"A great butler": the unreliable narrator in Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

17 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Detecting Unreliable Narration in The Remains of the Day

3. Stevens´s “Language of Self-Deception”
3.1 “Greatness”
3.2 “Dignity”
3.3 “Professionalism”

4. Steven´s Portrayal of other Characters and his Relationships to Them
4.1 Stevens ´s Father
4.2 Lord Darlington
4.3 Miss Kenton

5. Stevens´s Portrayal of Himself

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In Kazuo Ishiguro´s The Remains of the Day the first person narrator Stevens, a butler on the verge of retirement, undertakes a journey to meet – for what is likely the last time in their lives – his former coworker and love interest Miss Kenton. At the same time, he tries to come to terms with his past by reexamining his memories of his life at Darlington Hall, the choices he made and the values he had. Throughout his account it becomes increasingly obvious that Stevens´s narration cannot be trusted completely. His comments on, and interpretation of, past events in his life and his portrayal of himself and others in his tale expose him as an unreliable narrator. However, his attempts to deceive himself and others are possibly the most interesting and telltale aspect of the narrative. After all, “the use of an unreliable narrator draws attention to a character´s psychology.”[1] Paradoxically, the narrator reveals most about himself and his life when he is trying to obscure the truth. The objective here will be to examine how the narrator presents himself, his values and other characters and how the readers of the novel are able to draw conclusions about the amount of truth in Stevens´s story and his motives from the given information.

2. Detecting Unreliable Narration in The Remains of the Day

Although it has already been pointed out in the introduction that Stevens is not a reliable narrator, it is still necessary to clarify how unreliable narration can be detected in the novel. Naturally, there are a number of signs which are fairly easy for the reader to pick up on. “[A] number of textual inconsistencies”[2] and “internal contradictions within the narrator´s discourse”[3] are obvious signals which occur rather frequently throughout Stevens´s account. The butler often betrays his own unreliability by not following up his words with matching actions. He claims to be proud to have worked for Lord Darlington[4], for instance, but whenever someone asks him about his former employer, he denies to have worked for him[5]. Another similar incident occurs, when Miss Kenton enters his pantry and catches him reading a sentimental book. At first Stevens says: “I was not in fact engaged in professional matters”[6], but later he claims to have read the book mostly because of the “professional desirability of good accent and command of language”[7] which he wanted to improve[8]. What makes Stevens´s unreliability especially obvious, though, are his strange values. The qualities he defines for himself and tries to embody sound familiar and relatively common to the reader, but soon one realizes that the meanings he has assigned to the known words are not their normal connotations at all.[9]

3. Stevens´s “Language of Self-Deception”

The expression “language of self-deception” was first used by Kazuo Ishiguro. In an interview he says: “language also has this other function, which is to conceal and suppress, to deceive one´s self and to deceive others.”[10] The narrator in The Remains of the Day is one of Ishiguro´s unreliable narrators, who has mastered the skill of “simultaneously deceiv[ing] and protect[ing] [himself] in the language [he] use[s].”[11] Stevens does more than just” tell white lies”[12], he has made up his own, rather complex, system of self-justification, based on a few rules and values which he defined for his profession.

3.1 “Greatness”

The first term of significance to Stevens is ‘greatness’, which he contemplates at the beginning of the novel, when he thinks about the English landscape:

I will nevertheless hazard this with some confidence: the English landscape at its finest [. . .] possesses a quality that the landscapes of other nations, however more superficially dramatic, inevitably fail to possess. It is, I believe, a quality that will mark out the English landscape to any objective observer as the most deeply satisfying in the world, and this quality is probably best summed up by the term ‘greatness’. [. . . .] what precisely is this ’greatness ‘ [. . .] I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart.[13]

Stevens´s definition of this “quality” seems almost completely opposite to what is commonly considered ‘great’. An expression which is normally a synonym to words like ‘impressive’ or ‘spectacular’ is suddenly used to describe the reverse. Stevens does not care for what he calls “obvious drama or spectacle” and thus he simply reinterprets the meaning of the word in a way that suits him and his purpose.[14] This is a strategy he uses on several similar abstract concepts throughout the novel. The reason for his preoccupation with ‘greatness’ becomes clear, when Stevens tries to apply the term to his profession. He wonders about the definition of “a ‘great’ butler”[15] and comes to the conclusion that it must be connected to the very same “sense of restraint”[16] he admired in the English landscape. This “restraint” will play an important part in his definition of the second quality he aspires to, namely ‘dignity’.

However, there is another aspect to Stevens´s understanding of the ‘greatness’ a butler must strive for. He claims that “a great butler can only be, surely, one who can point to his years of service and say that he has applied his talents to serving a great gentleman – and through the latter, to serving humanity.”[17]

3.2 “Dignity”

Stevens´s idea of dignity is one of the central themes in the novel and in the passages in which the narrator explains his personal interpretation of dignity Ishiguro reveals a lot about Stevens´s personality and his true motives. “I believe strongly that this ‘dignity’ is something one can meaningfully strive for throughout one´s career”[18], Stevens says and proceeds to explain what dignity means to him: ‘dignity’ has to do crucially with a butler´s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits. Lesser butlers will abandon their professional being for the private one at the least provocation. [. . . .] The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost; they will not be shaken out by external events, however surprising, alarming or vexing.[19]

Again, Stevens´s definition of this term is quite different from the usual meaning. The OED, for example, defines ‘dignity’ as follows: “the quality of being worthy or honourable [. . .]”[20]. Ishiguro´s narrator does not see ‘dignity’ as a quality which every human being has, instead he is convinced that it is the ability to completely suppress emotions. To Stevens this ‘dignity’ is the highest ideal. [21] Terestchenko notes that “[t]here is [. . .] something comical and absurd in the definition which is taken in all seriousness”[22]

As the story progresses, though, it becomes increasingly clear how greatly Stevens´s opinion of dignified behavior really differs from that of most people. There are several good examples in the text, but the most startling use of his twisted version of dignity is made by Stevens when he talks about Lord Darlington´s order to let all Jewish staff members go. Stevens claims that his “every instinct opposed the idea of their dismissal”[23], but despite this, he continues: “It was a difficult task, but as such, one that demanded to be carried out with dignity.”[24] Zuzana Fonioková´s assessment of Stevens´s choice of action and its justification is rather mild, when she points out that “[h]is interpretation of this term fails to match dignified behavior as such.”[25], but she adds “[h]is blind dedication to Lord Darlington makes something similar to a slave out of him, and, as a villager´s common sense says, ‘there´s no dignity to be had in being a slave’”[26] Stevens´s encounter with the villagers is another important incident, because it shows his growing reluctance to actually discuss his opinion on the question of ‘dignity’. In his thoughts, his inner monologue, the narrator talks at length about his ideal, but in a conversation with others it hardly ever comes up. Stevens mentions discussing the topic with a fellow butler, however, he is unwilling to explain his idea of dignity to anyone else. When Harry Smith disagrees with him, he immediately backs down claiming that “it would be far too complicated a task to explain [himself] more clearly to these people.”[27] Of course, one could assume that Stevens simply regards the villagers as too uneducated to have any kind of discussion with them, but he also avoids telling Dr. Carlisle his interpretation of dignity. Instead he answers the doctor´s question about it as follows: “‘It´s rather a hard thing to explain in a few words, sir‘[. . .]‘But I suspect it comes down to not removing one´s clothing in public’”[28] At this point, Stevens suddenly presents a rather ironic point of view on his favourite subject. He has used the clothing metaphor for his explanation of dignity before, and yet there seems to be a different tone in this statement. The narrator somehow appears to have reached a point where he has no choice but to reduce his theory to this half-joke, because he knows – or at least senses – that if he brought up his true opinions, he would never be able to defend them in a discussion with the doctor. As he approaches the destination of his journey, he also approaches disillusionment. Stevens makes great sacrifices to dedicate his life to his understanding of dignity and professionalism. However, at the end of his journey Stevens finds his hopes crushed and is at that moment no longer capable of lying to himself about his life. He breaks down in front of a stranger, saying:

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?[29]

Stevens´s brief brush with disillusionment leads him to the realization that his understanding of dignity and his attempt of reaching this ideal were completely misguided. In fact, he understands that he has accomplished nothing.

His motivations for deluding himself all this time are now obvious even to himself: “his pursuit of ‘dignity’ serve[d] him as an aid for repressing his self – his opinions and feelings – and for evading responsibility”[30] It is the same kind of “mindless sort of ‘loyalty’”[31] which he condemned.”It is this strong sense of waste that Stevens tries to conceal from himself and which motivates his twisted view of dignity.”[32]

3.3 “Professionalism”

Stevens´s ideal of professionalism is closely related to his idea of dignity. As long as Stevens can tell himself that he is doing something for the sake of professionalism, he will do it. However, this is also true in reverse. Matters which do not fall into Stevens´s “professional realm“[33] will be ignored by him. He uses it as “an excuse to shut ´out the messiness of life: sex, marriage, personal interests´"[34] Stevens tries to suppress everything unrelated to his profession. Brian W. Shaffer points out that the true nature of Stevens´s idea of duty is nothing but: “repression masquerading as professionalism"[35]


[1] Fonioková, Zuzana. “The Butler´s Suspicious Dignity: Unreliable Narration in Kazou Ishiguro´s The Remains of the Day.” Brno Studies in English 32 (2006): 87-98.87.

[2] Nünning, Ansgar F. "Reconceptualizing Unreliable Narration: Synthesizing Cognitive and Rhetorical Approaches." A Companion to Narrative Theory. Phelan, James and Peter J. Rabinowitz (Eds). Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Blackwell Reference Online. 14 March 2009 <http://www.blackwellreference.com/subscriber/tocnode?id=g9781405114769_chunk_g97814051147697>

[3] Nünning.

[4] Cf. Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. London: Faber and Faber, 1999.64.[RD]

[5] Cf. RD. 128.

[6] RD. 174.

[7] RD.176.

[8] Cf. Foniková. 89

[9] Cf. Nünning.

[10] Kelman, Susanne. “Ishiguro in Toronto.” Conversations with Kazuo Ishiguro. Ed. Brian W. Shaffer and Cynthia F. Wong. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2008. 42-51. 51.

[11] Wong, Cynthia F. Kazuo Ishiguro. Devon: Northcote House, 2005.65.

[12] RD. 132.

[13] RD. 28f.

[14] Cf. Shaffer, Brian W. Understanding Kazuo Ishiguro. Columbia: UP of South Carolina, 1998. 88.

[15] RD. 29.

[16] RD. 29.

[17] RD.123.

[18] RD. 34.

[19] RD. 43f.

[20] Oxford English Dictionary Online.

[21] Cf. Terestchenko. 82.

[22] Terestchenko. 90.

[23] RD.156.

[24] RD. 156.

[25] Fonioková. 90.

[26] Fonioková. 91.

[27] RD. 195.

[28] RD. 221.

[29] RD. 225f.

[30] Fonioková. 91.

[31] RD. 210.

[32] Fonioková. 92.

[33] RD. 211.

[34] Shaffer. 76.

[35] Shaffer.87.

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"A great butler": the unreliable narrator in Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day"
University of Würzburg
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Kazuo Ishiguro, Ishiguro, unreliable narration, english literature, postmodern literature, novel, the remains of the day
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Lynn Bay (Author), 2009, "A great butler": the unreliable narrator in Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/196781


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