The Remains of the Day and the Suez Canal Crisis

Carla Guttmann (English 34, 1991)

When the lease that the Compagnie Universelle de Suez established in 1854 expired, it symbolized the end of English imperialism and colonialism (Devries, History as Hot News 1865-1897.) In 1954 the Suez canal was returned to the Egyptian Government. Two years later, on July 26th 1956, the canal finally became nationalized and President Nasser named twelve new directors, primarily Egyptians, to the board of the Suez Canal Company (London Times, July 26th, 1956.) The law that enabled the nationalization to take place was a retatliation against the Western Powers' withdrawal of their offer to finance the Aswan High Dam. The Canal company's funds in Egypt were frozen and its property seized throughout the world. Hence, the Nationalization Law posed a threat to Western interests in the Canal company, in which Britain owned more than three-eighths of the shares. By putting Western investments at risk, President Nasser was, in a sense, making the British pay for the 120,000 Egyptians who died in forced labor while digging the Suez Canal in 1854. Just as the Egyptians realized the high price they paid due to colonialism, so too does Mr. Stevens confront the sacrifices that he has made by succumbing to the system of hierarchy within English tradition.

The following passage reveals the cracks and gaps of Stevens' previous idealistic beliefs about the nobility and the fundamental role that Lord Darlington played in his life.

How can one possibly be held to blame in any sense because, say, the passage of time has shown that Lord Darlington's efforts were misguided, even foolish? Throughout the years I have served him, it was he and he alone who weighed up evidence and judged it best to proceed in the way he did, while I simply confined myself, quite properly, to affairs within my own professional realm. And as far as I am concerned, I carried out my duties to the best of my abilities, indeed to a standard which many may consider "first rate". It is hardly my fault if his lordship's life and work have turned out today to look, at best, a sad waste-and it is quite illogical that I should feel any regret or shame on my own account (201).

In this passage Stevens admits to his employer's foolishness, and he also recognizes that by putting his own interests, indeed his whole existence, in the hands of Lord Darlington, he had made his life a waste. He believed that it was his duty to let his social betters make decisions for him because they had a greater ability to do so. By giving up any political responsibilty for his actions, Mr. Stevens does not define himself outside of his subordinate relation to Lord Darlington; he is himself colonized.

Engulfed by the system of hierarchy, Stevens believed that his sole responsibility was to "inhabit" the role of a butler, whose service he considered proper and above all, dignified. The concept of dignity ruled his life to such an extent that Stevens repressed all of his emotions. Any display of feeling he considered a sign of political disempowerment and weakness. Paradoxically, the very system of hierarchy that gives him a sense of self-worth also dehumanizes him. He has paid a heavy price to hegemony; he has denied his family, his sexuality, and his self.

Ishiguro shows us the political implications and human sacrifice, in what at first seems to be a harmless account of a butler's life. The inconsistencies of Mr. Stevens' theories about dignity, loyalty, and servitude reveal the emptiness of hierarchy and as a consequence, the emptiness of his life. Accordingly, when Stevens starts to deconstruct and question the ideals which previously formed the basis of his life, does the symbol of the Victorian era collapse. The awakening to the meaning of his life allows Stevens to receive some retribution for his suffering, although the traces of colonialism and imperialism can not, for Stevens nor for the Egyptians, be fully erased.

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