National and personal history in Kazuo Ishiguro´s "The Remains of the Day"

Seminar Paper, 2002

14 Pages, Grade: 1,5 (A)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Ishiguro’s presentation of international conflicts
2.1. The British-American conflict
2.2. The image of the Germans

3. The influence of national on personal history

4. The protagonist’s dealing with personal history
4.1. The narrating voice and its function
4.2. The presentation of the past and its function
4.3. Stevens’ interpretation of “dignity”

5. Conclusion 10 References

1. Introduction

Kazuo Ishiguro was born in 1954 in Nagasaki, Japan, and moved to Great Britain in 1960 where he grew up. The Remains of the Day is his third novel after A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986), for which he won the Booker Prize in 1989. The film with Anthony Hopkins also won an award.

The Remains of the Day describes the journey of an old-fashioned British butler named Stevens, who undertakes a motoring trip through Britain in 1956 intending to visit Miss Kenton. He received a letter from her and because of staffing problems at Darlington Hall, where he is still employed, he hopes to gain her back as the housekeeper. During his trip, Stevens not only remembers the time he and Miss Kenton worked together, but also the historical events that took place in Darlington Hall between the wars, when Lord Darlington, its former owner, organized several meetings of intellectuals from different nations to discuss the political situation in Europe.

While Stevens tells his memories, it becomes clear that he completely gave himself up for his intention to be a great butler and to serve the right man, Lord Darlington. But he presents Lord Darlington as an honourable man that he has not always been, and at last Stevens leads an unhappy and unfulfilled life and does not know what to make out of it because he never allowed himself to live his own life.

Stevens is one of Ishiguro’s characters that tragically shows

how people who have tried to do something good and useful in their lives can suddenly find that they have misplaced their efforts. Not only have they perhaps wasted their talent and their energy, but also they may have contributed, unknowingly, to something that was evil, all the time thinking they were doing something good. (Bigsby 1990: 26)

2. Ishiguro’s presentation of international conflicts

2.1. The British-American conflict

The most important British character in The Remains of the Day that considers the European political situation is Lord Darlington, Stevens’ employer at that time. He represents the typical stiff, polite British gentleman that deals with his business without showing any emotion. Ishiguro uses two American characters to stress the difference that exists between British and American way of life and politics,

an opposition between what are commonly regarded as Victorian values – formality, repression, and self-effacement, summed up under the general heading of “dignity” – and those associated with an idea of “America” that has expanded, literally into a New World – freedom, nature, and individualism […]. (O’Brien 1996: 788)

These two characters are Senator Lewis in the past and the present owner of Darlington Hall, Farraday, who are even the same person in the adapted film. Farraday represents the American way of social behaviour, best recognizable when he makes bantering comments on Stevens’ purpose to visit Miss Kenton, what extremely embarrasses Stevens because he does not know how to react in a correct manner: “My, my, Stevens. A lady-friend. And at your age” (14). Susie O’Brien adds another example where Stevens’ British and Farraday’s American way of life conflict:

Stevens’s reading of “country” is strikingly different from the image invoked by Farraday; while “country”, for Stevens, signifies a socio-political construction, held together by the “great ladies and gentlemen of the land”, Farraday seems to see it as synonymous with nature. (O’Brien 1996: 794)

Accordingly, Senator Lewis shows the same way of open reaction during an important conference at Darlington Hall, where he calls his lordship frankly an amateur (101-102). Lord Darlington saves the situation when he calls the amateurism Lewis talked of “honour” and earns applause from the other guests. But “the idea of politics as a gentleman’s game can only be read – as Senator Lewis reads it – as naïve and, finally, counter-productive.” (O’Brien 1996: 792)

2.2. The image of the Germans

The German intellectuals that Lord Darlington is in touch with are Karl-Heinz Bremann and Ribbentrop, the German Ambassador. Stevens describes Bremann as a friend of Lord Darlington, “a gentleman of great decency” (71) who has been an officer during the war. A few pages later, that what Stevens called a “friendship” between both gentlemen, is contradicted by the words Lord Darlington says about Bremann to Sir Richard Fox:

“He was my enemy”, he was saying, “but he always behaved like a gentleman. We treated each other decently over six months of shelling each other. […] I said to him: ‘Look here, we’re enemies now and I’ll fight you with all I’ve got. But when this wretched business is over, we shan’t be enemies any more and we’ll have a drink together.’ […] But how can I look him in the face and tell him that’s turned out to be true?” (73)

Bremann is suffering on a not clearly named kind of illness that seems to be of psychological nature. Stevens talks of “deterioration” and “a hunted look […] in his eyes” (71), and shortly after the evening Stevens heard his lordship talk about Bremann, he shoots himself. This German officer shows some parallels to Hitler, who also seemed to be a decent, trustworthy gentleman at first sight but who suffered on a heavy kind of neurosis[1] and finally shot himself when he lost the war.

Ribbentrop is presented as “a well-regarded figure, even a glamorous one, in the very best houses” by Stevens, who tries to protect Lord Darlington from the reproach that he could have known what kind of person he was regularly dining with, “a trickster”, whose “sole mission in our country was to orchestrate this deception” (136), namely to hide Hitler’s true intentions. The image of the trickster fits into the image that Winston Churchill draws of Ribbentrop.

Churchill portrays Ribbentrop as a “most polite” man, who tries to develop “an Anglo-German entente or even alliance” (196), requiring the power of Germany over Eastern Europe. At that moment when Churchill denies that option, Ribbentrop turns abruptly away and threatens with war. When Churchill counters by reminding Ribbentrop to the cleverness of England and its possibility to “bring the whole world against you, like last time”, Ribbentrop rises “in heat […]” (197).

This emotional behaviour is not recognizable in the film, where Ribbentrop acts as the serious, tough, cold, typical cliché of a Nazi that does not show any emotion. When Ribbentrop and his companions enter Darlington Hall and come into a room full of paintings, his companions call his attention to one painting by commenting “a wonderful battle scene”. Ribbentrop turns without any facial expression and orders coldly: “Note it down for later.”

The character of Ribbentrop answers both Nazi clichés: in Ishiguro’s novel he shows the diplomat that hides his evil intentions behind the mask of decency and politeness that also Churchill confirms in his text, while he represents the cold machine-like German during the Nazi-time in the film.


[1] For details see: Miller, Alice. 1990. “Am Anfang war Erziehung”. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. 169-231.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


National and personal history in Kazuo Ishiguro´s "The Remains of the Day"
University of Cologne  (Philosophy Faculty)
1,5 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
412 KB
National, Kazuo, Ishiguro´s, Remains
Quote paper
Marion Schenkelberg (Author), 2002, National and personal history in Kazuo Ishiguro´s "The Remains of the Day", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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