Dignity, restraint, and emptiness in Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day

A backpacker passing through San Francisco spoke with me about books while we were on a bus. In a later correspondence, my acquaintance wrote about The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I found the book and loved it because Ishiguro’s work stretches one’s understanding of the word “dignity.” Complex and delicate, the novel brings you into the mindset of a secondhand Nazi sympathizer. Throughout the drive around the English countryside, we slowly realize that Stevens was a butler working for a “great” man mislead by Germans. Various parts of the novel show us that the winners of the war are just as guilty of the same prejudices that Nazis were known for. I say this largely because of conversations regarding class, individual choice, and Ishiguro’s display of actions that question our morals. The writing leaves a lot of important things unsaid, a very smart way to drive home the emptiness felt by characters.


For example (spoiler), shouldn’t Stevens have dropped his responsibilities as a butler so that he can hear his father’s last words? The immediate conclusion is no: Stevens was right in carrying on with his duties as a butler during an important, political event. His father, who was also a butler, would have been proud of him for maintaining his composure in a clearly difficult time. In order to truly understand this part of the book, we have to look to his father’s great moment as a butler (bringing two, drunk houseguests back to their senses) and his father’s favorite anecdote of a butler in India ridding the house of a tiger. When we remember these two stories, the immediate conclusion to this chapter shows that there is thoughtfulness to Stevens. We see why he simply carried on. To us, dignity means having a job that allows us to care for those we love. To Stevens, caring for his father is best expressed by carrying on with his duties. This is a great example of how Ishiguro leaves things unsaid to display the hollowness and regret that Stevens will inevitably realize.

Sacrifice has a lot to do with dignity in this piece. In addition to missing out on spending precious last moments with his father, Stevens reflects about “loyalty intelligently bestowed.” He believes that the great affairs of the world should be left to those who are most qualified: the likes of Lord Darlington, the man he serves and a man mislead by the Nazis. His occupation as a butler precedes everything else in his life, including free thought. This is made sadder when we read the part about him secretly reading from the library. Stevens is embarrassed when Miss Kenton catches him reading. It’s almost as if reading is a luxury that he allows himself to have and he covers for it by saying to himself that it allows him to develop his command of language so that he may do his job a bit better. We see Stevens wanting to be more but the only way he can do it is in the confines of his role as a butler.

His self limitation delivered a pang when he realized his love for Miss Kenton/Mrs.Benn. As he caught up with her at the end of the novel, we realize that Stevens missed out on what could have been because he could not see himself and Miss Kenton beyond their roles at the Darlington estate. It’s important to note that Ishiguro does not use words to confirm Stevens’ feelings. It’s as if the book cannot physically allow itself to state such a thing and the physical lack of words on a page represents the restraint that Stevens has on himself. The lack of words to describe his feelings for Miss Kent also seems to reflect the emptiness that Stevens feels at the end of the novel.

What now for Stevens? He cries in the presence of a stranger, a retired butler:

“Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really–one has to ask oneself–what dignity is there in that?” (p. 211)

The last words of the novel were Stevens thinking about developing his skill in banter. He saw a group of strangers carrying on a conversation and it’s implied that he wants this for himself. Perhaps there’s hope for a new start. His want for banter is a sign that he wants to be able to express and connect with others. However, he says that his desire to be better with speech is so that he may serve the new owner of Darlington Hall. Despite the slight uplift, Stevens still confines himself to his role as butler and we wonder how much change he can maintain.


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