Memory in Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017

14 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2.1 The values of greatness and dignity

2.2 Stevens and Englishness

2.3 Remembering historical events

3. Conclusion

4. Works cited

1. Introduction

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is told from the perspective of Stevens, an elderly head butler, who, during a six- day road trip to England’s West Country, reflects on his past at the country mansion Darlington Hall. He dedicated his life to serving Lord Darlington, a labelled traitor and Nazi sympathizer, and to the task of being a “great” butler. Shortly after the war, Mr Farraday, an American purchases the estate and minimizes the staff drastically. Under him, Darlington Hall is no longer the meeting point for “the wealthy and influential” (Su 553).

Cynthia F. Wong stated that “Stevens’s motor trip” through the English landscape is a “journey reflecting on his repressed love for Miss Kenton […] which had resulted from his loyalty to Lord Darlington” (Wong, as cited by Shaffer 76). Actually, as Stevens travels through England’s landscape and meets different people, he gets reminded of highlights in his past at Darlington Hall and flees into his memory. He remembers key episodes with Miss Kenton and the staff, the deterioration of his father’s mind and body, culminating in his death, and various political events, organized by Lord Darlington, hosting important visitors. During such flashbacks the reader not only gets an insight into Stevens’s version of Darlington Hall’s glorious days, but also into his thoughts and the values he strives for.

As to be expected with a butler as the protagonist, the English class system plays an important role in the novel, too, with its emergence in the relationship between Lord Darlington and Stevens. Furthermore, Darlington Hall can be seen as a miniature version of England, with the English society’s state being reflected by the hierarchic structure of social relations inside Darlington Hall (Parkes 55). On the other hand, the novel connects Stevens’s deceitful self-image with England’s (Shaffer 87). The butler puts the events in Darlington Hall and the events in England on one level, confusing “house knowledge” with world-knowledge, always moving between the questions ‘what makes a great butler’ and ‘what makes Great Britain great’ (88).

The novel’s title The Remains of the Day already hints towards a story with a mind’s travel and fragments of memory: As Astrid Erll claims, cultural memory (A. Assmann) is “the interplay of present and past in socio-cultural contexts” (Erll 2). Furthermore Erll stated, that cultural memory is a “transdisciplinary phenomenon” rather than the object of a specific method (3). The term “cultural memory” has influenced people’s perception of the connection between a nation’s frame of national identity and its frame of the past (6). In culture it is important to distinguish between different modes of remembering; more precisely what is remembered and how it is remembered (7).

In substance, “the remains of the day” refers to what is left of the protagonist’s life. Because in one’s last years one can finally happily look back at a well-spent time, those years are supposed to be an absolute highlight (Parkes 29). “Day” in the title refers to the splendorous past (ibid.), when Darlington Hall was full of life, Lord Darlington’s reputation was still intact, and Stevens was at the peak of his occupation (ibid.).

From beginning to end the reader gets an insight into Stevens’s thoughts and characteristics, a lot of them being identical with the ones expected of a British person embodying national identity. Stevens is formed to an embodiment of British national identity by his Englishness, by his practice of the concept of greatness linked with dignity, and by the impact experienced historical events had on him.

2.1 Stevens and Englishness

The dedication to his duties, to Lord Darlington, and to becoming the best he can be is what makes Stevens a typical English butler, and at the same time forms an important part of Stevens’s Englishness. Stereotypically, Englishmen stick to their traditions and prefer tasks to be done properly and correctly. Throughout the novel Stevens tries to live up to the stereotype of the old fashioned English butler. Already in the beginning of The Remains of the Day, Stevens demonstrates his characteristic English modesty. When his new employer, the American Mr Farraday, suggests that the butler should take a break and explore England with his new master’s car, Stevens, when talking to the reader claims that he saw more of his country than most people, because he served in a house where “the greatest ladies and gentlemen of the land gathered” (Ishiguro 4). But the butler would never express such thoughts to his employer, because it might appear arrogant, vain, and thus somewhat out of place.

The fear of being held to be vain is again depicted when Stevens talks to the reader about the correct clothing for a country trip. He is proud to own magnificent suits, passed on to him by his former employer, Lord Darlington, and by different guests hosted at Darlington Hall. To Stevens, being dressed worthy of his position is very important when being asked about his professional activity, but he fears that thoughts about such issues might appear too conceited (11). Again, when thinking about his trip and talking to Mr Farraday, Stevens tries to bypass a subordination of arrogance. He prefers to stop expressing his thoughts about Darlington Hall’s future and accepts looking awkward rather than continuing to pronounce those thoughts aloud (14).

Another characteristic that qualifies Stevens to be a typical English butler possessing Englishness is his endeavour to never speak a bad word about his employer. When stating that his former employer, Lord Darlington, would have never put him in an embarrassing situation, Stevens adds that it is not his intention to tell anything pejorative about Mr Farraday, and that his way as an American gentleman is simply different to the British gentleman’s (ibid.). Lord Darlington properly ruled the house, whereas Mr Farraday quickly caused various changes, which influenced the house’s clockwork. During various episodes between Stevens and Mr Farraday, differences between the two countries’ gentleman ideals shine through, one of the most interesting ones in ‘Day Two – Afternoon’, showing the reader another aspect of Englishness embodied by the butler: Mr Farraday informs Stevens that his guest, Mrs Wakefield, was not too impressed with him, because she expected Stevens to be “a genuine old-fashioned English butler” (131), who, in “a genuine old English house” (ibid.), served “a real English lord” (130). But Stevens, as it is typical for British employees, felt talking about his former employer to be out of place and did not brag about his past employment contract. It is the British way of handling employment relationships (131).

Another occasion demonstrating the differences between English and American people is when it comes to wit. Stevens thinks he has to put on a “suitably modest smile” “to indicate without ambiguity that [he has] made a witticism”, so his employer would not, due to confusion, hold back any “spontaneous mirth” (17). Again, Stevens unknowingly acts out his Englishness.

‘Englishness and ‘gentleman’ go hand in hand. Through his work at Darlington Hall, Stevens embodied another aspect combined with Englishness: talking like a gentleman. Stevens’s way of speaking is one of the reasons why the different people he interacts with on his trip mistake him for a British gentleman, although he is “only” a butler working for one.

Even though not wanting to appear vain to others around him, Stevens, when talking to the reader, does not try to disguise his pride for himself, and his folk. For instance, the butler claims that only the English race is able to restrain their emotions and control themselves in strong emotional situations (Ishiguro 44), but what Stevens is most proud of is his home country. Triggered by his trip through England’s landscape, the butler often talks about the love to England. Already in ‘Day One – Evening’, Stevens expresses his thoughts about the great English landscape, connecting it to Great Britain:

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, [...] 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.' [...] [W]hen I [...] viewed the land before me, I distinctly felt that rare, yet unmistakable feeling – the feeling that one is in the presence of greatness. We call this land of ours Great Britain, [...] [and] yet 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. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it. (Ishiguro 28 f.)

Not only does the butler express his love and dedication to his home country, but this passage mirrors the English people, and more precisely Stevens’s character and behaviour, too. With its “calmness” and “sense of restraint”, the beautiful English countryside reflects the English people. The English landscape’s “lack of obvious drama or spectacle” mirrors Stevens’s restrained behaviour and his suppression of emotions. In an interview the author himself claimed that Stevens

[…] thinks beauty and greatness lie in being able to be this kind of cold, frozen, butler who isn’t demonstrative and who hides emotion in much the way he’s saying that the British landscape does with its surface clam: the ability to actually keep down turmoil and emotion. He thinks this is what gives both butlers and the British landscape beauty and dignity. And, of course that viewpoint is the one that actually crumbles during the course of Stevens’s journey. (Ishiguro, as cited by Wong 58)

The reference of the English landscape as the “presence of greatness” (Ishiguro 29) is repeated later in the chapter, when comparing it to men, like his father’s drunken passengers many years ago (45). But when it comes to being an English butler, the most important aspects for Stevens are the concepts of ‘greatness’ and ‘dignity’.

2.2 The values of greatness and dignity

Throughout The Remains of the Day, Stevens’s thoughts wander to the concept of greatness and dignity, with the term ‘dignity’ being useful for explaining the way Stevens’s memories work (Parkes 43). In ‘Day One – Evening’, Stevens scrutinizes what makes a great butler: according to The Hayes Society, a great butler is “of only the very first rank” (Ishiguro 32), working at an excellent household (119), and carries out the tasks following his position with dignity (33). Without the right amount of dignity, the butler cannot satisfy himself or his employer (ibid.). Stevens agrees with The Hayes Society’s point. He claims that dignity is the most essential part of greatness, but only Englishmen can truly carry out the concept of dignity. The butler feels confident that

[in] a word, ‘dignity’ is beyond [foreigners]. English have an important advantage over [such persons] in this respect and it is for this reason that when you think of a great butler, he is bound, almost by definition to be an Englishman (44).

From beginning to end, Stevens names two butlers, Mr Marshall and Mr Lane, who both, in his opinion, are ‘great’ butlers, because they are not only competent, but additionally they act out the concept of dignity (33). Butlers like Mr Marshall, for example, trained over years to perfect their dignity and assimilated every experience (34).

Although admiring Mr Marshall and Mr Lane, for Stevens, his father is the embodiment of dignity (35). Where other people see a lack of qualities in his father, which are expected of a ‘great’ butler, like the absence of a good accent or common knowledge, Stevens argued that those qualities only put some spice in, but are not essential, like adopting the concept of dignity. Stevens sees the previous generation of butlers as more idealistic than his own by being concerned about an employer’s title rather than his moral status or the question of furthering humanity’s progress. Although Stevens is confident that his generation values the more important aspects of an employer’s life, this does not shake his confidence in his father’s dignity (120). During the course of his thoughts concerning Stevens senior, Stevens tells a story his father referred to a few times about a butler who went to India with his employer. Without hesitating, the butler shot a tiger in the dining room and handled the incident as a matter of course (36 f.). Stevens feels like his father’s aim was to become the butler of his own story (37). The way in which Stevens senior dealt with an unpleasant circumstance, perfectly carrying out his duties without letting his emotions shine through, leads Stevens to another important factor of dignity:

’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. For such persons, being a butler is like playing some pantomime role […]. The great butlers […] will not be shaken out by external events […]. They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit […] (44 f.).


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Memory in Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day"
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
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ISBN (Book)
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National Identity, Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day, Memory, Englishness, dignity, greatness, class system
Quote paper
Mona Baumann (Author), 2017, Memory in Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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