Halfway through the book, I described it as slow and boring. Because after all, Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day” is ostensibly a tale of an English butler – Mr. Stevens – and in particular of his professional life at Darlington House in service of Lord Darlington, and of his personal relationship with the house’s housekeeper, Miss Kenton. The main narrative is Mr. Stevens’s six-day road trip through the West Country of England to eventually meet with Miss Kenton, and since the journey is told from his first-hand perspective the chapters read as journal entries. His introspective, stream-of-consciousness recollections are interwoven with details of his road trip, and through them the reader learns more about the butler profession, Lord Darlington’s efforts toward talks between English and German diplomats, as well as Stevens’s relations with his father and Miss Kenton.
Yet this initial scepticism, in retrospect, is perhaps tied to an aversion to the character of Mr. Stevens, which in turn is explained by the extent to which I seem to identify with or even live my life like him: Work-obsessed (at the expense of familial and romantic relationships, it would appear), indifferent to or painfully awkward with non-work, inter-personal relationships (to the point of oblivion, despite mutual attraction or affection), and – in terms for writing style – so self-conscious and so self-preserving. As opposed to an unencumbered life, both Mr. Stevens and I deem it necessary, or even beneath us or our professional dispositions, to keep a lid on our emotions. “To pretend”, as Miss Kenton once said. At what cost for me, I do not know, but the concluding chapters to the book are heartbreaking.
There are broader themes too, in “The Remains of the Day”, beyond the romance and the responsibilities of the butler. Ishiguro leaves the reader to question Mr. Stevens’s loyalty and devotion to Lord Darlington – even in the face of the latter’s shortcomings or failures – and there is perhaps something problematic about the belief that “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”. At the same time, however, there is something to admire about making “our small contribution count for something true and worthy”, and the resolve of Mr. Stevens to focus on the remains of his day, continuing to give his best in his chosen position in life.