Self-deception and Insight. The Concept of Unreliable Narration in Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

13 Pages, Grade: 1,75


Table of Contents

1. Introduction --- Purpose of the Essay

2. Narrative Situation and Unreliable Narration in General Terms
2.1 Narrative situation
2.2 Unreliable Narration

3. Narrative Situation, (Un)reliability and Language in „The Remains of the Day”
3.1 Narrative Situation
3.2 Stevens as an (un)reliable Narrator
3.3 Language and Style

4. Stevens’ Self-deception and Insight
4.1 Ideological and political context
4.2 Private and Social Context

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction --- Purpose of the Essay

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel ‘The Remains of the Day’ is doubtlessly his most critically acclaimed work until today (Booker Prize 1989). The Japan-born bi-cultural author has created a complex novel dealing with the first-person narrator Stevens who recalls his past life in form of a diary while travelling through England intending to meet his former colleague Mrs. Kenton. During this journey Stevens, “a respectful British butler who follows a near-Japanese code of reticence, self-effacement and obedience” (Bradbury 1993: 424- 425) uses the opportunity to reflect on philosophical questions on dignity, professionalism and loyalty always with reference to the question of a great butler (Ishiguro 2005: 169 “It would seem there is a whole dimension in the question ‘what is a great butler’”). In the course of the narrative the reader learns more about historical conferences that took place at Darlington Hall, as well as about Stevens’ relationship towards his father, Stevens’ former employer Lord Darlington and Mrs. Kenton. In the end when the narrator gets to know that she will not return to Darlington Hall the novel closes with a rather open ending when Stevens ponders how he could improve his skills in bantering in order to satisfy his new employer Mr. Farraday.

Against the background of this plot the following questions arise: To what extent can the reader trust the first person narrator Stevens recalling events that have taken place almost 30 years ago? Is he always telling nothing but the truth or does he deliberately leave out important facts that might cast a slur at him or other persons in the novel or perhaps might destroy his self-image as a professional butler. Stevens pretends to be an honourable butler but how far can he be regarded to be honest to the reader respectively the narratee whome he addresses explicitly (Ishiguro 2005: 8 “Nevertheless, I think you will understand […]”)? In this context it is even more important to question his honesty towards himself; does he relentlessly tell the truth or does he betray even himself? In order to answer these evolving questions it is first of all necessary to give a brief outline of the literal terms point of view and unreliable narration in general. Being familiar with these expressions the next step that leads to a better understanding of the protagonist’s character is the analysis of the narrative structure in “The Remains of the Day”. This chapter includes the examination of the novel’s language as well as the point of view and the (un)reliability of the narrator. As far as the question of (un)reliability is answered it is mandatory to consider Stevens’ blindness and to ask if in the end a possible insight can be detected. This chapter has to be subdivided which means it has to be regarded in either an ideological /political context as well as in a private /social context. Finally, in the conclusion the findings will be summarized in order to answer the question: To what extent can self-deception and insight be detected with the (un)reliable narrator Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguros Novel “The Remains of the Day”?

2. Narrative Situation and Unreliable Narration in General Terms

2.1 Narrative situation

Initially, it is important to distinguish between two distinctive terms that must not be confused in order to analyze a literal text properly: The narrative voice, refering to the question “Who speaks” and the focalisation, refering to the question “Who sees”. According to Genette (1980) one has to differenciate between a narrator who is directly taking part in the story (homodiegetic narrator) and a narrator who is excluded from the story itself (heterodiegetic narrator). If the homodiegetic narrator is the protagonist at the same time, Genette speaks of an autodiegetic narrator.

Considering the focalisation ( who sees?), a narrator from outside the story may be omniscient which means he/she has unlimited knowledge about characters and events. By contrast, it is also possible that the narrator has on the other hand a limited point of view of a character in the story. Rimmon-Kenan (1983) has advanced Genette’s idea concerning the narrative structure making a further specification: He calls an external focaliser that does not directly take part in the story an narrator-focaliser. However, an internal focaliser being a character in the story is called character-focaliser.

2.2 Unreliable Narration

If a first person narrator actively takes part in the plot his reliability has to be questioned since the narrator might not be objective. Wayne C. Booth (1961:158 et seq.) defines the distinction between a reliable and an unreliable narrator as follows: “I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work […], unreliable when he does not”. Following this definition, Martinez/Scheffel (2005:100) claim that the assertions of a narrator do not necessarily possess a truth claim: “Es gibt auch Erzähler, deren Behauptungen, […], als falsch gelten müssen in Bezug auf das, was in der erzählten Welt der Fall ist”.

Being aware of these literal concepts it is compulsory to apply them on a concrete example, the narrator Stevens in “The Remains of the Day”.

3. Narrative Situation, (Un)reliability and Language in

“The Remains of the Day”

3.1 Narrative Situation

Ishiruro’s work is told through the eyes of the butler Stevens who is the protagonist of the novel. Thus, it is an autodiegetic first-person narration and Stevens, narrating and experiencing, is called a character-fociliser. This implies that the narrator has a limited point of view, he is not omniscient. The reader gets (at least at first glance) insight into his thoughts and memories of experiences at Darlington Hall, but throughout the novel it turns out that a confessional intimacy can never be identified due to reasons that will be discussed later on. Usually, first-person narration entails the readers opportunity to share to narrator’s authentic emotional life, but the relationship between the reader and Stevens remains irreversably impersonal due to the same reasons.

One consequence of first person narration is the fact that reader is ultimately dependent on the facts provided by Stevens since he is the only source of information. Hence, the reliability of the butler has to be questioned evaluating his memories and thoughts.

3.2 Stevens as an (un)reliable Narrator

During his late-life journey through England, Stevens recalls his life when he was Lord Darlington’s butler at Darlington Hall. First of all, it is mandatory consider Stevens’ self-image as a butler that is at the same time his self-perception as a human-being. He entirely gave up his private life in order to achieve his utmost goal of becoming a great butler. This notion is closely connected with dignity (Ishiguro 2005:65 “It is, as I say, a matter of dignity”), greatness and professionalism (Ishiguro 2005:65 “[…] to maintain a professional demeanour […]”) and means abdications and sacrifies on the private level. Moreover, this implies blind obedience to his employer Lord Darlington whose ideology and actions are never put into question by Stevens who is proud to work in a (Ishiguro 2005:170) “distinguished houshold” . Following Stevens reminiscences, there is soon growing evidence that his narration has to be mistrusted in several ways. Stevens credebility as a narrator is doubtful since many events have taken place years ago, consequently some facts might simply be forgotten or confused. For instance, Stevens remembers one occurance when he stands in front of Mrs. Kentons door hearing her crying. He is not sure wheter this took place recently after the death of Mrs. Kenton’s aunt or some months later when Stevens remains indifferent considering her plans to meet her acquaintance that night. A lack of knowledge leads to this uncertainty, Stevens quotes (Ishiguro 2005:306): “But now, having thought further, I believe I may have been a little confused about this matter; that in fact derives from events that took place at least a few month after the death of Miss Kenton’s aunt […]”. In this case, Stevens does no deliberately deceive the reader, it is merely a matter of misremembrance. Stevens seems to be aware of the fact that he, deliberately or not, does not tell everything exactly as it used to happen. Due to his uncertainty he requires the narratees approval which is confirmed by Nünning (1995:261-262):

“Durch die wiederholte Verwendung von Formulierungen wie ‘you can perhaps understand”, ‘you will perhaps understand’ oder ‘you will perhaps excuse’ wird deutlich, daß Stevens’s Bemühen vor allem darauf gerichtet ist, Kontakt zum Adressaten herzustellen und sich das Verständnis seines imaginären Gegenübers zu sichern.“

Considering butler Stevens as an unreliable narrator might ,at first glance, be way too drastic and perhaps unfair to some extent, because the reader can hardly expose him as an explicit liar. However there is one incident when Mrs. Kenton uncovers him reading a romantic novel. In this case Stevens lies explicitly pretending to read it merely in order to “develop one’s command of the English language”(Ishiguro 2005:244). Certainly, his excuse here sounds absurd and peculiar, he simply does not want to admit that he, as a great and professional butler, is in need for some emotions and distraction, so reading such novel can be considered as a substitution for real romance. Moreover his explanation becomes even more grotesque when exposing the lie himself: “[…] I do not mind confessing today-and I see nothing to be ashamed of in this- that I did at times gain a sort of incidental enjoyment from these stories” (Ishiguro 2005:246). A further explicit lie can be traced right at the beginning of the novel. Stevens pretends that his trip is nothing but a professional duty intending to convince Mrs. Kenton to work at Darlington Hall again. But in the end it turns out that it was a great pleasure to meet her again and that he might have overinterpreted her desire for a re-employment.

In general, Stevens informs about many incidences at Darlington Hall during 1920-1956 and his own destiny merely fragmentary which is a decisive factor in exposing him as an unreliable narrator. Repeadetly he confuses chronological orders ( cf. example above) but on the other hand he seems to be able to recapitulate entire speeches held during the important conference after World War I at Darlington Hall in 1923. Stevens not merely remembers them he even cites Mr. Dupont’s speech for instance who accuses Lord Darlinton being an amateur in political matters.

A further argument that proves his incredebility is the fact that Stevens does not show his genuine feelings and emotions due to his self-perception as great butler with dignity. Concerning Stevens relation towards Mrs. Kenton there is a further incident when he occurs as an unreliable narrator. Mrs. Kenton remarks: “I really cannot imagine more you might wish for life.” Stevens could here reveal his true feelings for her but he fails exposing his emotions towards her.

Throughout the narration it becomes increasingly uncertain wheter the protagonist tells his own opinion and intention or if he constantly remains indifferent obeying his employer’s commands. Refering to the affaire with the Jewish employees this assumption is striking: Stevens does not exhibit his true feelings he simply executes Lord Darlington’s order to dismiss the Jewish housemaids although his “every instinct opposed the idea” (Ishiguro 2005:215). By contrast, Mrs. Kenton opposes forcefully against the decision but Stevens just states: “His lordship has made his decision and there is nothing for you and I to debate over” (Ishiguro 2005: 216) albeit they apparently share the same opinion. Later on when Lord Darlington revises his opinion and regretts having dismissed the Jewish housemaids, Stevens as well revails a different attitude towards Mrs. Kenton: “The hole matter caused me great concern, great concern indeed” (Ishiguro 2005:223). This corroborates the notion of his unreliability once again unmasking him as an opportunist.

Although, especially towards the end of the novel, Stevens does make some honest statements (Ishiguro 2005:327, 341 “At first, my mood was- I do not mind admitting it- somewhat downcast”, “Indeed- why should I not admitt it?- at that moment, my heart was breaking” Ishiguro 2005:327,341) the examples outlined above expose him as an unreliable narrator.

3.3 Language and Style

Recollecting his time at Darlington Hall, the narrator uses flashbacks ( analepsis) that inform about past incidents during that time. Those are not told in a chronological order, the narrative is therefore anachronic.

Throughout the narration Stevens applies his butler-English that can be described as elevated and posh (stiff upper lip-attitude). He seems to be captured in his role since even in a simple conversation with ordinary people in a pub in Moscombe he has to hold up his butler like manners although being off-duty. Stevens appears arrogant and able to communicate with the educated upper-class exclusively. Lodge (1992:157) describes Stevens’ language as an “emotional sterility” that indicates “the sad story of Steven’s wasted life”.

As outlined above fragments are exposed gradually and moreover several parts are left out. The author uses omissions ( Ellipsis) which means that the reader himself has to interpret and infer several informations on his own. This gives the reader the opportunity to take an active part in the story; Ishiguro remarks: (

Us/gb/HHL212.htm : 26.03.08): “I was very interested in the technique in using gaps and spaces in fiction to create very powerful vacuums”. In this context, considering Stevens as an unreliable first person-narrator, there is a certain discrepancy of awareness (Cf Amit 2006) between the reader and the narrator. The reader is able to see more than Stevens due to his blindness in two distinctive contexts that will be examined in the following chapter.


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Self-deception and Insight. The Concept of Unreliable Narration in Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day"
University of Frankfurt (Main)
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Self-deception, Insight, Concept, Unreliable, Narration, Kazuo, Ishiguro, Remains
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Sebastian Göb (Author), 2008, Self-deception and Insight. The Concept of Unreliable Narration in Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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