I have long had a somewhat unhealthy admiration of British humour, which is somehow superior to most other forms of humour in its unique blend of intelligence and absurdity. And no institution, as it is portrayed in fiction, epitomizes British humour better than that of the British butler. Think of Blackadder (in Blackadder the Third) or Batman's Alfred. These unflappable, infallible men serve their employers with a grace that almost defies description. Even in the direst of emergencies, they carry on like it is the most routine circumstance imaginable. There's a word for that.
In The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro dares to define dignity and give it a voice. My reservations about Ishiguro's narration from Never Let Me Go are absent here: Stevens is a wonderful narrator. His very self-conscious, hesitant attempts at introspection concealed as recollection are just one example of why this book is best described as charming.
Ishiguro demonstrates his talent for using the personal stories of his characters as windows into the past. During his time serving Lord Darlington, Stevens was privy to—but did not participate in—many meetings by very important persons in between the two world wars. We see the master through the eyes of the servant, and Ishiguro brings the unreliability of a first-person narrator to bear, portraying Darlington with all the confusion and inconsistency that the haze of memory conveys.
For the fact of the matter is that Stevens is a very biased narrator, something that is crucial to the theme of this book. We all too often forget that others lived through the history we receive only as story, much revised and often laden with judgement. As someone who learned about World War II from history textbooks, written as they are by the victors, my conception of Nazi Germany has always been a stark and absolute one. As it becomes clear through Stevens' recollections that Lord Darlington was a staunch supporter of appeasement, Ishiguro gives us a glimpse at why intelligent people like Neville Chamberlain could advocate for a policy like appeasement. The Remains of the Day captures not only the events of the past but their essence in a way only fiction can.
Stevens' trip through the English countryside of 1956 presents a contrast to his heyday serving Lord Darlington. Stevens is the last of a dying breed of butlers serving a dying breed of nobility, as evidenced by his difficulty bantering with his new employer, Mr. Farraday. The people he meets on his journey invariably mistake Stevens as a gentleman himself—and he does not always disabuse them of this notion, perhaps out of a sense of pride, but more because of the awkwardness of the situation. In his decades of attempting to cultivate the "dignity" he believes makes a great butler, Stevens has acquired more gentlemanly traits than many who call themselves gentlemen by breeding and blood. He is noble in character if not in deed—a situation that Stevens seems constantly to regret as he reviews his life and his profession.
There's a subtle sense of sadness to The Remains of the Day. Even when Stevens recounts his proudest professional moments, they are tinged with personal loss: the death of his father, and the loss (in more ways than one) of Miss Kenton. Stevens always treats his own feelings cautiously and with a certain dismissive attitude that is easy to mistake for naivety. It's not as simple a case of denial. It might have started as denial in the past, but from the tone of his recollections and the way he phrases some of his opinions, it's clear that Stevens realizes some what of he has missed. He has regrets, but he is at heart a practical man. And he is alone. There are no equals in whom he can confide, not since he has lost touch with the fellow butlers he respected. So Stevens seeks solace in his memories.
The finer aspects being a butler may seem like mundane fodder for a novel. Yet it's that quotidian quality that makes those memories so powerful and The Remains of the Day such a sublime story. The mundane has meaning. Every conversation that Stevens recalls, whether accurate or not, is important; the more ordinary such a conversation seems, the more important it must be—otherwise, why would he remember it? Ishiguro chooses to investigate the vagaries of human existence not in an emperor or a warrior but a butler. As the reactions of the villagers remind us, Stevens exists in that nexus between worlds, neither of the nobility nor quite a part of the common people.
Times have changed since the 1950s. Divisions still exist in society, although they too have changed. But people, for the most part, haven't changed. Like Stevens, we walk the fine line between personal and professional, and at the end of each day, we look at what remains and ask if it's worth it, if we've done well. If we're content. And so, in keeping with a long literary tradition, Ishiguro explores the human condition through a butler. I could not ask for more.