July 1956. What significance might this date have to the meaning and events in the novel?

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