The phrase “to know one’s place” never fails to raise my hackles. It’s so often used to stop people from striving for self-actualization and fulfillment, especially for women and people of color. But I think if anyone told Stevens, the protagonist of Kazuo Ishiguro’s fascinating novel The Remains of the Day, that he knew his place, he would be pleased as Punch. Never in the history of the world has anyone sought, studied, and conformed to a role the way Stevens does with his performance as butler at Darlington Hall.
We meet Stevens as he is about to embark on the first vacation he has ever taken in his entirely life. At the suggestion of his employer, Stevens drives the household car to Cornwall, where he plans to meet with one of his few friends, Miss Kenton. Years before, Miss Kenton worked as the housekeeper at Darlington Hall, before she married and moved away. Chapters that look back at the Hall’s heyday between the wars reveal that the “friendship” is not quite what Stevens imagines it to be, building tension around the question of what might happen when the two finally meet again.
Along the way to Cornwall, Stevens reflects on the great question of his life: what makes a great butler? The way Stevens views and performs the role of butler would appear to be obsessive. The man lives and breathes being a butler. Even his hobbies—reading classic English novels and listening to humorous programs on the radio—are meant to improve his butler-ing. Stevens is the kind of character that I love to diagnose (I suspect autism spectrum), but to diagnose him would solving the riddle of Stevens too soon. The Remains of the Day is the kind of novel that demands its readers’ full attention. So much in this book is revealed in the disconnect between what Stevens thinks is happening and what is probably happening from the other characters’ points of view. Diagnosing him might also mean missing those few, subtle moments where we see flashes of emotion from Stevens in which he reveals regret and loneliness.
The Remains of the Day is an astonishing read because of that subtleness. This book says so much without explicitly saying anything at all. It touches on the decline of the British aristocracy and manor houses, superficiality, how some people can see fascism as an acceptable form of government for the sake of peace, the social upheaval of World War II, disillusionment, and, above all, the way that rigid structure can turn people like Stevens into the human equivalent of a bonsai tree. Even when Stevens had reached an age when he could retire and relax at last, he continues to prune himself into conformity. This book is a masterwork of a character study.