The incompatibility of self and service as presented in Kazuo Ishiguro's 'The Remains of the Day'

Seminar Paper, 2003

12 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)



1. Introduction

2. Core Values of Servitude

3. Social Relationships
3.1 Friendships and Family Relationships
3.2 Master-Servant-Relationship

4. The Servant’s Sense of Self

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

‘Next, as we’re Servants, Masters at our Hands

Expect Obedience to all just Commands;

[…] Purchas’d by annual Wages, Cloaths and Meat,

Theirs is our Time, our Hands, our Head, our Feet:

We think, design and act at their Command,

And, as their Pleasure varies, walk or stand […].’[1]

This stanza of the poem ‘Servitude’, written by footman Robert Dodsley in 1728 incorporates the common image of the ideal servant at that time – and this may seem rather shocking to a reader at the beginning of the 21st century. Nowadays, handing over such a large part of an individual’s personal freedom to a ‘master’ seems very problematic or even unthinkable. Especially to let one’s ‘Head’ be ‘purchas’d’ and to think at another person’s ‘Command’, that is to give up one’s freedom of thought, contradicts basic human rights, which are highly valued in today’s society. It becomes clear that servitude implies more than just dusting portraits, polishing silver and setting tables - namely restrictions of individual rights, of personal life and consequently of the servant’s sense of self. This topic has recently not only been discussed within historical and sociological research but also treated in film and literature, examples being Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, Marianne Frederiksson’s Hannah’s Daughter and Margaret Foster’s Lady’s Maid.

The butler Stevens is the protagonist in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day. He tells about his service in a distinguished English manor, Darlington Hall, during the first half of the 20th century. Stevens’s life in servitude is characterised by the complete lack of a personal realm. By examining the character Stevens, I want to determine which effects this incompatibility of self and service has on the individual. To begin with, I will briefly sketch the image of the ideal servant, as described by Stevens. By explaining the core values he is expected to incorporate I aim at determining where this incompatibility stems from in the first place. Following, the consequences this concept of domestic service has on the servant’s social relationships (both to his fellow servants, family, friends and to his master) will be analysed. Finally, I want to establish what impact it has on the servant himself, his sense of self and his personal identity.

2. Core Values of Servitude

Generally, what is expected from a servant is first of all ‘to provide good service’ (RD[2], p.209), as Stevens puts it. Professionalism is thus a key element and good maids, cooks, valets or butlers have to consistently strive for excellence in their vocations, bringing the skills they need in their daily work to perfection. In the case of the butler, these can be practical (for example polishing silver) as well as organisational (such as devising a staff plan) ones.

However, there is more to it than just being perfect at daily chores. Stevens distinguishes butlers, ‘who are merely extremely competent’ (RD, p.33) from ‘great’ butlers, who additionally incorporate an essential attitude that he calls dignity. This quality is to be ‘acquired over many years of self-training and the careful absorbing of experience’ (RD, p.34). He clarifies the term further by telling three stories about such great butlers. In the first one, the butler has to deal with a tiger, who entered the dining room and now endangers an undisturbed dinner. In this context, Ishiguro’s use of adjectives and adverbs to describe the servant’s behaviour is to be noticed: he ‘left the room quietly ’, ‘proceeded calmly’ and ‘with a polite cough’ (RD, p.37, italics J.T.H.) informed his employer. He disposes of the tiger without leaving ‘discernible traces’ (RD, p.37) – and obviously without showing any discernible traces of emotion, either. Similarly unemotional is the attitude of Stevens’s father as described in the two following stories. Stevens senior neither reacts angrly when three of his employer’s guests make fun of him and their host, nor does he express sorrow or fury when he has to serve the general whose incompetence was the reason for his son’s (Stevens’s brother’s) death. In general, ‘not to abandon the professional being [one] inhabits […] not [to] be shaken out by external events, however surprising, alarming or vexing’ (RD, p.43f), calmness, emotional distance and restraint in any situation seem to discern truly good service from professional competence.

Until the first half of the 20th century, the concept of honour was still very essential in Western societies. An individual’s achievements, its ‘value’ or the usefulness of its life were thus measured in the amount of honour it possessed. Due to class distinctions, this concept could only be applied indirectly in case of servants, as their personal achievements were not seen as making a ‘contribution to the creation of a better world’ (RD, p.122f). Consequently, their honour was determined by their masters. Alan McFarlane calls this ‘the idea of reflected glory. By his service, the servant partakes in a little honour of the master. His master’s triumphs become his own.’[3] He does not need (and in fact must not) get involved in politics or humanitarian issues himself. As Stevens puts it: ‘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’ (RD, p.123). The concept of ‘reflected glory’ also worked the opposite way, as can be seen in Margaret Atwood’s description of the servant girl Grace’s life. When Grace gets in touch with the neighbours at her new working place for the first time, the congregation at church immediately treats her with contempt because they despise the ‘immoral’ Thomas Kinnear, Grace's master. That she never behaved immorally herself is not of interest to the people of higher classes.


[1] Dodsley, Robert: Servitude. London, 1728, p.18. As quoted in: Hecht, J. Jean: The Domestic Servant Class in Eighteenth-Century England. London, 1956, p.72.

[2] Ishiguro, Kazuo: The Remains of the Day. London, 1999.

[3] (7th of June 2003)

Excerpt out of 12 pages


The incompatibility of self and service as presented in Kazuo Ishiguro's 'The Remains of the Day'
1,3 (A)
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Kazuo, Ishiguro, Remains, Anglistik, servitude, butler, analyse, dienerschaft, bedienstete, englischer adel, identity, literatur, was vom tage übrig blieb, sozial, klassengesellschaft
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Teresa Hochmuth (Author), 2003, The incompatibility of self and service as presented in Kazuo Ishiguro's 'The Remains of the Day', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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