Imprisonment and Release in Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day"

Seminar Paper, 2013

21 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Some Aspects of Narration

3. Leaving the House: Temporary Release

4. Inside the House: Self-Inflicted Imprisonment

5. Summary

6. Bibliography

List of abbreviations:

RD The Remains of the Day

Note on citations: Italics are original, unless otherwise indicated. Omissions marked as […] are my own, unless otherwise indicated. Omissions marked differently are always original.

Publication history: This work was originally submitted as a term paper at Leipzig University in October 2013, as a contribution to the British Studies MA seminar "Upstairs Downstairs - Masters and Servants in British Literary Texts and Films." The version at hand has been newly formatted, corrected and prepared for publication in September 2015.

Imprisonment and Release in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day


One effective constructional feature of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day is the stark contrast evoked between the two settings employed for the novel's two main narrative threads respectively. While travelling through the West Country of England, the ageing butler Stevens, first-person narrator and protagonist, reflects on his life and his long and seemingly successful career at Darlington Hall. His narration hence alters between his motoring trip in 1956 and his memories of his past, mainly of the two decades preceding World War II. Those two settings and the moods they create could hardly be more contrary: While the narrative thread of 1956 leads Stevens through the open, predominantly rural countryside of a large proportion of south western England and allows him to visit a number of places along the roads - idillic nature, homely little guesthouses - and therefore evokes a general mood of brightness, openness and peacefulness, it is however framed by a rigid time constraint of a mere six days. This does not mean that Stevens would be in a hurry, on the contrary, but it is clear from the beginning that it is a journey determined to come to an early end. By contrast, the narrative thread of the past encompasses a time frame of as much as 36 years, with some references dating back to still earlier. Yet despite the time frame is so much broader than that of Stevens's journey in 1956, almost all the events over those decades are occurring within the rigid spatial constraints of one and the same country house near Oxford. Practically exclusively set within the premises of Darlington Hall, this narrative is characterised by a narrowness, a mood of seclusion from the ordinary world, and a sombreness, both because the events are mainly happening inside, as well as often at night.

It is during the motoring trip in 1956 that for the first time in more than three decades, Stevens leaves the close proximity of Darlington Hall. Over the course of the narration, the reader discovers gradually that the ageing Stevens has spent almost the entirety of his adult life at one and the same place, whereas now, within a mere week, he crosses "all previous boundaries" (RD, 28) and is about to gain a multitude of new impression. However, rather than taking a rest and enjoying his vacation, he cannot entangle his mind from his employment at Darlington Hall. On the contrary, he was reluctant to go on this trip in the first place, up until he came to find a "professional" excuse for setting off: locating his former staff member Miss Kenton, now married as Mrs Benn, with the aim of solving some recent staff problems. As his trip progresses, Stevens's mind becomes more and more occupied in leading a monologue about his profession as a butler and the course of his life at Darlington Hall. It can therefore be argued that even after Stevens has left Darlington Hall physically, he remains trapped in there mentally, as well as in spite of being on vacation he remains caught in his profession as a butler. The aim of this paper is to investigate in how far Stevens's life and his professional career, his frame of mind in old age and likewise his use of language, bear resemblance to that of a long-time prisoner. It can be argued that Stevens's above mentioned spatial "imprisonment" at Darlington Hall and his subsequent physical "release" into the open countryside of England are analogous to a much deeper psychological imprisonment, one that is essentially self-inflicted and possibly unconscious, and from which he finds it yet more difficult to escape than he did from the physical boundaries of Darlington Hall.

In the subsequent chapter 2 of this paper it shall be commented briefly on some fundamental aspects of the novel's narration. The relation between its two main narratives shall be discussed, as well as the peculiarities of Stevens's language. Following these preliminaries, chapter 3 will discuss the butler's departure from Darlington Hall and how he experiences his journey through the West Country. It shall be investigated in what ways Stevens's demeanour on his trip resembles that of a man to whom has been granted release following a life spent in prison, a life he long got inured to. The focus of chapter 4 will turn to the true nature of his prison. What exactly constitutes Stevens's prison and how did it happen that he trapped himself in there? It shall be investigated if he is conscious of his imprisonment and if his journey through England provides him an opportunity for escape. The question of his self-awareness will be important for the whole of this paper. In this respect Meghan Marie Hammond's revealing essay on Stevens's role as an author (2011) was most inspiring. Out from the large number of more general views on Ishiguro's work, the books by Brian W. Shaffer (1998), Barry Lewis (2000), Cynthia F. Wong (2000) and Wai-chew Sim (2010) were most useful.


Essentially, Ishiguro's novel consists of two main narratives. One is set in what from the narrator's point of view is the present, i.e. the year 1956, and the other is set in the past, i.e. the narrator's memories concerning the 1920s and 1930s. It would be problematic to designate any of the two as more important than the other, thus for the sake of simplicity it shall from here on be referred to them as Npresent and Npast respectively. Both are interrelated in a peculiar and complex fashion and neither would function without the other. Although Stevens's memories and therefore Npast soon constitute the larger proportion of the text, it needs Npresent to give those bygone events new meaning. What has occurred in the past is not only irreversible, but most of the outcomes and consequences are known to the reader from early on. Of course they are constituting the basis for what is happening in the present of 1956, but crucial here is that Npresent provides a discourse in the course of which this past is not only retold, but also interpreted and evaluated. When Stevens reflects on his earlier days as a butler he does this "in order to make sense of his memories" (Hammond, 95). The immediate conflict of Ishiguro's novel is thus occurring in the year 1956: It is if and how Stevens comes to terms with his past and, eventually, how the results of his pondering may determine the course of the rest of his life.

But the discourse about Npast which is being led in Npresent not only allows Stevens to discuss with himself and his imaginary reader his prime conflict, but it is also essential for the true reader's understanding and assessment of Npast and of Stevens's character in general. In this regard it becomes of great importance that Stevens is an extremely unreliable narrator. On the one hand, the plausibility of the account he gives of the distant past is affected by the flawed, unreliable memory of his ageing mind. On the other hand, and this is even more critical, the reader cannot trust Stevens's account of his feelings and emotions. The latter applies not only to the distant past of Npast but likewise to the very recent past and present. Stevens pretends to reason objectively about his life and profession, but in the end is telling a pretty fiction. Over the course of the novel it becomes evident that his words are not to be believed at face value and that he is not only dishonest towards his readers, but arguably to himself as well. As Sim points out, one of the "novel's striking features is the way it solicits the reader's inquiry into how much self-understanding or insight Stevens possesses" (45). There are various themes to which this applies, as for instance the awareness of his love to Kenton, his political convictions and closely related his relation to Lord Darlington himself, and of course his success - or failure - and search for fulfilment in the profession of a butler. The question of imprisonment, especially psychological imprisonment, is no exception. For this reason it will not be enough to show if Stevens led a life of self-inflicted imprisonment, but it must also be asked if he is ever consciously aware of the situation.

In order to demonstrate how great a difference the question of Stevens's degree of consciousness makes and how it is interrelated with his style of writing and his modes of narration, it shall now be given a concise summary of Meghan Marie Hammond's brief but illuminating essay on "The Ethics of Genre" in The Remains of the Day. Hammond rightly points out that some critics "have been quick to conclude that much of Stevens's story is unconsciously communicated and that the text reveals a repressed emotional past of which Stevens is unaware" (95f.). She names James Phelan among others, who is of the opinion that Stevens did not possess "'conscious awareness' of his feelings" and that his "misremembering is a 'sign of his repression of feeling'" (ib., 96). Shaffer and Lewis presents similar readings, although their claims are not quite so stern. Hammond by contrast argues:

Such Freudian readings are persuasive but run the risk of reducing Stevens's substantial narrative work to a web of symptoms. To label Stevens's engagement with the painful episodes of his past as unconscious robs him of what little agency he has […].

On the contrary, Stevens is not the unconscious victim of psychic structures of repression, but rather a conscious speaker who has suppressed his emotional life.

Hammond, 96

Hammond continues by pointing out that Stevens, "upon his release from the material and mental confines of Darlington Hall, […] actively tries to communicate his life story," while simultaneously having the "desire to control his autobiography" (ib.). She argues that Stevens's real "difficulty is that he does not know how to tell that story" and emphasises his "concern for his unnamed listener's reception of the story" (97). He has the "desire to communicate with another person," with "a receptive human being who can understand his personal history" (ib.). Accordingly, he imagines this unnamed listener to be "another domestic servant, someone familiar with the duties of a butler" (ib.). But Hammond also observes that his "creation of a fellow butler as his ideal reader" actually reflects "his lack of imagination - he must speak to somebody like himself because he cannot conceive of a receptive listener unlike himself" (ib.).

Henceforth Hammond presents Stevens's use of the narrative modes available, i.e. known to him. It is not necessary to explain all of them here, but two important ones shall be mentioned. Firstly, the travel narrative (see ib., 98f.). Stevens is familiar with it because he has read a series of travel books called The Wonder of England (cf. RD, 11f.). An example that Hammond gives, for Stevens's imitation of such a style is his description of Salisbury Cathedral: "This august building was hardly difficult for me to locate, its looming spire being ever-visible wherever one goes in Salisbury" (RD, 28). Here the use of "one" rather than "I" and of magniloquent words like "august" and "looming" creates a distance between Stevens and his description; it denies the reader insight into the narrator's immediate feelings. A second narrative mode he employs is that of the romance novel (see Hammond, 102f.). The reader is aware that Stevens has enjoyed such novels since the scene when Kenton enters the butler's pantry and inquires what book he was reading. Eventually he explains to the reader that the book had been a "sentimental romance" and claims that he was reading it because it provided "an extremely efficient way to maintain and develop one's command of the English language" (RD, 176). Although the reader can easily infer that this can hardly be the sole reason for Stevens's fondness for such novels, it seems plausible that he admires their language and only consequent if he imitated it for his own purposes. Hammond argues that even towards the end of the novel, when, upon hearing from Kenton that she had been imagining a life with him, Stevens finally confides to the reader that his "heart was breaking" (RD, 252) - he is "using a cliché that is typical of the language of the romance novel" (Hammond, 103). Notably, he feels free to use this narrative mode still only "in his narration and not in actual conversation" (ib.).

Last, one example that shows most vividly what difference it makes if Stevens is being perceived as an author who writes his autobiography consciously, rather than as someone who merely lays bare the course of his career while remaining unconscious of his own true feelings and seemingly ignorant of obvious implications. On the night of his father's death, Stevens continues to serve Lord Darlington and his guests, rather than giving comfort to his father at the side of his deathbed. He claims he demonstrated dignity and that he recalls the day "with a large sense of triumph" (RD, 115). Yet while serving drinks he is being approached by Lord Darlington who inquires if he was crying. Stevens negates this and merely blames the "strains of a hard day" (ib., 110). Opposing the view that Stevens was "unaware of the 'pathos' of his story," Hammond argues that in actual fact Stevens is cognizant of his story's emotional weight, and he aims to convey it [emphasis mine]. As Phelan claims, Stevens's 'report of the other characters' dialogue indicates that he expects his addressee to infer that he has been crying'. He carefully narrates this scene to defend himself as precisely the kind of butler who is able to maintain his dignity in any situation, despite being a caring son underneath.

Hammond, 101

Both views entail entirely opposite implications: In Hammond's interpretation, Stevens, rather than trying to hide emotions from the reader, actually wants to communicate his feelings - in a careful and subtle way, i.e. maintaining the "emotional restraint" (RD, 44) expected of a butler, but nevertheless actively. It would even be imaginable that he merely invented he had had tears in his face, as this alleged flaw not only portrays him as "a caring son underneath," but actually increases the weight of his capability to maintain "dignity" under extremely trying conditions.


In the present chapter three issues shall be investigated: Firstly, how does Steven perceive the event of being away from Darlington Hall for the first time in decades, secondly, how does he present himself in the face of the people he encounters on his journey, and thirdly, how is his state of mind reflected in his usage of language and modes of narration?

Having arrived in a guest house in Salisbury in the evening of the first day of his trip, Stevens begins to recall the events of the day. As he reflects on the significance of his departure from Darlington Hall; he writes:

I suppose I was very conscious of the fact that once I departed, Darlington Hall would stand empty for probably the first time this century - perhaps for the first time since the day it was built. It was an odd feeling and perhaps accounts for why I delayed my departure so long, wandering around the house many times over, checking one last time that all was in order.

RD, 23

Stevens avoids mentioning that not only will Darlington Hall stand empty for the first time this century, but he himself will leave its close proximity for the first time in more than three decades. Shaffer points out that "Stevens can talk about himself only when he talks about others; when he talks about himself directly, he is compelled to lie" (80f.). Something similar seems to be happening here; the odd sensation Stevens experiences is likely to have its origin not in any concern about the house but in a concern about himself, who is about to enter into an unfamiliar situation which he does not dare to address directly.

As it has indeed become clear already from the lengthy pondering in the prologue, Stevens took the decision to go on this journey by no means light-heartedly. He names the simple trip an "expedition" more than once (cf. RD, 3; 23) and when he has set off eventually, even the "polished surface" (Parkes, 31) of his carefully formulated narrative cannot hide that his departure into the open world sways him emotionally. Having travelled a couple of miles and left the neighbouring districts known to him, he writes:

But then eventually the surroundings grew unrecognizable and I knew I had gone beyond all previous boundaries. I have heard people describe the moment, when setting sail in a ship, when one finally loses sight of the land. I imagine the experience of unease mixed with exhilaration often described in connection with this moment is very similar to what I felt in the Ford as the surroundings grew strange to me. […] The feeling swept over me that I had truly left Darlington Hall behind, and I must confess I did feel a slight sense of alarm - a sense aggravated by the feeling that I was perhaps not on the correct road at all, but speeding off in totally the wrong direction into a wilderness.

RD, 24

Stevens crosses "boundaries," yet he is not exclusively happy about this. That he is frightened becomes visible not only in his statement that he felt "a slight sense of alarm," a typical example of his manner to downplay the intensity of his feelings, but even more so in the rather odd anxiety of getting lost in what he calls the "wilderness" of Berkshire. Indeed, Steven was quite reluctant as regards leaving the house at first, arguing that he had already seen "the best of England over the years, […] within these very walls" (RD, 4), and he changes his mind only when he discovers a professional pretext, i.e. to meet with his former employee Kenton as a possible solution to his present staffing problems. Nevertheless, even at the above mentioned moment of anxiety, he feels exhilarated too. As his journey progresses he grows to enjoy the new impressions and feels a "healthy flush of anticipation for the many interesting experiences I know these days ahead hold in store for me" (ib., 26).

However, it is not long until a number of people cross his path and not least because of Stevens's elegant, gentlemanly appearance, they are usually keen on talking to him. It is during those contacts that Stevens continues to experience some unease, that he behaves not only cautious but even awkward. When other people inquire who he is and what he did, he is extremely careful as regards mentioning his past. This must appear strange to the reader, as at the beginning of his narration Stevens gave the impression that he feels very proud of serving at Darlington Hall and especially of having been the butler of Lord Darlington himself. Yet on his journey he tends to hide the latter in particular. That the reason for this is more than genteel modesty becomes apparent when he actually lies about the fact prior to visiting Mortimer's Pond.


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Imprisonment and Release in Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day"
University of Leipzig  (Institut für Anglistik)
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The Remains of the Day, Was vom Tage übrig blieb, Kazuo Ishiguro, Meghan Marie Hammond
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Sylvio Konkol (Author), 2013, Imprisonment and Release in Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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